Profile: West Vancouver Mayor Pamela Goldsmith-Jones

June 2, 2011

In a crisp January evening in West Vancouver, architect James Cheng is working the PowerPoint projector. He begins his pitch to the packed municipal hall with banal images of Ambleside, the stagnant stretch of the city's main drag. Then he clicks to a shot of the seaside cafés of Mykonos, full of retsina-swilling incarnations of Zorba the Greek. This, he explains, is what it could be like. The audience bursts out laughing-perhaps not the intended reaction-and Cheng clicks to the next image: the seaside cafés of Portofino, full of Chianti-swilling incarnations of Marcello Mastroianni. The crowd guffaws more loudly, and even Cheng cracks a smile. He's here to sell the so-called AmblesideNow initiative, a major proposal that would see the 1300 block of Marine Drive redeveloped, with master planning and much of the architecture done by Cheng himself. Councillor Trish Panz turns to him: "The input from this community, I expect, will be robust."

Pamela Goldsmith-Jones, West Van's effervescent 49-year-old mayor, takes the floor to give the crowd her full-throttle endorsement. "To have a glass of wine and head to a gallery, after 7 o'clock," she says. "That would be marvellous."

There's much more at stake here than a few glasses of plonk at sunset. In West Van, this kind of urban revitalization requires a paradigm shift some regard as heresy: namely, to loosen the height and density policies on a placid low-rise part of Ambleside to allow four-storey buildings, with a few even higher. The spike in residential density would in turn attract more offices, retail, arts and entertainment activity, and create nightlife-it would challenge the community's self-image as a twee little coastal village. It's the biggest and hardest sell in the mayor's string of big ideas, which include buying back and grooming waterfront properties for the public, and entrenching a forest conservation plan for much of the mountainside. It will shape the trajectory of both the district and her own career. As West Van prepares for its centenary, Goldsmith-Jones is deciding whether to run for a third term this November. She plans to announce her decision in July. If her approach is embraced, she says she'll take that as a vote of confidence to run again. If not…

The mayor is enormously popular among many of the tastemakers who live in West Van. Her standard attire-flouncy dress, stiletto pumps, and Jackie Kennedy-style bob-evokes the best of midcentury flair. She laughs easily, and seems to know everyone. "She's incredibly down to earth, wildly generous with her time and spirit, and knows everything about West Coast design and art," says artist and writer Douglas Coupland, who lives in a Ron Thom house nestled in a Westmount glade. "I'm totally with Pam," says Nancy Bendtsen, of Inform Interiors in Gastown, who crosses the Lions Gate Bridge every day. "We need density. We used to have two theatres, a bowling alley-and now we're losing what we used to have. Just go along Marine Drive-half the stores have closed because of Park Royal."

Ah yes, Park Royal. Leased and developed by the wealthy Lalji family, the humungous shopping centre at the city's eastern border is a force the genteel forefathers never had to reckon with. With its burly adjacent towers and Disneyish façade, the mall is a magnet for long-time residents. Its northern section belongs to West Vancouver, but the bulk of it-almost everything south of Marine Drive-is on Squamish territory.

The relationship with the Squamish is another prickly issue. AmblesideNow wouldn't involve Park Royal or the Squamish directly, but future development at the mall could have a big impact on what happens down the street: high-rises at Park Royal (beyond council control) could sour voters on other high-density projects; they could also vacuum up more businesses along Marine Drive. The district's only power lies in its usefulness as an urban consultant, its willingness to share infrastructure like sewer mains and water reservoirs, and its ability to sell both to the Squamish Nation. Dealing with the sometimes complementary, sometimes conflicting wishes of so many stakeholders requires a strong, hands-on personality to bring all parties onside, says Bendtsen. "And Pam is absolutely the right person for the job."

Not everyone is so sure. Some residents bemoan the glacial pace of policy development and rezoning strategy in West Van. (Well, says Goldsmith-Jones, the pace in West Van is different.) Some were disappointed when the ambitious Deep Cove-to-Horseshoe Bay bike lane was stopped at Dundarave because of neighbourhood objections. (Goldsmith-Jones says she picks her battles carefully, and the extra length of bike lane wasn't worth scuttling a dedicated path all the way from Deep Cove to Ambleside.) Many are aghast at the Stonecliff development-two 15-storey towers near the Upper Levels Highway, erected on the privately owned British Pacific Properties (BPP) but approved and built earlier-while Goldsmith-Jones was on council. But what looks to some like a harbinger of environmental armageddon is actually a West Van version of EcoDensity: in exchange for allowing those heights, the district received 30 acres of protected land. The reality is that BPP has the right to build a sprawl of single-family homes almost all the way to Horseshoe Bay. Right now, Goldsmith-Jones and her team are considering more high-rises in the area. That plan-allowing up to a dozen apartment buildings, with the tallest as high as 12 storeys-would also bring a massive eco-benefit: protection of more than half of the lush, 215-acre forest that BPP might otherwise develop.

Building high in Ambleside, though, might prove even more daunting. Councillor Bill Soprovich supported the AmblesideNow motion in principle, but he says that like many West Van residents, he wouldn't support more than five storeys-maybe six-in the neighbourhood. "Look, we don't want Ambleside to go the way of downtown Vancouver," he says. "We don't want a high-rise philosophy on the waterfront. This is the last bastion of low-slung buildings."

A few weeks later, Goldsmith-Jones and her communications manager, Jessica Delaney, are workshopping what she'll say on CBC Radio. Stephen Quinn will be asking her about Metro Vancouver's regional growth plan; Delaney role-plays a radio host, and the mayor polishes her rejoinders. Delaney appears happy with the rehearsals: "I just want to make sure I haven't set you up for confrontation."

Confrontation-the bread-and-butter of many a politician-is sour milk to Goldsmith-Jones. In her office, between books on Bill Reid and B.C. Binning, is Roberta's Rules of Order, a riposte to the management stalwart Robert's Rules of Order, which stresses rigidity, sternness, power-tripping. Roberta's rules, by contrast, offer themes like "a kinder, gentler way of chairing a meeting."

"My style is definitely consensual," says Goldsmith-Jones, "and I love to be challenged in that way. An adversarial system presumes that people want to see a fight-a winner and a loser." But on the North Shore, she points out, "we don't have a party system, so I don't have the luxury of Gregor [Robertson] and Dianne [Watts], who can walk into a council chamber and count on x number of people supporting them."

"People don't see the tough me," she adds, "because I use it behind the scenes and I use it sparingly." Case in point: two years ago, she stared down then-transportation minister Kevin Falcon when he suggested a standard split (feds, province, district) of the $42-million cost to replace the crumbling Old Bailey Bridge that connects to the Lions Gate. She insisted Victoria and Ottawa cover all replacement costs. He acquiesced.

In the end, the biggest redevelopment project in West Van's history may well come down to this: can you be a patient consensus builder and still see your vision realized? Although the January council meeting netted much conditional support and the James Cheng presentation at municipal hall went well, the mayor's the battle has just begun.

Goldsmith-Jones's roots go back to the district's embryonic days: Alexander Law, her maternal great-grandfather, was an architect who came to West Vancouver from Scotland in 1906. Pam Fletcher, as she was born, attended West Vancouver Secondary and then commuted to UBC to earn a degree in political science. In 1984 she married Geoffrey Goldsmith-Jones and settled in Ambleside. While he studied building technology at BCIT, she sold AES word processors-"teaching people how to use email, in the days when you could email one person only." Restless for greater challenges, she returned to UBC for her poli-sci master's degree while starting a family: "I had three children just like that: boom, boom, boom."

In 1990, they bought a house in North Van, where she made her first foray into politics. She'd noticed the anemic state of her neighbourhood retail strip, Edgemont Village, where half the shops were for lease or going out of business. She cofounded the Edgemont Village Community Association and then, in 1992, won a seat on North Van council. The council charged up the listless retail enclave by rezoning an old gas-station site into a three-storey mixed-use complex.
The couple bought a house in West Van's Caulfeild neighbourhood in 1999. Then Geoff was offered a contract in San Francisco, and for two years they lived in Muir Beach, an enclave north of the city. Living in a community of 100 people, she says, where everyone knew each other and collaboration was key, helped sharpen her political instincts.

Returning to Caulfeild in 2002, she won a seat on West Van council. But she came to realize the only way to bring on the procedural change she wanted was to go for the top job; "I thought I could do a better job with engaging the people." She was elected mayor in 2005, trouncing incumbent Ron Wood, and won re-election more narrowly three years later against a rival who had promised a three-year tax freeze.

Taxes are a more emotional and contentious issue here than elsewhere. In February at the Hollyburn Club-the tony squash-and-golf emporium in the British Properties that's the epicentre of North Shore power-schmoozing-the mayor glides around the room. The crowd is thick with developers, arts advocates, planners, and local politicians. Many, for their own interests, are keen on the revitalization scheme. She greets them with a melodic "Hiiii!" the same way she greets everyone.

Although West Van is one of the wealthiest communities in Canada, its citizens seem obsessed with tax freezes and public-purse parsimony. As one woman at the soiree explains with a wink: "That's how we got rich in the first place, baby!" However much these somebodies would like to see more amenities and a beautiful new arts complex, they do not want to pay for it through a spike in property taxes. And in West Van, an astounding 94 percent of district revenue comes from residential property taxes. (In Vancouver, residential taxes account for less than half of city revenues.)
The mayor takes the stage and formally pitches AmblesideNow-it's the chance, she says, to create a vibrant downtown core in the heart of West Van. "As long as we can harness the value embedded in the land, this won't cost one penny for the taxpayer," she reassures the crowd. She's referring to density bonusing but avoiding the term.

"Density is a nasty word around here," allows West Van's chief planner, Bob Sokol. Whereas Sam Sullivan's EcoDensity program was touted with loud fanfare, AmblesideNow mutes the pitch. That's partly because West Van culture is more soft-spoken and formal, but also because West Van is a unique beast. A 1927 council motion enshrined the district as an industry-free zone. That's why you don't see factories or warehouses clogging up Marine Drive. Or much else either: no Wal-Marts, no Burger Kings, and-more tragically-hardly any decent wine bars or coffeehouses open at night. Nor, unsurprisingly, many young adults: most of the 20- and 30-somethings have been scared away by soaring housing costs and, well, the sheer boredom of living in a twee coastal village.

Some weeks later, the mayor's at ground zero: Marine Drive. At one end of the 1300 block is the police station, a once-elegant Ron Thom low-rise that, like so many 1950s and '60s-era icons, is literally falling apart. Last September, part of its roof flooded, knocking out the force's communications system and forcing the West Van police to camp out for a spell in North Vancouver. The street is all ragtag concrete, parked cars, and urban detritus. The mayor points out the major sites of the grand new vision: both sides of the 1300 block, and, about a kilometre away, part or all of the area adjacent to the current municipal hall. This latter section includes the 1939 faux-Scottish-castle stone house that's jury-rigged into service as the West Vancouver Museum.

Grosvenor, the developer, already owns roughly half the 1300 block; West Van owns most of the rest. If the district lets Grosvenor densify its half, the developer will in exchange pay for a lot of stuff West Van badly needs: an integrated public safety building-cop shop, ambulance dispatcher, and fire hall rolled into one-likely next to the municipal hall, and a new arts facility in keeping with the West Van Museum's growing prestige and ambitions.

The municipality, which over the past several years has been steadily buying up Ambleside's remaining waterfront properties, would preserve the waterfront as public park space, with plenty of open green around the Silk Purse and Ferry Building galleries. Meanwhile, the Grosvenor-Cheng team would receive a whack of density bonusing and height allowance. The bonusing could, for instance, allow Grosvenor to build two modest high-rises and several multi-unit mixed-use buildings between the water and Marine Drive-or some other configuration hammered out after citizen feedback. "What's important," Cheng explained in January, citing Coal Harbour and False Creek North, "is the spaces on the ground between towers."

So far, so good: as the architect of Vancouver's Shangri-La tower, and scores of other admired buildings around the world, Cheng is renowned as a high-rise artisan, a virtuoso architect sensitive to view and proportion. He's not slated to design the new arts facility or cop shop, but as the designer of the new higher-rise development that would pay for them, his role and talents are paramount. "Part of this initiative," says the mayor, "is to set the bar high."

The hoped-for result would be a dense, vibrant, and architecturally elegant mixed-use enclave. "My two cents would be a request that they acknowledge and make the most of the ocean that's there," says Douglas Coupland. "Virtually anything's an improvement over what's already there."

A tangle of ivy and brush dangles over the Goldsmith-Jones cedar-shake cottage hugging the edge of Marine Drive. I've arrived early for our evening appointment, and as I walk up the garden path, the sound of a piano ripples through the air. When the mayor finishes playing, I knock on the door. I ask the name of the lovely piece she was playing and she heads back to the den to check the title: a Simon and Garfunkel tune, "America."

The Goldsmith-Jones home, a modest 1,800 square feet, is spare and clean, with mullioned windows, fir flooring, Gordon Smith prints on the wall, and tea candles aglow on the credenza. Geoff is on his way to a fundraiser where Pam will join him; she jumps up to offer him a ticket and see if there's anything else he needs. Her unfailing, deferential friendliness is clearly no act.

Before long we head off in her 1998 Volvo station wagon for the evening's activities: an Olympic park bench dedication, then the fashion-show fundraiser in Horseshoe Bay. There's a folksy, small-town vibe at Trolls Restaurant: the models are aged 10 to 93, the wine is served in plastic glasses, the chatter is pleasant and easy.

For the fashion show, the mayor dons an off-the-shoulder black cocktail dress and struts down an imaginary catwalk as the crowd oohs, ahhs, and claps madly. The joint is still vibrating with music and laughter when I hop on the 8:35 bus at the Horseshoe Bay terminal. Back in Vancouver, I Google the lyrics of the Simon and Garfunkel ballad the mayor played. It starts like this: "Let us be lovers, we'll marry our fortunes together/I've got some real estate here in my bag."
A couple of months later, the Amble­sideNow team showcases the fruits of its public consultations during an open house at the West Van Community Centre. The mayor thanks everybody for their wonderful ideas, vividly scrawled on dozens of posters and whiteboards around the atrium. The sketches depict what you might expect (artist live-work studios, sidewalk espresso bars, bike rentals), plus a few things that seem quintessentially West Van (rooftop yoga lounge, "rhododendron showcase").

James Cheng presides over a table topped with a map of Ambleside and multisized stacks of blue styrofoam blocks-stand-ins for buildings. As citizens relay their concerns over this building's location or that building's height, Cheng repositions the blocks like a casino dealer moving stacks of chips on a roulette table.

Meanwhile, Goldsmith-Jones, as usual, hobnobs with everyone, including a group of high-school kids in the lounge down the hall. Then, as the sky outside darkens, she slips away. It's after 7, and she's heading to a friend's house, for some conversation and a glass of wine.

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