Cost of remediating Victoria parks incalculable until work completes

As hundreds of unhoused people have moved into indoor sheltering this year, the City of Victoria is working to restore a dozen parks following months of 24/7 sheltering.

The director of Victoria's parks, recreation and facilities says staff are focusing on hazard removal and minor landscape repairs – like replacing surface soil and grass. But the full scope of the work and cost of it won’t be clear until later this year when a report is expected before council.

"I wouldn’t want to see them spend a lot of money," said Stadacona Park neighbor, Laurie Hashizume. "As long as it’s safe for people to use and the grassy areas are restored… I think that’s perfectly adequate."

Stadacona is among the 12 parks being restored. The swell of people who were living there in tents have left, moving on to indoor housing in many cases.

"They’ve cleaned it up very nicely already," said park user, Murray Olson on Wednesday. He too is asking for the "bare minimum" of work and related costs.

"There’s only so much money and there’s so many claims upon it," he said.

Remediation can become costly: When an injunction forced more than 100 homeless people to leave a months-long encampment on Victoria courthouse land in 2017, the provincial minister responsible for the site expected the cleanup to cost $350,000.

A government-commissioned environmental report in 2017 found harmful chemicals from two suspected drug labs, gasoline and other fuels had contaminated the site.

While the city isn’t elaborating on the type of hazardous removal it’s encountered to date, Victoria’s mayor says remediation in the 12 parks won’t be similar to the courthouse land.

"The difference between the courthouse and the situation that we faced for the last year is that there were many people living in many parks," said Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps. "The courthouse, it [was] remarkable, at some point 250 people [were] squeezed onto that tiny piece of land. There are going to be different impacts."

Helps and two other city councillors have also put forward a motion to add Beacon Hill Park to the list of prohibited areas for overnight sheltering for two years. They estimate that’s the amount of time needed to recover the park from the impact of sheltering.

The report before councillors says the city took steps with the province to allow 24/7 outdoor sheltering when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020. Physical distancing measures were put in place, forcing shelters to drastically cut down on the number of people it could accommodate, which sent some outside. It also acknowledges that the pandemic impacted those who lost their jobs and found themselves newly homeless.

Now that teamwork between the province, city, service providers and private citizens have found housing for 600 people in the last year – the motion wants council to start thinking about the future of the parks. It says they were never intended for shelter.

"City parks are important public green spaces that are critical to the health and well-being of the urban community. They need to be stewarded for the use of all and for the long term," reads the motion.

The motion will be debated at a committee meeting Thursday.

The city’s parks director says the restoration of sensitive natural areas will be more complex and will need site-specific plans.