Things are not looking good for the Paragon development
Yesterday evening I was walking along Hamilton Street among the tony hair salons and restaurants of Yaletown. Walking by along the narrow sidewalk were two women, well-dressed and in their fifties, in conversation. I only heard one snippet:
Woman 1: "I don't know why the government feels that it needs more money from gambling."
Woman 2: "Yeah, I wonder about that too."
It's not as though I needed more evidence that the discussion about the Paragon casino proposal at BC Place has gone into the mainstream consciousness, thanks mostly to the Vancouver Not Vegas protesters, and media chasing the controversy. Until only a few weeks ago this issue was hardly on the radar.
In fact, when Tim Stevenson spoke to media back in November raising concerns about the increase in the number of slot machines at the Paragon development, I'm led to believe that you could count the calls into City Hall about it on one hand.
So how did this issue become so controversial, and so many people see the need to line up against it? My own personal poll of friends, associates and family members has been almost universally ambivalent about the casino. People can gamble all over the place, including at home on their computer, they say, so what's the big deal?
The proposal to redevelop the site beside BC Place has been in the works for nearly two and a half years. Now as the matter goes to public hearing, it has the appearance of dying a slow death. It could be a major setback for the City, which I will explain further below.
A group called The Alliance for Arts and Culture have been particularly vocal in condeming this proposal. Executive Director Amir Ali Alibhai spoke to council and said that his organization would not take any grants from the expanded casino even if they were offered. Observers point out that the group still wants as much money as it can get from other gambling facilities in the Province, and happily took it from Edgewater Casino.
This afternoon the Alliance in partnership with The BC Association for Charitable Gaming sent out a joint press release asking that Minister of Housing and Social Development Rich Coleman be fired by Premier designate Christy Clark. Coleman is the key decision maker around gambling matters in B.C., as well as the person who signs the cheques for social housing and homeless shelter funding.
The Alliance has the appearance of overplaying its hand. While they may have a legitimate beef with the Province over cuts to arts grants, which happened largely because of the economic downturn, it hardly makes sense for them to be calling for a Minister's head. Not even the opposition NDP have gone that far.
Last week Rich Coleman signalled that arts funding was on its way back up, but clearly not fast enough for the leadership of the Arts Alliance. This group which purports to represent groups like the Vancouver Art Gallery and the Vancouver Symphony is weighing into a political minefield which is unlikely to end well for them.
My guess is that Premier designate Clark will not receive their recommendation kindly, and it will set their cause back even further.
I always say if you want to know what Vision Vancouver are thinking, then read Allen Garr. Garr often sits down with Meggs, Magee and Ballem to get info straight from the horse's mouth, and they know that the Vancity bank director/columnist will almost always give them a positive spin.
Though Garr opined a few weeks ago that the casino was a done deal, today's column says that it's currently dead on arrival.
Last weekend, before the public hearings began, the city sat down with the province (I’m not at liberty to say who) to deliver the message that this dog won’t hunt. As one person who attended the meeting on behalf of the city said, “We told them the package stinks.”
I find it very interesting that after over two and a half years since this project was originally proposed that the Vision government are asking the Province to sweeten the deal. Was this a deliberate strategy? There are some signals that it might have been.
This whole half-billion dollar project has been thick with politics, and I'm going to try to raise some key questions that have crossed my mind over the last few days about it.
- Is the casino debate about social class? I said in yesterday's 24 Hours column that the loudest voices opposed to the casino are people from the creative class, not those who work or patronize these establishments. Artists and architects don't mix with union wage-earning single moms who serve highballs, or an old-timer who likes to play slots, and visa versa. In fact, the former often look down on the latter.
- With the advent of online gambling, anyone with an addiction can spend all their money in the comfort of their own home. Why then is a destination casino any better or worse?
- Dr. John Carsley from Vancouver Coastal Health met with media this week and explained that they were advising against the casino expansion. But he continued by stating that the Province is underfunding gambling addictions counselling when compared to other jurisdictions. Was that political comment intended to get Victoria to kick in more funding?
- The most vocal anti-casino media outlet from the get-go is the Vision-backing Vancouver Observer blog. Why did they take such a persistent opposing editorial viewpoint on an item which would directly impact the party they support?
- Many were surprised when Rich Coleman gave extra money for shelters to Vancouver last year after saying he wouldn't. Was there a quid pro quo from the BC government for the City of Vancouver to pass this development in return for support for social housing dollars and shelter funding?
- The existing Edgewater Casino has operated with little concern by the public for almost seven years. If it can't cross the street inside our entertainment district, then where else should this go?
- Dianne Watts remarked at the ULI's Vancouver 2050 event on Thursday that she would love to have a destination casino and entertainment complex in the City of Surrey. Why is Vancouver not protecting its financial interests and the threat of losing these things to other cities?
- This project has been in the works for over two years, and the word "casino" is spelled out several times in the 2008 proposal to council. Why did Vision Vancouver not raise concerns about this development earlier?
- One of the early complaints about the development were the two squat hotel towers, which are a result of the site zoning which limits height to protect a view of the North Shore mountains from Cambie Bridge. Is the site zoning and view corridors policy limiting the potential for a more dramatic built form on the site?
- I've heard that the business community is foresquare behind this project. Where are supporters from the business community?
- If Paragon's proposal fails, then what is long term economic strategy for Vancouver's lucrative entertainment district?
- What message does it send to the business community when an applicant goes for over two years and gets stopped dead in its tracks by a protest? Furthermore, what does it mean for the City in terms of getting dollars for needed infrastructure and social housing from the Province?
None of this excuses the developer Paragon for their mishandling of their public relations and the fact that they ignored the surrounding community, who reached out to them and were rebuffed. Lots of blame to go around, in other words.
Someone joked to me had Paragon put a green roof and solar panels in this building, it would have been a slam dunk as there is no way Gregor could have said no to it. Only look at Hizzonner's fist pumping at the Telus Garden announcement this week. Too late for that, I guess.
Vancouver already has a reputation among developers as a needlessly complicated place to get work done. Our city's economy relies very heavily on the revenue produced by those arenas over the long term. If this project goes south, it will be interesting to see what impact it could have politically and economically for the City of Vancouver.
UPDATE: Earlier I erroneously wrote that Linda Solomon of the Vancouver Observer was "a key financial backer." I meant to say "the sister of" and have corrected the above statement. I stand by my suggestion that there are questions about the independence of VO when it comes to anything to do with Vision Vancouver.