"Reason is always a kind of brute force; those who appeal to the head rather than the heart, however pallid and polite, are necessarily men of violence. We speak of 'touching' a man's heart, but we can do nothing to his head but hit it." --G.K. Chesterton

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Aiming for clarity in the Riverview discussion

We had a long and somewhat convoluted discussion about the Riverview lands at last night’s council meeting—and I have to admit that I was chief reason for the discussion. It all centred on a three-part recommendation from staff that we: 1) affirm council’s 2005 position on Riverview; 2) support the new Heritage Conservation Plan recently released by the Province; and 3) reiterate that council should have a role in future planning.

The major part of the debate was on whether we wanted to re-affirm the 2005 position. To my mind, that position was badly in need of revision. In the end, it became apparent that the summary of that position, in the report before us, did not really capture the fullness of the position, and so we deferred any decision until we could get clarification. We passed recommendations two and three with minor amendments.

The following represents my speaking notes on the issue, prepared before the meeting. If you read them, I hope you’ll understand where I was coming from in my opposition to the first recommendation.
Riverview heritage building. (Photo by Terry O'Neill)

Council has been asked to affirm the city’s key priorities for the Riverview lands and to indicate support for the provincial government’s Heritage Conservation Plan’s proposed strategies to preserve the heritage-defining elements of the site, and to declare once again that the city should have an integral role in in the forthcoming land-use plan for the site.

There is no question that this is a major issue. The Riverview precinct is a treasure-house of not only invaluable natural wonders and historical riches, but also of much social-utility and economic potential. After all, it comprises 244 acres of land in the heart of the Tri-Cities, one of the most vibrant and fastest-growing areas not only in the Lower Mainland but in the entire country. Getting its future use right could be key to the future of the whole region.

With this in mind, it is important that we examine carefully the three actions we have been asked to take. Let’s deal with them one by one.

Regarding the first question, of reaffirming our three “key priorities” for the site, we must first look at what those priorities are, which were identified in early 2005:

According to the report before us, those three priorities are: “A) Riverview should provide a place for mental health and wellness; support research, education and innovation; preserve the botanical heritage and ecology of the lands; and promote heritage, arts and culture.” These are all laudable aspirations, of course, but I am wondering whether, with seven years having now passed since that declaration was made, we might now want to refine it.

The way it now reads, the city is on the record saying that Riverview must include a huge variety of future uses, everything from serving as a research centre to an art-and-culture hub. Do we really mean this? Are we really asking for the provincial government to do ALL of this on the site? I don’t think so. I think council and the public is actually saying that future uses should be limited to one or more of the stated uses, not necessarily ALL of them.

Next, we have, “B) Riverview’s heritage buildings, landscapes and arboretum should be protected and preserved.” What exactly do we mean by this? Do we really expect any future user of Riverview to “protect and preserve” all the buildings, without changing one little thing? Any anyway, do we really want all those buildings to be protected and preserved? Do we really expect any or all of the potential future users, as identified in “a”, to move into buildings that have been perfectly protected and preserved?
A magnificent tree on the Riverview grounds. (Photo by Terry O'Neill)

Remember, just last year, the previous council unanimously passed a motion calling for Royal Columbian Hospital to be rebuilt on the Riverview lands, instead of undergoing a costly renovation at its present site in New Westminster. I can imagine how this massive construction project could take place without impacting the world-famous arboretum, but I cannot fathom how it would transpire without, at the very least, changing Riverview’s landscape. And do we really expect the provincial government to construct a billion-dollar hospital at Riverview while also spending how many untold tens or hundreds of millions, “protecting and preserving” every single one of the heritage buildings on the site – a demand that , as it reads now, is so severe as to preclude even-small scale interior alterations of the buildings?

Remember what momma said: You can’t have your cake and eat it too. Difficult decisions have to be made, and I believe that if we simply re-affirm this, we would be failing to show the leadership that is demanded of us.

Public tour during Treefest. (Photo by Terry O'Neill)
And one last thing on the subject of preserving and protecting, one need only look to pages 83-85 of the heritage report to see that there are actually 15 – FIFTEEN – types of conservation approaches one can take to the Riverview site, not just the two, protecting and preserving, called for in this statement. Without further refinement of what buildings should be conserved, and how far that conservation should go – that is, everything ranging from preserving and restoring the buildings in their entirety to simply preserving an historic façade and integrating it into a new building – statement ‘b’ is virtually meaningless.

On the whole then, I would say that council should NOT re-affirm its commitment to statement “b” without significant refinement.

And then we come to statement C, which says the Riverview lands should remain publicly owned and not developed for market housing. Is council still in agreement with this? Personally, I view this statement as aspirational and not practical. That is, in a perfect world, it would be nice to have it as public land, but I’m wondering if this is a practical goal, given economic realities. Nevertheless, I am prepared to re-support “c” as an aspiration statement at this time.

And so, that deals with the first of the three recommended actions we take. Number two asks us to support the HCP’s strategies to preserve the heritage defining elements of the site. This would appear to be a no-brainer, but I would be shirking my duties if I didn’t point out that the HCP contains one rather large weakness, and that is that it does not prioritize the heritage values that have been identified. That is, it considers strategies for protecting everything from the invaluable trees to the mundane and confusing road network on the site – and appears to make no attempt to judge which is more important to protect.

Remember: When everything is a priority, NOTHING is a priority. Without a prioritization exercise, it may be that the province will be overwhelmed at the huge conservation task at hand. I would suggest, then, that the CITY not blindly follow in the footsteps of the report, but, as I suggested earlier, show some leadership, and make some decisions about what we feel are the most important components of Riverview to protect. To not do so would be to invite inaction.

Finally, three: To reiterate council’s interest in having an integral role in the forthcoming land use plan for the site. I do not have a single quibble with this.

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