As activists it is important to have grand views of a just, sustaining and sustainable world, AND—to be workable—we need to know a lot about how those grand views can express themselves in our own, local community. Sometimes it is important to know what it is that stands in the way of those grand views being implemented locally. So today I want to share a short –true—story about the kind of thing that would have been a large leap forward for the social, economic, and environmental sustainability of our valley; and I will share my own insight into why that grand vision wasn’t implemented.
1999, the last year of my term on Comox Town Council, I was invited by School District #71 to attend—with all the other municipal councillors of the valley– an “information evening on potential plans for redevelopment of the Old Courtenay Junior School site on Harmston Avenue. Given all my other commitments at that time it was hard to decide to put aside time to attend a meeting about a hypothetical development on a property in the centre Courtenay; a development over which I had no say and seemed to have little even potential benefit to the Town of Comox whose interests seemed the only possible reason for my attendance at the meeting. However, thanks to the encouragement of Mayor Kirkwood, who was convinced that this proposal might have some positive impact on the whole of the Comox Valley, I decided to attend just to see if it could possibly be that the redevelopment of an abandoned school site in downtown Courtenay really could impact the WHOLE valley! Apparently what seemed obtuse to me was more apparent to many others as the whole of the school board meeting room was packed with municipal councillors from all over the valley. We were seated in a semi circle with the obvious intent of creating an environment of collaboration rather than simply being lectured at.
As the presentation began, it became immediately obvious that Mayor George had been absolutely right. The plans which the School Board’s design contractor laid out for consideration and input to these representatives of Comox Valley municipalities could—indeed—transform Courtenay and, yes, even the whole of the Comox Valley. It was a grand scheme developed to serve the financial well being of School District 71, but it was also a magnificent scheme that, if implemented would transfigure the economic viability of downtown Courtenay, provide the founding basis of a Granville Island like market, provide for a conference centre that would underwrite both our tourism potential as well as bring exciting new ideas to the Comox Valley; part of the plan would provide affordable housing units among the residential development that would underwrite the viability of a pedestrian friendly downtown Courtenay. Half of one floor of this proposed four story development a block from downtown Courtenay would be dedicated to office space and the other half was tentatively designed to serve as new office space for the RCMP.
The entirety of the plan was breath-taking, but the thing that just tickled me pink was the idea that the City of Courtenay could realize—in addition to all the latent social, economic, environmental benefits– a considerable, immediate, cash benefit from converting the ridiculously wide paved surface of Harmston Avenue. It’s just stitched into the core of my being that it is exciting to create community value by reducing the amount of land that we smother with asphalt.
So here in a nutshell is the vision which the School District planners presented to Comox Valley municipal representatives:
Redevelop the Old Courtenay Junior School Site into new four story centre with multiple benefits to the Comox Valley and—especially—downtown Courtenay.
What it would look like:
• a four-storey building over the entirety of the old Courtenay Junior site and a strip of land reclaimed from excess asphalt on Harmston Avenue.
• First floor would be a unique conference centre with the ability to attract major conferences to the Comox Valley; included in the conference centre was plans for removable partitions so there could be multiple small conferences AND the conference centre could be divided into a Granville Island styled market for small vendors when there is no scheduled conference
• Second floor would be dedicated to office space with the RCMP occupying a significant portion of that space
• Third floor mixed residential development with value from the redevelopment going to help create significant affordable housing units. Some units would be especially affordable as no parking stall would be assigned thus saving costs and further underlining the walking distance to downtown Courtenay
• Fourth Floor would be higher value housing units with grand views of the water and glacier
• Roof top would provide a Grandview space for outdoor dining, coffee, wine
• Sufficient population to justify bus service every 10 minutes
Wow, just think of the benefits; residential homes leisurely walking distance from downtown Courtenay; securing an economically vital, pedestrian orientated, downtown Courtenay, securing the basis of frequent downtown bus service, bringing business and residences to the core infrastructure so no major extensions to infrastructure; bringing the valley an new conference centre capacity; a Granville island styled market in the neighbourhood of downtown Courtenay; affordable housing financed by the up zoning profits; huge jump in municipal revenues; a grand place to dine and socialize in the downtown; profits from rezoning that would greatly enhance the educational opportunities in our schools.
Sounds great! But it didn’t happen and I am going to share that sad story with you—not to lay blame, but as vital insight into how things happen in our valley and what one need to know when planning for such social, economic, environmental developments as the redevelopment of the old Courtenay Junior School site.
After the school board’s design contractor finished his presentation on redeveloping the old Courtenay Junior site, it was time to go round the room to gather informal input on what the assembled municipal representatives thought of the project. The go round happened to start with the Comox side of the room and all the Comox representatives were delighted with the general plan. Some had concerns about parking but all those concerns were expressed in terms of what can be done to make the plan more workable. Next a Courtenay councillor—one who was clearly not part of the inner circle—spoke and expressed appreciation for the effort that the School Board had put into considering how to provide so much public benefits for such a wide spectrum of the community. BUT!!!next to speak was the one councillor who, more than anyone else, spoke for the interests of Courtenay’s old boys’ club. Clearly this councillor was the voice the room had been anxiously awaiting. Drawing in a long breath, the councillor began their comments on an up note. The benefits to downtown Courtenay and the attractiveness of a new conference centre in the Comox Valley were noted with appreciation. I breathed a little easier—maybe this proposal was so brilliantly crafted to serve all sectors of the Comox Valley that, at least this once, we could all get behind it and work together. BUT– a long and—and from my point of view, ominous—breath. BUT, the councillor repeated and as close as I can remember here are the words that doomed this outstanding proposal, ‘I am convinced that any revenue that school board would realize from up zoning this property would, to some degree, benefit the NDP government (the NDP were running the provincial government at the time) and I have no interest in anything that would benefit this provincial government.’ Next to this grand spokesperson for Courtenay’s old boys’ club, sat another staunch/renowned supporter of the way things have always been done in Courtenay, and after that it became a chorus of great idea/bad timing.
It was clear to all present that the project would never get the up zoning it needed from Courtenay Council because, as is too often the case, the merits have to do with the political agenda of the old boys’ club rather than the social, economic, environmental good that a project might bring to the valley.
To this day—fifteen years later– the Old Courtenay Junior School site sits vacant except for a small community garden thriving at one end of the lot. I don’t know what plans there are to develop the site. I know we have a different provincial government and I know we have recently elected the largest ever contingent of progressive councillors to Courtenay Council who are already talking about infill and vitalizing Courtenay’s downtown. And looking at all the for sale signs on store fronts in downtown Courtenay, it is obviously more pressing than ever to get on with plans that will put foot traffic on the downtown streets. And who now could oppose a Granville Island styled market/conference centre a short walking distance to the downtown.
Wouldn’t it be something if we could just bury the hatchets and work together for the social, economic and environmental well-being of our community?