Smoke on the Plaza

You know what’s gross? Smoking.

This will shock many of my readers (but not one: hi Mom!) who think “NWimby” and “Clean Living” are synonymous, but I was once a smoker, Off and on for most of my teenage years and early 20s. I started in High School, the same as my siblings and my parents. Strangely, I would quit during the summer to bike race, start again in the winter. I did this pretty much until I met a girl who meant more to me than the MacDonald Lassie; a few years after high school.

I was lucky, in that I just don’t have addictive tendencies. It was just as easy for me to quit cold turkey as it was to pick up a pack of smokes and start again. Once I got old enough and smart enough to think about it, smoking was a bad idea- socially, economically, health-wise. I just stopped, and it was easy for me to do. I was lucky.

So, like many former smokers, I am a bit of a militant anti-smoker. The stuff isn’t good for you, and it really stinks up any environment where it is introduced. Funny how I used to sit in a car and smoke, now I am offended if the guy in front of me in traffic smokes and I have to smell that distant scent from the little bit that works its way to my car’s vents. I’m like a bloodhound for the stuff.

Then there’s the trash. We are, in British Columbia, in 2012, pretty much a post-litter society. Someone opening up a candy wrapper and tossing it on the ground is a rare enough event that it would turn heads and elicit comment from adjacent people. We don’t throw our used fast food containers out the window of our car. But it is still normal to see someone take that last, satisfying puff of a cancer stick, and flick it to the ground on the sidewalk, or toss it from the car window, like it is someone else’s problem to clean up.

The Shoreline Cleanups count cigarette butts as the single most common piece of litter, by far. There were no less than three fires last summer along Stewardson Way related to discarded butts, and all you need to do is look in any storm drain or along any poorly maintained roadside, and you will see that 90% of the gunk accumulating along the curb is cigarette filters.Gross.

Stricken from restaurants and bars, from pubic buildings and most homes, smokers are stuck on the street, smoking outside doorways (but not within 3 m!). I can only think of two bars in New West that still have a place where you can sit (outside), have a beer and a smoke. And I sit inside whenever I am at either of them. But you can’t escape the smell. There has been much Twitter space complaining about the smokers in the underground bus mall at Plaza88 The Shops at New Westminster Station (I have seen the bus loop referred to as the most expensive and dankest smoking lounge in the City).

And then there is the gauntlet of smokers you need to run to get into the London Drugs in Uptown New West.

There was a recent letter to the editor of the Record suggesting BC is the only province that still allows the sale of cigarettes in Pharmacies, and this should change. The thinking is that Pharmacies are “health care businesses”, and the sales of cigarettes are a violation of whatever the Pharmacy version of the Hippocratic Oath is.

Even the Premier was asked about this by The Tyee in a recent interview. And I have to give Premier McSparklestm credit: she makes a good point regarding the role of Pharmacies as some special type of retailer in the world of the London Drugs Electronics section and Walmart prescription counters.

That said, I would argue the exact opposite of the letter writer. I am starting to think Pharmacies are the only place that should sell cigarettes. The entire purpose of the Pharmacist is to distribute potentially-harmful drugs in a regulated way to prevent their misapplication, misuse or abuse. I offer the opinion that cigarettes are little more than harmful drug delivery systems. Nicotine is a powerful, addictive neurotoxin. For the vast majority, smoking is not a habit, it is a chemical addiction, little different than alcoholism or heroin. Perhaps we can start treating it like an addiction.

The BCLiberals, again to their credit, have made a few positive steps in this direction: the Province supports smoking cessation programs as part of its health plan, which is a pretty progressive position to take. This seems a rational approach to health-care policy, which I suspect has a strong business case behind it (lung cancer and emphysema are really expensive to manage, and cost the health care system a lot of money).

The next logical step may be to start selling cigarettes over the counter like other lethal drugs. No prescription needed, but only sold to adults, up to a carton at a time, and every package includes smoking cessation information and important information about use and contra-indications, just like any dangerous and addictive drug. It is part of moving smoking further from the mainstream, and more like the fringe activity it really has become.

In the meantime, back to London Drugs in Uptown; the one you cannot currently get into without second-hand smoking a Dunhill or two. I was at an open house a couple of weeks ago put on the Uptown Property Group. They were showing plans to re-invent that plaza space at 555 Sixth Street. Apparently, the owners of the complex recognize the loitering smoker problem there, the impact on their customers, and have not been able to fix it.

They have put up No Smoking signs (ignored), have their own security guys go out there regularly (similarly ignored). As this a problem impacting is both private and public property, they have found no relief from Bylaw Officers or the Police (unfortunately, Provincial smoking laws are enforced by the Health Department- when’s the last time you met a Health Department cop?) It seems an unmanageable situation.

So UPG decided to apply some CPTED principles, and do a re-design of the plaza. Looking over the drawings included with the Report to Council (the same drawings were shown at the Open House), the plan is to remove the planters and seating under cover in front of the entrance of London Drugs, and retain seating only on the patio in front of Starbucks – and that only accessible from within the Starbucks (making the non-smoking rule much more likely to be respected). Besides opening up the court yard, they wanted to expand the surface out towards the street and add some feature lighting, a couple of trees, and tile designs in order to make it a nice open space.

The Plan from the Council Report (click to zoom)

I thought of comparisons to Plaza88 The Shops at New Westminster Station. The proposed patio is like the new north entrance to Plaza88 TS@NWS between the Tim Horton’s and the Old Spaghetti Factory. I can only hope the newly-fenced-in Starbucks seating will not look like the Plaza88 TS@NWS Safeway Starbucks, which is currently the best-defended deck space in the City. Plans for the opened-up space include introduction of public art, with the bonus that it would provide another stage space for Uptown Live and the Hyack Parade. It would be a half-covered, open, well-lit, modern and inviting space for humans, without being the unofficial smoking zone it is now.

I was surprised to hear Council discussing this at Committee in the Whole last week, and watching the video of the exchange, the surprise began to turn to dismay when it was clear how negative the reaction was from Council (why weren’t UPG there to defend their reasoning?). You can see the video here, by choosing the December 10 Committee of the Whole meeting. The conversation on this topic starts at 1:00:50.

I want to make a couple of points based on that discussion:

• Parking spots? We are worried about 3 parking spots? Look at the picture on Page 2 of the report to Council I linked to above – does that look like a spot where the loss of three (3) parking spots is going to hurt business? There are a thousand parking spots insdie and out within a block. Not ot mention it is, after all, the most prominent business looking to remove them;

• The topic of the length of the bus stop across the street is not relevant to the discussion. Whether this project happens or not has no effect on the bus stops across the street;

• Opening up and modernizing a public plaza is not an assault on the poor. People “having a cup of coffee smoking a cigarette, whatever they are doing” is NOT  “entirely appropriate” when they are sitting in front a no smoking sign two metres from the entrance to a business. It is illegal, and does not make the space more livable;

• Assuming that the City’s “progressive laws” will fix the problems at the site ignores that those same laws have not yet solved the issues at the site, nor are they solving the problem at the Plaza88 bus loop or other places where smokers are impacting people. If panhandling is an issue here, if smokers ignore the signs, the business requests to butt out, then how does that square with the need for our “aging population” to feel safe?

• This is not public space being turned over to a private owner, and it clearly is NOT a “private benefit” by any reasonable definition. We are talking about converting space dedicated to public parking into space dedicated to public walking and standing… how does that make it a private benefit? Is every parking space, bicycle rack, bus stop in front of a business a private benefit?

• There is no “pedestrian safety” concern at the crosswalk at the location. If cars are sometimes forced to wait for people to cross the street, sometimes for tens of seconds, that is not a “safety issue”. To me, it is effective use of pedestrian space, and one of the safest crosswalks in the City. The only safety issue is the parking spot across the street that is clearly a violation of section 400.13 of the City’s Street Traffic Bylaw 6027 (go ahead, look it up!)

As usual, I offer my usual caveat that I am working from public info and a short conversation with UPG coming out of the Open House, and maybe there is stuff going on here behind the scenes of which I am not aware, but I take what people say at face value. I was initially hoping that UPG would come to Council and provide a little more guidance towards their thinking here, and how these changes will address a real problem, while adding a public asset. However, talk around the knitting circle suggests the plans have been withdrawn due to resistance from Council. It seems to be there is a lost opportunity here. UPG may do some similar improvements on their own property (the City may bit be able to stop them), but any plans to make the 500 Block of 6th Street a more open, public, friendly and open space, without the need for non-smokers to hold their breath through it.

Alas, before they take the smokes out of the Pharmacy, they can find a way to get the Pharmacy out from behind a wall of smoke, and that’s really all I want.

One comment on “Smoke on the Plaza

  1. Interesting post, Pat. To answer your questions:
    1. we did not know this application was going to council and thus did not have the opportunity to explain the project and the rationale, or to answer Council’s questions and concerns.
    2. yes we have withdrawn our application and will keep our renovations limited to that portion of the project that is on private property and for which we do not need city approval.
    Thus, hopefully you will still see a significant improvement in this area once the renovations are completed in Febuary 2013.

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