West Van mayoralty hopefuls exchange ideas on housing, neighbourhood character

West Vancouver’s mayoralty candidates rubbed cold shoulders and traded frosty remarks about both neighbourhood and personal character Tuesday evening.

Mark Sager, who served as West Vancouver’s mayor in the 1990s, repeatedly criticized the current council over their handling of district-owned land at 2195 Gordon Ave., which is earmarked for 170 units of below-market housing.

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The district paid $42,875 to consultants to investigate options for the site. In September, council approved spending a further $50,000 toward public consultation.

“We will not spend $100,000 of your money to hire consultants to engage with you. We will do it,” Sager told the overflowing crowd, dubbing the housing options “six-storey, Stalinistic, monolithic blocks.”

Approximately 1,716 of West Vancouver’s homes are vacant, a statistic Coun. Mary-Ann Booth addressed in her opening remarks. “Too many homes sit empty and others are headed for the landfill,” she said. Rather than highrises, Booth suggested West Vancouver add duplexes and triplexes to accommodate seniors and attract the missing generation.

Rosa Jafari offered a diametrically opposed view, explaining that instead of allowing duplexes or triplexes West Vancouver should facilitate the development of skinny highrises that would be configured to leave view corridors unobstructed.

Coun. Christine Cassidy focused her remarks on housing and traffic. Allowing townhouses to be built near schools would help create walkable communities while easing 3 p.m. traffic jams, she suggested.

The idea was repudiated by Sager. “I don’t see any of us wanting townhouses built around schools in our community,” he said. “Floating that idea out there only creates speculation.”

Organized and hosted by the Ambleside Dundarave Ratepayers Association, many of the questions focused on neighbourhood character and community consultation.

There’s “too much division” in the community, according to Sager. “I liked it when I was mayor and the criticism I heard was: ‘You kind of run it like a yacht club. Everyone seems to get along.’ What’s wrong with that?”

But while Sager looked around the room and saw some of the voters who elected him decades earlier, Jafari noted the portion of the community not being represented.

Jafari noted a couple of Persian people, a few Chinese residents, and not a single person under the age of 30 in the room.

I think that’s really a big problem,” she said. “We really need to engage everybody.”

Jafari also noted the problem of disengaged investors who are new to the community. Failing to reach out to West Vancouver’s immigrant population is like leaving a Ferrari in the garage and complaining about the space it takes up, she said.

While Booth suggested council could improve their level of public engagement, she lauded her colleagues for the job they do. “I do think we are doing the best we can to reflect public opinion but ultimately, we’re elected to make decisions,” she said. “It’s not a referendum.”

Cassidy disagreed, suggesting a communication breakdown is causing residents to disengage from local politics. “I think we have increased the quantity of community engagement, but I don’t think we have increased the quality,” she said. “Had public opinion been respected we would not have the development which we presently have at the White Spot.”

Jafari was also critical of the 203-unit rental project at 752 Marine Dr., citing traffic concerns. “It’s like somebody is choking and we give him more food.”

Booth defended her decision to vote for the project.

“It was a parking lot. We didn’t evict anybody, we didn’t cut down any trees,” she said, emphasizing the project’s affordability and daycare space. Booth also reminded the crowd a big box store could have been built on that site.

None of those arguments passed muster with Cassidy.

“The future of bricks and mortar retail is dying. It was never going to be a Costco or a Wal-Mart,” she said.

Sager was more circumspect, responding to the question with his own query.

“Is residential in that location acceptable and suitable? Yes, it probably is,” he said.

The candidates were each asked how close of a relationship West Vancouver’s next mayor should have with the development community.

Sager, who served as point man for Bosa development group on their Lynn Valley tower plan, said “an enormous amount of discord” could be saved if mayor and council could reject developments at an early stage. “I’m not afraid to sit across the table from any of the developers. . . . I know the game.”

Both Cassidy and Booth advocated an arm’s-length relationship with developers.

“We need to have no pre-existing relationship with developers so none of us have to recuse ourselves in an important vote,” Cassidy said.

Booth, who recused herself from the Grosvenor debate, noted that her husband is a real estate lawyer, not a developer.

The candidates split on the issue of subsidized housing, with Booth suggesting the $16-million property at 2195 Gordon Ave. could be used to house workers – including first responders – who currently commute to West Van.

With public consultation in the works, Cassidy suggested her personal opinion is irrelevant. However, earlier in the evening Cassidy reminded the listeners of the limits facing the community. “We may have wealthy individuals but as an entity West Vancouver is not wealthy.”

Jafari was lukewarm on subsidized housing, suggesting her priority would be engaging residents who already live in the community. “I believe we have enough professionals to fill some of the positions that are unemployed.”

The evening ended with Sager and Booth trading barbs.

While noting he doesn’t like to be critical, Sager showed the audience the district’s five-year capital budget plan. “It’s not till page 37 that you would even know you have a mayor and council,” he said. “If the council isn’t working well together . . . staff naturally fill the void. That’s what’s going on.”

“This council has been very productive and has been very functional,” Booth responded. “We may disagree but we all represent views of our community. That’s democracy.”

Booth also targeted “years of neglect” from previous councils.

“We were having zero per cent increases that weren’t even covering inflation,” she said, listing the police station and Klee Wyck as having suffered from that neglect.

“The world has changed since Mr. Sager, respectfully,” Booth added. “That was in the ’90s. I mean, that was before the Internet, for heaven’s sakes.”

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