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Municipal Politics

‘Shame on the Park Board’: Downtown Eastside Residents Shut Out of Parks During Pandemic

Construction has blocked half of Pigeon Park for two years, while Oppenheimer has been closed since May.

Jen St. Denis 27 Jan

Jen St. Denis is The Tyee’s Downtown Eastside reporter. Find her on Twitter @JenStDen. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

While Vancouver residents across the city have flocked to their local parks during the COVID-19 pandemic, people who live in the city’s poorest neighbourhood have been shut out of two parks for months.

Half of Pigeon Park at West Hastings and Carrall streets has been taken up by construction equipment for the past two years as a developer builds a market-rental building. A few blocks away, Oppenheimer Park is still completely shut out behind blue fencing put up after a tent city at the park was removed last May.

Advocates who live in the Downtown Eastside say enough is enough.

“This is definitely something that wouldn’t happen somewhere else. It absolutely would not happen,” said Sarah Blyth, the founder of the Overdose Prevention Society at 390 Columbia St. and a former parks board commissioner.

“Shame on the park board.”

The two parks are the only accessible outdoor green spaces for many Downtown Eastside residents, including those living in tiny single-room occupancy hotel rooms or with mobility issues. The parks were important before the COVID-19 pandemic, but with many indoor spaces limiting the number of people allowed at one time, they’re even more needed, residents say.

The city has opened several small areas with picnic tables around the Downtown Eastside, but those spaces don’t fully replace the two neighbourhood parks.

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A picnic table is closed off from public access behind the fences of Oppenheimer Park. Photo by Maggie MacPherson.

Oppenheimer Park at 400 Powell St. takes up an entire city block, while Pigeon Park is a smaller paved park at Hastings and Carrall. A totem pole commemorating survivors of racism, colonialism and poverty was raised at Pigeon Park in 2016.

“During COVID, it’s really sticky,” said Chris Livingstone, an outreach worker with Smoke Signals, an organization that keeps Indigenous people connected with loved ones.

“We know that organizations are not allowed to open, so clients are really stuck outside in these spaces and out in the street, and it’s really cold and wet. And we know that Hastings people are getting bad feet infections. People are wandering around with no place to go.”

Park used as construction storage

Developer Millennium has used the north corner of Pigeon Park to store construction material and equipment for the past two years. Around half the park is shut out behind a fence.

Millennium has been restoring 1 W. Hastings St., a heritage building also known as the Merchant Bank, and has also been building a seven-storey retail and market rental apartment building next to it.

In an email response to The Tyee, City of Vancouver communications staff said Millennium and the city had signed an agreement in 2018 for the developer to use the park for construction because there’s nowhere else on the site to store equipment. The rental building should be completed this spring, the company and the city told The Tyee.

“Full access to the park will be reinstated accordingly, with all construction materials and fencing fully removed,” city staff wrote in response to questions sent to both the city and parks board. Staff were not able to provide information about how much Millennium has been paying for the storage space.

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A totem pole commemorating survivors of racism, colonialism and poverty was raised at Pigeon Park in 2016. Half of the park has been used by a developer to store construction materials for the past two years. Photo by Maggie MacPherson.

Hazel Jambor, a project manager for Millennium, said the company has a permit from the city to close the park and is paying fees to the city. “As you can appreciate building this rental housing in a very small site requires some staging space which is normal for any construction,” Jambor wrote in an email.

Blyth of the Overdose Prevention Society questioned why there had been no community consultation with residents who use the park before access was cut. There are also no signs to explain to people what’s happening or how long the project will take.

City communications staffer Christine Ulmer told The Tyee the city isn’t required to put up signs and because the use is temporary, no community consultation is required.

Blyth says the city’s priorities are wrong.

“How can construction be a priority over people’s health and being able to get out into a park and then breathe some fresh air?”

Outreach worker Livingstone said he has funding for a shower trailer, laundry facilities and food program that were originally planned for the Strathcona Park tent city. But BC Housing has now funded its own shower and bathrooms there, so Livingstone is looking for an alternate location.

Pigeon Park would be a perfect spot, he said.

“We know that the street population is within these four blocks, and they all walk by that space all the time,” he said. “It’s also ideal because across the street is the Vancouver Coastal Health-funded Aboriginal hub.”

The park controversy is linked to neighbourhood residents’ concerns about the Merchant Bank redevelopment. The heritage building had fallen into deep disrepair by the early 2000s, but some in the Downtown Eastside community wanted to see the building used as an arts and culture space.

Instead, Millennium has been trying to lease the building as a high-end commercial and restaurant space since 2017.

Blake Davies, a broker with Colliers International, said tenants have been found for the first and second floors, but the third, fourth and fifth floors remain unleased. He said the upper floors have only recently been finished.

Karen Ward, a Downtown Eastside resident who works for the city as a drug policy advisor, said Millennium’s plans for the building provide no benefit to the Downtown Eastside community, where homelessness and deaths from overdoses have risen during the pandemic.

Ward also opposes a $385,000 property tax exemption. Millennium was granted in 2019 for preserving the heritage building. Millennium also got a $100,000 facade grant from the city for 1 W. Hastings in 2019.

“I want the city to void that tax exemption,” Ward said.

And Vancouver should introduce an empty property tax, similar to its empty homes tax, for commercial buildings, she added.

“Get off the park. Tax the crap out of [the company] until they give it back, or we expropriate it. And turn it into a community safe space, because that’s what it should be.”

Millennium did not reply to an additional request from The Tyee to respond to Ward’s comments.

Constance Barnes is a former park board commissioner who was the manager of the Downtown Eastside Street Market until April. She’s working with Millennium on a contract to liaise with community members.

Barnes said she’s planning a project to incorporate decorative tiles made by local Indigenous and Black artists that would commemorate the history of the area. Another idea is placing a low-cost bannock and coffee food truck in or near the park.

Barnes said Millennium donated thousands of dollars to pay for tents and other items for the street market, and she believes the developer does care about the community. Millennium also paid for a pizza and pop lunch in the park on New Year’s Day, Barnes said.

A restaurant called PiDGiN that opened near the park in 2013 was the target of raucous anti-gentrification protests. Barnes said that any restaurant that opens in the neighbourhood has to be aware of the homelessness, poverty and drug use.

“We’ve got to start respecting each other and each other’s land and each other’s goals,” Barnes said. “My goal is to be able to bring people together and have people not yelling and screaming and fighting, because it does nothing.”

But Ward questioned whether a company that really cares about the community would block off half a park for two years.

“I hope the park board will immediately take action,” she said.

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Residents have been blocked from Oppenheimer Park for eight months. ‘This is definitely something that wouldn’t happen somewhere else,’ says Sarah Blyth. Photo by Maggie MacPherson.

Oppenheimer Park’s high blue fence

Oppenheimer Park was the site of a tent city for two years, with around 200 tents located on the park grounds until May.

After the city’s failed attempt to move the encampment in August 2019, the province stepped in last year with a public safety order, citing concerns about the potential spread of COVID-19. Many tent city residents were moved to indoor housing in hotels and other residential buildings.

A high blue fence has prevented people from once again erecting tents, but it has also blocked anyone else from using the park, which includes a field house with bathrooms, a baseball diamond and a playground.

Reopening has been delayed because the field house was vandalized in November, city communications staff told The Tyee, but parks staff “are working on a reopening plan and will have more to share in the coming weeks.”

Livingstone, Blyth and Ward said Oppenheimer Park needs to reopen with full-time staff on site, and those workers need to be able to provide help to people who are homeless.

“They can open up entrance and exit ways, and then work with community organizations to let people use the park as a park,” Livingstone said.

“If you had an organization in there doing that, then they could work with the people that are showing up and say, ‘You can’t tent here. But we could work with you and say this is where you can go or where you can call.’”

Blyth suggested a full-time park caretaker, similar to the ones who live in park houses in city parks across Vancouver, could also be a solution.

But as with the construction at Pigeon Park, there has been no communication between the park board and residents about what is happening and when Oppenheimer Park will be open, 10 months after the tent city was removed in May and the fences went up.

“It’s just this sort of thing where it’s closed until further notice, sorry everyone,” Blyth said.

“It should be very apparent to people what’s going on and what the timeline is because, to be honest, the park isn’t owned by the park board. It’s owned by the taxpayers, and they’re just caretakers of the land.”  [Tyee]

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