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A soul in need

Conflicting visions on downtown revitalization

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It’s not hard to sew human qualities into the fabric of towns or cities. Some are callous and hostile, while others are warm and friendly. Some are young, while others are old. Some are tired; others are vibrant. If we can readily compare a town to a person, then we can just as easily agree that the soul of the place can be found in its downtown.

For Eric Anderson, the soul of Squamish is mired in the pain of neglect — and there’s little on the horizon promising spiritual salvation. Anderson doesn’t live downtown, but he sits on the board of the Squamish Downtown Neighbourhood Association (SDNA), a seat he takes because he believes a downtown belongs not just to those who live and work there, but to those who live and work around it — especially if, as Anderson does, they’d rather be doing both within it.

“It’s clear a lot of people care about downtown that don’t live here,” he says. “There’s a broad consensus that downtown should be community, culture and commerce focused.”

In Anderson’s narrative, the downtown first came under fire about 10 years ago, when major industry employers began shutting their doors, slowly locking up not only district tax revenue, but also the kinds of incomes he says are necessary to healthy communities.

“The downtown has been in decline for 10 years approximately,” he says. “This decline parallels exactly the decline in good family wages in Squamish. Cleveland Avenue? That’s where the symptoms are.”

That downtown needs revitalization is not in dispute. From the planning department to the business improvement area (BIA), and most everywhere in between, people agree that much has to be done to address a variety of issues, whether density, green space or anything else.

And here’s where two camps begin to emerge. Some people are pleased with the vision embodied in the district’s Downtown Neighbourhood Plan (DNP). They see increased residential density as crucial to commercial viability, and going after the former before the latter, as the plan prescribes, is ideal. Get that done, the thinking continues, and suddenly everything is all the more possible, from mixed use buildings to gathering spaces, waterfront walkways to views unobstructed by complementary architecture.

Colleen Myers is one of those people. Owner of The Hive, she’s so steeped in success that she’s gearing up to open a café on the very Cleveland Avenue that Anderson sees as ailing. Called The Zephyr Café, it’s slated for an opening next month.

“I think downtown is the place to be,” she says. “If you create a product that people want, they’ll come downtown.”

Eric Armour, owner of Trinity Romance Shop, is equally cheery about Squamish’s core, even if he’s located a block off the main drag.

“I opened four years ago, almost five,” he says. “And business has more than doubled. Back then, I was at the bottom of the bell curve, but it’s definitely on the up and up.”

To Anderson, that smacks of elitism. It’s not their success he begrudges, but the paradigm it represents. If this is the era of the arty boutique, with all its kitsch, irony, edge and taboo, then he’d rather travel back to the days of BC Rail and Woodfibre. Along with others in the SDNA, he’s seated in the camp opposed.

“Everything is against light industrial — anything industrial,” he says. “Don’t ignore the potential for light industrial downtown. It’s part of the mix, but there’s a bias against it. It’s well-intended, but it’s a little elitist.”

Cameron Chalmers seems almost exhausted by this debate. As director of planning, he’s no doubt heard the DNP praised as often as he’s heard it disparaged. Ask him about the SDNA’s concerns about building on flood zones, which the group gleaned from a 1991-report, and he quickly responds that building practices have changed dramatically since then — and council and developers are well aware of the risk.

Ask him about the contiguous green space SDNA sees unravelling from Stan Clarke Park to Mamquam Blind Channel, and he quickly produces a map, saying the waterfront section of the park could be realized just a few blocks south of the group’s proposal.

To people like Peter Harker, who also sits on the SDNA, there’s more at work than the duel between boutiques and industry. In addition to concerns about parklands, he quickly highlights social ailments common to the core.

“Obviously, the community is in transition, and so it’s kind of changing,” he says. “But, in my view, it’s going from bad to worse.”

Harker works in social services. He spends the early morning hours trotting out into downtown bushes in search of homeless people. When not doing that, he can often be found at his residence near the Ocean Port Hotel.

“This summer was a summer from hell,” he says. “People screaming all night. It was awful. I’m finding myself wondering if I can live downtown.”

Outdoor drug use and dealing are obvious to anyone who spends enough time down there after dark. For their part, the RCMP is well aware of it. According to Corporal Jennifer Foulon, each Squamish constable is assigned a policing zone, of which downtown is one.

“All members of Squamish are very well aware of downtown issues,” she says.

Most calls, she added, are reactionary, though proactive work is done when time permits. Further, with drugs and homelessness so inextricably linked, Foulon says the RCMP is supportive of Helping Hands Society, the drop-in and emergency shelter.

And yet, the issue of homelessness seems lost on certain portions of the community. During this week’s all candidates debate, mayoral candidate Terrill Patterson said he would remove all social services from Squamish, as outreach constitutes a magnet to the type of misery many people would rather not see. The audience responded with sustained laughter.

Anderson has what he calls a solution. Called Homes for Less, it’s a project developed by Emily Carr University Industrial Design and UBC Wood Manufacturing students. With $1,500, a 64-sqaure foot unit can be built. Anderson sees a community of these units, all of them built by the very people living within the square footage.

Greg Fischer, president of the BIA, recoils at the suggestion. “If we give them the type of housing that Eric is talking about, they’re just going to burn it, just destroy it.”

He views most instances of homelessness as a lifestyle choice.

“I don’t have the answer, but I don’t think these houses are the way to go,” he says. “If they want help, if they want a roof over their head, then there are places they can go.”

Like Chalmers, Fischer doesn’t draw a complete link between downtown revitalization and social malaise. Unlike Chalmers, he sees developments in the business park as a bigger threat.

“They’re putting everything up in the business park,” he says. “The business park changed from an industrial park to a business park in the past 10 years.”

From the district’s perspective, the business park is an ideal locale for hotels because it’s right off the highway. Further, there’s potential for a knowledge-based industry to take root there.

With the final draft completed, the DNP will soon be going to the public, and it’s a safe bet the two camps will clash at that forum. Regardless, Chalmers is pleased with the direction downtown is going.

“The reality is, any investment in the downtown is a good thing,” he says. “When I started here six years ago, there was nothing down there.”