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The Village A Train Ate

"Welcome to Cambie Village," the sign reads, amidst traffic barriers, tractors and empty stores strung along the road.

"Does this look like a village to you?" asked Simon Kim, 37, whose family-owned Don Don Noodle shop will soon close, another casualty of the Canada Line tunnel ripping a huge trench along Vancouver's Cambie Street.

"Driving by that banner, both my wife and I were just laughing. The village as it was is dying," Kim said.

An NDP MLA hopes new legislation might still rescue the village, sparking a sharp debate in the legislature earlier this week.

And as the toll mounts, some observers are pointing to Seattle as an example of how the whole easily predicted mess should have been handled.

'Bunch of dummies'

On Sunday morning, Simon Kim stood in the sun and listened to NDP MLA Gregor Robertson describe the Small Business Fairness and Protection Act he was submitting the next day. The bill would provide property tax relief and interest free loans to merchants rocked by the construction. Kim smiled sadly and said, "It's good. Gregor's a great guy. He's very well-intentioned. But it's too little, and too late."

At the 2005 launch of what was then called the RAV line, Vancouver's mayor-elect, Sam Sullivan, acknowledged that construction would mean "difficulties for our citizens and our businesses," but said everyone involved would "work hard to make sure we minimize these disruptions."

"They're treating us like a bunch of dummies," said Helmut Petri, who owns Montreux Jewels Ltd. on Cambie at 16th. "I don't think they've done a thing to minimize disruptions."

The line will be the third in Vancouver and will connect downtown Vancouver to Richmond and the international airport. In the beginning of the project, merchants were told that construction would move quickly from block to block and sidewalk access would be maintained. That was when public consultations led merchants to believe that construction would be bored tunnel. But when SNL-Lavalin got the contract to do the construction, the project shifted to the cheaper, more disruptive method of cut and cover.

When the method was revealed in winter of 2005, one city councillor accused RAV backers of pulling a "bait and switch" on citizens who would feel the impact.

Today, the tunneling is at the core of the sense of betrayal that shrouds the business closures, Petri said. It's taken far longer than many business owners say they were led to expect. It has snarled traffic and forced many smaller businesses to close as walk-in and drive-by customers have dwindled.

'Never said it'

Alan Dever is director of communications for the Canada Line. He sounds irritated when told that local business people believe they were deceived.

"I don't know who promised bored tunnel," he said. "The company doing the work never talked about a bored tunnel. In the winning perspective, they talked about making sure by the end of the project, there'd be a tunnel to the end of 64th. The company that won the bid never said it was going to be bored tunnel.

"I don't know that somebody didn't say it," Dever said with a laugh, "but not since the actual company has been selected to build the line, which is InTransit BC. They've never said it. It was never part of their plan."

Dever added that "Cambie Village has always struggled. Some businesses are closing, but a lot of new businesses are opening."

He cites the case of Tomato, a neighbourhood institution fleeing to the Kitsilano area of town. "Tomato Café is leaving but there's a restaurant moving in right away called Daddy O's from Edmonton. That space is going to be immediately filled."

Still, he says, "We know people are suffering there and that's why we are doing what we can to help."

Help has come in the form of a $1.3 million grant for marketing. "We've provided some communication and business liaison committees in Vancouver and Richmond with this money. We've said use it as you see fit to help through the construction period. We've provided money for window washing and for signage."

Saved in Seattle

Petri winces at the notion that $1.3 million is much help. "Look at Seattle," he says. "They know what help is."

Seattle is constructing a light rail line on a 14-mile route from downtown Seattle to Tukwila. Completion is scheduled for mid-2009. As with Cambie Village, many of the affected businesses in Seattle were owned by non-whites, primarily Asians, according to news reports.

But Seattle apparently took a much more proactive approach to making sure businesses had a chance to survive the loss of traffic and that the area retained its character.

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