2005 Mayoral candidate Jim Green’s Woodward’s site was the love of his life

Saturday, July 28th, 2007

Frances Bula

Jim Green’s office overlooks the love of his life, the Woodward’s site, in downtown Vancouver. Green has moved on after his failed bid to become mayor of Vancouver in 2005. Photograph by : Bill Keay, Vancouver Sun

Twice-failed Vancouver mayoral candidate Jim Green, 64, shown at Panama Jack’s on Howe Street, works as a planning consultant. Photograph by : Steve Bosch, Vancouver Sun, Files

When Jim Green lost his bid to be mayor of Vancouver on Nov. 19, 2005, Rob Macdonald was one of the first people to call him the next day.

Not what some might have expected from Macdonald: avowed champion of free enterprise, major developer, contributor of many tens of thousands to the B.C. Liberals.

When he called, Macdonald thanked Green for his service to the city. Green thanked him for his vote. Macdonald, in his retelling of that conversation, said, “Oh, I didn’t vote for you. I voted for the other guys. But you did a good job for the city.”

On the basis of that peculiar conversation, the two got together for lunch the next day. It was the first time Macdonald, arch-capitalist, and Green, champion of the Downtown Eastside, had ever sat down together like that, although they had had contact over a couple of Macdonald’s other projects that had come to council. It was also one of the rare outings Green had in the weeks after an election loss that was the biggest personal defeat of his life, one that still aches like an amputated limb in spite of his best efforts to maintain a state of zen calm.

Green and Macdonald ended up spending two hours talking about development and social housing.

The result of that lunch, a year and a half later, is that Macdonald’s company, with Green as the consultant, has put in a detailed 50-page application to the city’s planning department for a tower on East Hastings at Carrall that would combine 200 market condos with 66 social-housing apartments.

That kind of project is a first not only for Macdonald but for any private developer in the city.

Green calls it revolutionary.

Macdonald calls Jim Green an interesting guy: “I really enjoy immensely working with Jim. He’s been just a great teacher and I’ve tried to be a decent student. He does a tremendous job.”

This is Jim Green’s new life. The man who has been a longshoreman, cab driver, marine boilermaker, social activist, government bureaucrat, university teacher, and politician is, for the first time in his life, an independent businessman and freelance urban-ideas guy.

He is working with a handful of developers, from those he’s had a long association with, like Bastion, to new alliances, like Macdonald, typically on projects that have a heritage or affordable-housing component to them. He’s fundraising for the Vancouver East Cultural Centre and working on a proposal for an aboriginal housing project.

He’s part of a team that put in a pitch to do a master plan for Fort McMurray in Alberta, currently the top Canadian contender for City That’s Growing So Explosively That It’s A Complete Mess. He’s kickstarted a little non-profit called Urban Solutions, whose goal is to bring discussions about big ideas to the city.

To his surprise, he’s making more money than he ever has in his 64-year life. He’s even got an assistant and an office.

But it’s not just any office, some functional place to put a desk and a phone. Instead, it’s a shrine to the life of Jim Green.

From his third-floor window in the Dominion Building, Green can look out over most of his life’s work: the Woodward’s project across the street, which is at the moment mostly a deep hole in the ground, and all the social housing he got built when he worked with the Downtown Eastside Residents Association and, later, as a bureaucrat in Glen Clark’s NDP government: Four Sisters, Pendera, Solheim Place, Bruce Ericksen, Lore Krill.

And the room is filled with such a dense and personal collection of memorabilia, artwork, books and music that being in it feels eerily like walking around in Green’s brain.

There are hundreds of books — on architecture, urbanism and cultural theory — lining the walls and stacked on tables.

Postcards from the Fred Herzog photo exhibit of 1950s Vancouver, a Carmen poster, and primitive masks.

Pictures of Green with everyone who’s been important in his life, from the magazine cover showing him with then-mayor Larry Campbell as though they were in a boxing ring to snapshots of him with Jane Jacobs.

The sound system is tuned to CBC and classical music, while a CD of Arvo Part, the composer whose music has the meditative quality of trickling water, sits on top of a stack of books nearby.

All of which are consolations and a way to stay balanced in what Green admits has been a painful 18 months since he lost to the NPA’s Sam Sullivan by fewer than 5,000 votes.

It was his second try at being mayor, but this more recent defeat was far more bitter than the earlier one.

In 1990, Green was unequivocally seen as the champion of the poor and the hero of the left. Even coming as close as he did to beating

Gordon Campbell was a triumph of sorts.

The big issue of the day was housing, from the old men who had been evicted from their hotels in the Downtown Eastside for Expo 86 to old ladies being evicted from their three-storey apartments in Kerrisdale. And Green was the housing crusader.

Green’s opponents painted him as a single-issue candidate and hinted that he was a socialist. That was about as nasty as it got.

Gordon Campbell told reporters that Green was “a worthy opponent — he’s someone who’s done a good job in the Downtown Eastside.”

In another campaign story, then-NPA alderman Gordon Price commented, “I like him, but I think he comes from too narrow an interest group. If he were mayor, it would be a most interesting learning experience at the expense of the city.”

In the official biography of the Coalition of Progressive Electors, Green was a champion.

“In the best campaign that COPE ever had, [Green] almost made it, sending shivers of fright down the collective spine of the Establishment,” was the description of that election year.

The 2005 campaign was utterly different.

Green, inheriting the mantle from departing mayor Larry Campbell, was seen to have a chance of winning, in spite of the fact that he and Campbell, along with others, had split from COPE and formed a new party.

He had the support (and money) of several prominent developers in town, a track record on council, and a somewhat unpopular Liberal government in Victoria — crucial factors in civic politics.

But the election turned into one of the nastiest on record, one where personal issues played a much bigger part than policy on both sides. Green was attacked, not for being a socialist or a one-issue candidate, but on all kinds of other fronts.

Green, who always has been a contradictory mix of prickly and mentoring, pugnacious and philosophical, gracious and contemptuous, was accused of being a bully. The flamboyant Jamie Lee Hamilton dredged up stories about financial allegations from the early 1990s, when Green was head of the Downtown Eastside Residents Association, and posted innuendoes about his personal life.

Old enemies from fractious Downtown Eastside battles came out to denounce him, and it was clear, in informal conversations with longtime left-wing voters, that Green had generated a considerable list of enemies over the years.

There were problems, too, on his own side of the political fence. COPE and Vision candidates tried to patch up their differences for the election and run a cooperative slate, but COPE Coun. Tim Louis let it be known in many ways that he didn’t support Green and he encouraged people to vote for Green’s opponent. Longtime COPE supporters saw Green as someone who had betrayed the party and become too friendly with developers.

There were also quiet, personal defections in that 2005 campaign. Green had been friends with retired architecture professor Abraham Rogatnick for a long time; one of the many pictures in Green’s office shows him with Rogatnick. But in the 2005 campaign, Rogatnick decided he would support Sullivan. He was constantly at his side during the campaign and ran personal ads supporting him.

And then, finally, the campaign was clouded by the presence of a candidate by the name of James Green, a former music teacher who insisted he had a chance to become the mayor. He pulled in almost 5,000 votes — slightly more votes than Jim Green lost by — to the delight of the NPA and the dismay of Jim Green and his party.

Friends and colleagues say Green was shattered, not just by the defeat, but by the particularly personal nature of it.

“I think because of the way the election happened, it was pretty devastating for him,” says Heather Redfern, the director of the Vancouver East Cultural Centre.

Green spent a month in England almost immediately after the election. Since returning, he has tried determinedly to keep it behind him.

He has not been inside city hall once since his last meeting there as a councillor on Dec. 5, 2005.

That’s in contrast to James Green, who has made occasional appearances in council chambers, occasionally sitting next to Jamie Lee Hamilton, and has emerged recently as a public spokesman for the Little Mountain social-housing residents.

Jim Green even tries to be philosophical about the limitations of city council.

“I have a lot more control over my time and my schedule,” he says now. In a way, it’s an ideal life. “I get to do all the things I like to do, to bring some kind of a vision to what people are doing. I don’t have to gear up for a battle. There are certain ways the city works that are really dysfunctional.”

He still finds it puzzling that city councillors might end up having no say at all in a development worth $1 billion, yet end up sitting through hours of debate over something like speed bumps on a residential street.

And he shows genuine pleasure in being able to use his personal time for creative projects. He’s writing a book called Glass Bridges about “my work and the work of people I admire, like Jane Jacobs and Phyllis Lambert.”

He is writing a paper on culture and economics for the University of Bologna, where he spent some time last year.

And he is working on his favourite projects, like getting people from the Downtown Eastside to the opera and teaching them all about it before they go to the performance.

That last one is all part of his practical application of the theory of activation, which says that getting people engaged and interested in culture builds a city.

“If you can activate people, it builds social cohesion.”

But in spite of all his enthusiastic talk about these projects and more, it doesn’t take a psychiatry degree to figure out that this guy who is always restless to see things happen, to be part of the mover-shaker class, to get public acclaim for what he’s done, would love to have even the dysfunctional power that a Vancouver mayor has.

“I think I could have done a lot as mayor,” he muses aloud. “I don’t know. I feel like I’m doing a lot, though I could do a lot more.”

He still works hard to exert some influence. He had a personal meeting with Vanoc CEO John Furlong earlier this year, urging him to take more of a leadership role in making sure that the 2010 Olympics meets the commitments it made not to have a negative impact on the inner city.

He started up a new group, called Urban Solutions, as a way of showcasing speakers and ideas that he likes, especially the concept he’s pushing these days of reciprocal development — development that brings together developers and neighbourhoods in a collaborative way to create projects that ultimately benefit both.

And he clearly loves the sense of being in on big projects and working with developers and architects, although he concedes that it’s not always easy to define what he’s doing with them.

“I think they look to me for creative solutions, a creative way of looking at things. There’s no sense in coming to me if they already know what they’re going to do,” says Green.

The hardest part of his life right now, he says, is that “50 times a day, people say, ‘Jim, you were robbed.’ You try not to think about it. But you keep being pulled back to that consciousness.”

So, did that election loss change him profoundly, make him more reflective or alter his view of life?

There’s a pause.

“I’ll tell you one thing about your question,” he finally answers. “I don’t feel like I lost the election.”

And that statement says it all, both for those who think it tells you everything you need to know about the the current state of politics in the city and those who think it tells you everything you need to know about Jim Green.

© The Vancouver Sun 2007


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