A“shock and owe” campaign on Cambie. That’s what retailer Susan Heyes calls the rapid transit project in her neighbourhood, which began in August of 2005. She also calls it “Nightmare on Cambie Street,” a “… years-in-the making production, shot in glorious P3D, featuring 24-hour surround sound, a totally improvised screenplay, groundbreaking non-stop action and explosive performances by some of the industry’s biggest players, with the largest budget ever recorded.”
Heyes sits in her Quebec street workspace, surrounded by controlled chaos: fabric rolls, dress designs, stacks of CDs and a corkboard festooned with newspaper clippings. Her daughter’s colourful drawings and paintings decorate the walls. Heyes, the 50-year-old owner and operator of Hazel and Co., a Cambie retail outlet for maternity wear and women’s clothing, has found her free time has all but evaporated, ever since a massive public works program hit her retail area and livelihood.
The $2-billion-and-counting Canada Line project – formerly known as the Richmond-Airport-Vancouver Line (RAV Line) – is a rapid transit system under construction to connect the city with Richmond and the Vancouver International Airport. The 19-kilometre line is the biggest transportation infrastructure project in BC’s history.
P3 contractor SNC-Lavalin Inc. is building the line and, once complete, will operate it for 35 years. And although the costs are not factored into the 2010 Vancouver Olympic budget, the project is part and parcel of the pre-Games infrastructure blitz now hitting the Lower Mainland.
Throughout the two-year construction, many merchants along the Canada Line have struggled to survive, faced with drastically reduced sales, the inevitable result of traffic diverted from the area. A massive canyon down the middle of Cambie has created what looks like a post-nuclear film set in the retail area, from 12th to King Edward Avenue. Businesses all the way to Marine Drive have felt the retail chill.
Heyes believes she and her fellow merchants were sold a bill of goods on the RAV Line. “They assured the community they would bore a tunnel under the street, and the construction would be two to three months in front of any given business. It’s been over two years.”
The maternity clothing retailer is now leading the litigation charge against the City of Vancouver, the Greater Vancouver Transportation Authority, RAV project management, Intransit BC and Translink. In November of last year, the project’s attorneys failed to quash her case for financial compensation.
“My sales dropped instantly 30 percent in November 2005,” Heyes recalls in her Quebec street workspace. “I was so scared. At the time, I had been doing this for 22 years, and now I’m in jeopardy of having everything being dragged down because of this.”
Heyes says she’s lost $500,000 in business since the project began and has had to mortgage her home twice in two years. She cannot afford to lose this fight, being on the line for the legal costs if her court case fails.
She’s not alone in her battle. The Cambie Village Business Association, which has pretty much ignored the concerns of Heyes and others throughout this debacle, will launch a group action lawsuit this month, claiming property owners and businesses have suffered losses from the transit project.
Leonard Schein, a board member of the Cambie Village Business Association, says about 60 businesses along the street have either closed or are on the brink of collapse. Some of those storefronts have turned over three times, Heyes notes. “A new business comes in - they fail, and then someone else comes in.”
Linda Liu, owner of Cambie Street’s Aurora Gallery, told Common Ground, “[The] construction has almost taken everything from us, not only personal savings, RSSP investment… but also happiness, healthiness... We have been cheated by Canada Line for two years, and we have been ignored by government for two years.” Her disgust and dismay are echoed by other merchants along the line, such as Dale Dubberly, owner of Thai Away Home restaurant, who says he is “personally appalled and flabbergasted that the government, whose job it is to act in the best interest of small businesses as well as the community at large, would be my biggest financial challenge.”
Heyes and other merchants are outraged that the Canada Line project through Cambie Village ended up as an open-air, cut-and-cover operation, when everyone expected a less invasive, underground tunnel-boring project. It was “no surprise” that it was proposed as the latter, Heyes says, but it was a huge surprise to everyone else when it turned into something much more disruptive.
“A cut-and-cover through the Cambie Village would never have been publicly approved. It was absolutely clear it was a bored tunnel... so that’s what we based our business decisions on; that’s why I signed a five-year lease, because I was told it was going to be bored, and the road surface in front of us wasn’t going to be torn up. The council briefing notes absolutely outlined how destructive that method of construction would be in such a narrow and residential retail corridor. And for that reason, cut-and-cover was not considered for the Cambie Village.”
Heyes argues that technical briefing documents, provided to City Council as the basis for its decision to approve the project, drafted in early spring 2003, prove her case. “They’ve been taken off the City website for obvious reasons.” The following text appears on page 8 of Appendix B. RAV Proposal – Cambie Corridor Land Use and Compatibility City of Vancouver: “All of the RAV options propose a bored tunnel under Cambie Street between 8th Avenue and King Edward, and in some options further south, due to the traffic and land use difficulties associated with other alignment types.”
Last fall, the Vancouver Board of Trade joined the Canada Line to promote “Lunch on the Line,” a public relations campaign to encourage the city’s business community to dine at restaurants along the cash-strapped street. “It’s much more than lunch that we have on the line,” Heyes notes. For her and her fellow merchants, condescending PR schemes and mottos like “Cambie is open and waiting for you,” are just semantic ribbons on an empty package.
Yet there have been some positive responses to the merchants’ troubles. Vancouver Board of Trade chair Henry Lee recently suggested that three cents a trip on the new line could cover merchants’ compensation for the Canada Line disruption.
It’s not as if Heyes’ request for compensation is unusual, or even unprecedented. A similar situation prevailed in 1987, after construction of the Expo SkyTrain line caused disruption in Vancouver neighbourhoods. Property owners considered taking legal action, but were saved the bother when the City of Vancouver launched its own action against the province, reasoning that homeowners should have to go to court to force the government to provide compensation. The mayor at the time: Gordon Campbell.
Last November, Heyes upped her visibility in the Cambie campaign with some impromptu media monkey-wrenching. She heard an announcement on her car radio for a Canada Line ribbon-cutting ceremony at Cambie and 39th. She called the station, and learned the event was taking place in 15 minutes. Luckily, Heyes was nearby and she had poster board and a sharpie in the back of her car. She drove up to the event, scribbled away in her car, and rolled up her protest signs under her raincoat.
As RAV CEO Jane Bird announced the reopening of a section of Cambie, Heyes unveiled her sign, which read “Compensation Now! Too Little, Too Late” and “Our rights are being paved over.” The TV cameras swung over to Heyes, and she made the national news. “I had my own little press conference afterwards,” she says, with a note of pride.
For Heyes, ironies and absurdities abound on Vancouver’s transit mega project. She recently discovered Canada is a world leader in the building of tunnel-boring machines. Toronto-based Lovat Inc. manufactures massive, electronically controlled cylinders with rotating steel and carbide teeth. These monsters dig passageways for subways, sewers and cables, and they are shipped to worksites as far as Russia, Turkey and China. According to the Globe and Mail, one of Lovat’s tunnelling machines is now operating just a short distance from Vancouver, but not in Canada.
“They sent a machine to Seattle,” Heyes says with laughter, bitterly amused that one of Canada’s premier technologies is being used south of the border, but not along Cambie.
In fact, construction of a light rail line is underway on a 14-mile route from downtown Seattle to Tukwila, with completion scheduled for mid-2009. Unlike Vancouver, Seattle has made efforts to soften the blow of disrupted traffic to local businesses, with plenty of consultation and recommendations back and forth with local property owners and small business operators, including relocation costs for affected businesses. According to the Beacon Hill News, $7.5 million in mitigation funds were set aside to aid local businesses through loans. The initiative is succeeding.
Heyes is outraged that American small business owners were accorded more representative democracy than their Canadian counterparts. “This is the part that I find really unconscionable. They know how destructive this project would be; they didn’t take any preventative measures for the businesses that were previously well established... they basically just let these poor families die, just let their businesses wither away.”
The Canada Line will obviously be an enduring piece of infrastructure for Vancouver, for years beyond 2010. Yet many retailers in the path of our Olympic infrastructure developments, along with the residents of the Downtown East Side and people living near Eagleridge Bluffs, suspect the big-money, redevelopment tail is wagging the 2010 dog.
Host city status certainly frees up local governments and developers for enormous capital construction schemes, with ever-expanding budgets. This can include the gentrification of entire neighbourhoods, with the inevitable displacement of long-term residents. The privatization of profit is followed by the socialization of debt. In the long run, everyone pays, as was the case with the Montreal Olympics in ‘72, when the city was left with a billion dollar bill that it only recently paid off.
For Heyes, it all sounds like a variation of “disaster capitalism,” as theorized by journalist Naomi Klein in her book The Shock Doctrine. Disaster capitalism isn’t limited to Anglo-American nations. Red China, in its WTO-endorsed, corporate-friendly incarnation, is also getting into the spirit. The Olympic spirit, that is. The Vancouver Sun recently summed up the preparations on the other side of the world for the 2008 Games with the headline: “The New Beijing: Entire city blocks are bulldozed, yet few of the estimated 1.5 million people displaced appear to be complaining.”
According to the Geneva-based Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions, at least 1.25 million people have been displaced since April 2007. Unknown numbers of people have been evicted forcibly, though many people are reportedly being given financial compensation and a chance at a new, modern apartment further on Beijing’s outskirts. The Vancouver Sun report also notes that Chinese citizens lack property rights, and judges are often corrupted by party officials and developers. “There have been complaints of violent evictions by thugs or construction crews injuring or even killing occupants during a demolition.”
Red China’s approach to non-democratic development seems to whet the appetite of our public leaders. Consider the words of BC’s transport minister Kevin Falcon. According to Public Eye Online, in May of 2006, the Surrey-Cloverdale MLA gave a speech to the Lower Mainland Municipal Association’s annual general meeting, where he spoke about a bridge built to connect Mainland China to a new, island-based, deep-water port.
In his speech, Falcon stated, “No one there ever questions the need to build infrastructure like this. Now, granted, China has a bit of a different governance structure. But, in many ways, it is the ideal governance structure.” The room reportedly broke into laughter at Falcon’s remark. The transport minister added, “China really has the ultimate Kevin Falcon government structure,” which produced even more laughter from the audience. He went on to say that the Chinese “... don’t have the labour or environmental restrictions we do. It’s not like they have to do community consultations. They just say ‘we’re building a bridge’ and they move everyone out of there and get going within two weeks. Could you imagine if we could build like that?”
Ha ha ha, imagine that. Stop it, Kevin, you’re killing us.
Another telling item involves Vancouver’s 2010 Countdown Clock, located downtown across from the Vancouver Art Gallery. This wedge-like, metal and plexiglass construction stands more than six metres high and three metres wide and weighs over 2,600 pounds. It resembles something designed in the ‘70s by bell bottom-wearing futurists. It’s easy to imagine it as an upright sarcophagus for Dr. Evil, or something excreted by a 300-foot, Fisher-Price robot. There’s something totalitarian-looking about this blocky timepiece, and there’s good reason for that. It’s virtually the same clock as the one in Tiananmen Square in Beijing.
As reported last February in the Georgia Straight, VANOC chairman John Furlong explained the genesis of Vancouver’s countdown clock in a speech at a Board of Trade-organized luncheon. “We were in Beijing a few years ago for a debriefing,” Furlong told the audience. “We took a walk to Tiananmen Square and we saw the countdown clock in Tiananmen Square, which is beautiful. So we pulled out our cell phones and we phoned back to Vancouver, photographed it [the clock] – I don’t even know if you’re allowed – and we sent it back to Vancouver and said, ‘We have to get ourselves one of these.’ And today we have it, and it’s very special.”
Tiananmen Square’s troubling past, involving a democratic uprising and its violent repression, appear to have been utterly lost on Furlong and his Olympic pals. Decades ago, Red China was demonized in the West for its human rights violations, which carry on in full force today. Yet ever since Red China became a card-carrying member of the WTO, and valued supplier to the US consumer market, any ethical concerns beyond poisoned pet food and toxic children’s’ toys are considered almost laughably irrelevant.
Whether it’s East or West, wherever you find politicking, privatizing and profiteering, it all comes down to a struggle by people who are doing their best to get ahead. “It’s just been a monumental stress,” says Heyes of her battle for compensation. The level of bullying within liberal government itself... I think Campbell is a bully, Falcon a bully.” Is this sense of fighting against bullies something she’s always had, I ask? Does a sense of injustice come naturally to her?
“I don’t believe you really know what you are capable of in a certain situation until you are in it. Yes, I’ve always jumped in to support the little guy. I’ve had bullying experiences in my life, in one way or another. Or where there’s been unfairness. I can’t tolerate it, and in a democracy, we shouldn’t have to tolerate this kind of unfairness from our government.”
Heyes says she gets phone calls from her neighbours in the street who are “... just sobbing into the phone,” and she does what she can to help, funnelling their calls to city councillors, MLAs, the City engineering department, and whoever will listen.
“It’s the same sort of thing you do with your children. If my daughter were being bullied in this way, I’d want to see justice done, I would want to bring the parties together and mediate. It isn’t a matter of protesting just to be radical. It’s that this particular issue has an easy fix: compensation. The fact that they’ve done nothing is really unconscionable. They are just attacking people who are tax paying citizens; all of us have paid our dues. You know, we’ve started small businesses; we’re the very thing that this province wants to celebrate and they’re shooting us down.
“They brought this disaster to our doors. They are capitalizing on it. They refused to factor financial relief into the project for the well known impacts of choosing to build this the way they have. This is not what should happen in a democracy.”
Heyes still seems remarkably upbeat, given the battle she’s chosen, or that has chosen her. She, and perhaps many others, will have their day in court this year. As for the ongoing sacrifices to our pending Olympic peak experience – an image comes to mind of bodies thrown into a volcano – we can’t just wait for the judgment of history.
“Compensation is the right thing to do,” Heyes insists.