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‘This is money that could be better spent’: $450,000 to restore Vancouver’s Oppenheimer Park

Click to play video 'Oppenheimer Park restoration costs estimated at $450,000' Oppenheimer Park restoration costs estimated at $450,000
After spending 18 months as a homeless encampment entrenched with drugs and crime, Vancouver's Oppenheimer Park is almost ready to reopen after a nearly half million dollar restoration - and as Kristen Robinson reports, there are concerns inaction on the city's current tent city will cost taxpayers even more – Sep 27, 2020

Vancouver’s Oppenheimer Park will soon undergo a “phased reopening” after an extensive and costly cleanup to erase any trace of its 18-month stint as a homeless camp.

The Downtown Eastside park has been fenced off since May, after the province took control and moved campers out as part of its response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Read more: Vancouver’s Oppenheimer Park faces long remediation before returning to public use

According to BC Housing, 261 people eventually moved out of the park and into temporary housing in hotels and community centres.

The City of Vancouver estimates it has since spent $450,000 on restoration at the site, including temporary fencing, grading and fixing grass areas, arboricultural work, playground repairs and rehabilitating historical and cultural elements. Not included is the cost of repairing the damage to the fieldhouse washrooms.

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“Certainly, this is money that could be better spent,” Coun. Pete Fry told Global News.

“This is going to be a bit of a blow and certainly we can anticipate a similar price tag for the inaction here on Strathcona Park.”

Click to play video 'Residents demand action on Strathcona Park encampment' Residents demand action on Strathcona Park encampment
Residents demand action on Strathcona Park encampment – Aug 8, 2020

As the city already struggles to tighten its belt under the pandemic, the growing tent city at Strathcona Park, only a 20-minute walk from Oppenheimer, is also on track to become a money pit for taxpayers, the Green Party councillor said.

Fry was eagerly anticipating a discussion on homeless camps at last week’s annual Union of B.C. Municipalities convention, but it was cancelled when the provincial election was called.

Any hopes of partnering with the province on a solution are now on hold, he said, until after the Oct. 24 vote.

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Click to play video 'Tent city encampment at Vancouver’s Oppenheimer Park finally cleared' Tent city encampment at Vancouver’s Oppenheimer Park finally cleared
Tent city encampment at Vancouver’s Oppenheimer Park finally cleared – May 9, 2020

The city is attempting to tackle homelessness on its own, with council set to receive a staff report on options for emergency shelters on Friday.

The staff report stems from a motion tabled earlier this month by Mayor Kennedy Stewart, who’s been heavily criticized for the Oppenheimer and Strathcona camps and has acknowledged the tensions between campers and homeowners are getting worse.

The motion called for city staff to explore options such as leasing or purchasing housing units, setting up temporary emergency relief camps on vacant land, and temporarily converting city-owned buildings into emergency housing or shelter space.

Read more: Vancouver mayor to table motion on ways to help homeless, including temporary camp

Lawyer Jamie Maclaren, who lives in Strathcona said continuing to throw cash at unsanctioned encampments is not the answer.

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“That [$450,000] could have been provided in the form of housing, temporary housing, rather than cleaning up parks,” Maclaren said.

He is one of more than 1,400 residents in the neighbourhood who’ve signed a petition threatening to withhold some of all of their property taxes, which are due on Wednesday, because of what they see as inaction from the city on urgent issues.

He said he believes taxpayers will be on the hook for a lot more than $450,000 to restore the Strathcona camp, which is now home to about 400 tents.

“It’s a much larger park… and it’s in a pretty bad state of disrepair,” said Maclaren, who is also part of a neighbourhood movement called Strathcona Stands for Safe Homes for All.

Read more: Homeless residents evicted from Victoria camp, told to go to 12 city parks

The group is organizing a protest on Tuesday morning to pressure governments to act on the unmanaged tent city.

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Meantime, the eastern edge of Oppenheimer Park is expected to be the first part to reopen sometime this fall.

In a statement, the Vancouver Park Board told Global News that staff are in the final phases of remediation.