Vancouver’s Cottonwood Community Gardens is not a typical community garden space where raised beds line up in neat rows and space for fruit trees is set off to one side.
In Cottonwood, which sits on a pie-shaped slice of city-owned land just off Malkin Avenue on the south edge of Strathcona Park, curved paths meander through a mix of 150 garden plots and mature trees. There is an Asian plant section with a mulberry tree producing fruit that tastes a bit like raspberry, a huge kiwi arbour and Asian plums. Another portion is reserved for native plant species: cedar, birch and bitter cherry. There is a wildness about the place that is in keeping with its origins – it was founded in 1992 by guerrilla gardeners from Strathcona and Grandview Woodlands, neighbourhoods known for producing fine yields of political activists.
So it comes as no surprise that when the previous city council announced intentions to reclaim a hefty slice of the garden lands to build a new arterial road along Malkin, it was met by a highly organized resistance from the neighbours. A petition to save the garden was signed by 15,000 people who value this splash of inner-city green.
The arterial is no small project. Costs could range anywhere from $65-million to $485-million, depending on the route. All options connect Clark Drive to Main Street and will include an overpass or underpass to avoid train tracks that now stall traffic multiple times a day. It must also align with the new St. Paul’s Hospital site further to the west.
Joining the fight against the city’s preferred Malkin route are the fresh fruit and vegetable distributors whose warehouses front the street, commonly referred to as Produce Row. If Malkin becomes an arterial, four businesses would be forced out because trucks could no longer stop and back into driveways. Produce Row business owners say as many as 1,000 jobs could be lost.
The last thing the previous city council wanted right before a municipal election was a big fight with local businesses or community activists. So, it kicked the process over to a 42-person community panel to study four routes and recommend the best option. Early this month, the panel announced its choice along National Avenue, which is the most circuitous and by far the most expensive. The route calls for a bridge across the tracks joining Clark Drive at Charles Street and would cost the city about $200-million more than the Malkin option. That kind of money could build a top-notch recreation centre with a pool or about 1,000 units of social housing in renovated hotels.
There are definite upsides to the National choice. That route leaves Produce Row businesses undisturbed, would save the Cottonwood Gardens and turn Prior back into a quiet residential street. But Vancouver’s new city council must ask themselves if they can justify spending this kind of money to buy peace.
It is understandable why the Cottonwood gardeners would hate to see 40 per cent or more of their green space ceded to blacktop. Before they descended on the area with trowels in hand, the area was a blackberry-infested dumping ground, says Len Kydd, a construction worker who has volunteered at the garden for 20 years. Residents hauled out bins of junk, tilled the soil and transformed the space. And even though they knew the permissions were temporary, after 27 years, the garden now feels permanent.
Still, even Mr. Kydd’s love for the garden doesn’t blind him to the fact the National route is a big ask. He rather hopes council takes a hard look at the panel’s second choice, which is to keep the arterial where it is now on Prior and tunnel under the train tracks. The Prior Street option, although the cheapest, isn’t optimal. It would continue to separate Strathcona residents from their park space, increase neighbourhood traffic and break a promise to quiet the street.
Which brings us back to Malkin, the city’s initial choice. At $200-million less than the National route chosen by the panel, it represents an enormous savings.
And as heart wrenching as it will be to lose part of the garden and as disruptive as it will be to Produce Row, over all it improves the Strathcona neighbourhood and it’s probably the inevitable choice.