Whose new Vancouver?: What’s at stake with gentrification in the Downtown Eastside

Photo by Colin L.


Vancouver has a new curse word.


It’s not a four-letter expletive, but a 14-letter word that carries a different kind of profanity for many of the Downtown Eastside’s 17,000 residents, more than 1,600 of whom are homeless.




Disguised under euphemisms like ‘urban renaissance’, ‘urban renewal’ or ‘urban sustainability’ in city policy documents, gentrification describes the transformation of the downtown core’s vacant or working-class spaces into middle-class residential areas.


Supporters of gentrification point to improved housing, safer streets and opportunities for new businesses and development as justification for renewal projects. Yet critics see the homogenization of diverse neighbourhoods, displacement of low-income residents and the threat of unaffordable housing as reason to quash gentrifiers’ efforts.


While many—developers, businesses and average citizens alike—would argue that Canada’s so-called ‘poorest postal code’ is in dire need of a facelift, others say trendy new shops, enticing eateries, restored historical homes and posh condominiums drive up the day-to-day cost of living for low-income residents, pushing them out of the area altogether.


The tension between longstanding residents and a growing middle class presence seems to be an inevitable process in any growing city, particularly a city with property values as high as Vancouver’s, according to Elvin Wyly, Associate Professor at the University of British Columbia’s Urban Studies department and co-author the first comprehensive textbook on the subject with 2007’s Gentrification.


With the highest housing prices in Canada, the vast majority of renter households have incomes far below those required to purchase even the most modest of condominiums. According to research conducted by City of Vancouver staff in its Vancouver’s Housing and Homelessness Strategy 2012 - 2021 report, this disparity is growing. Since the late 1970s, household incomes have increased by only about nine per cent, while housing prices have skyrocketed by as much as 280 per cent in the Downtown Eastside (DTES).


It’s something Joji Kumagai, executive director of the Strathcona Business Improvement Association (BIA), has witnessed in recent years.


“There’s been an increase in ‘For sale’ signs,” he says, as retirees and businesses move out of the once-stable neighbourhood, looking to cash in on rising property values.


While lack of parking, safety and security are the main issues facing businesses in the Strathcona community, Kumagai says for the most part, low-income residents and businesses are able to harmoniously co-exist. “The majority of our members are supportive of trying to help people who have challenges.”


Yet, Kumagai says the current state of derelict buildings and mental health issues in the DTES is “unacceptable” and that something must be done to encourage improvement without pushing low-income residents out of the area.


“It’s not a black and white issue,” the BIA director ventures.


Neighbourhood battleground


That nebulous grey area between “regeneration” and “gentrification,” Wyly writes, is somewhat akin to the gap between “terrorist” and “freedom fighter.”


According to the UBC professor, even though gentrification terminology seems straightforward at first glance, phrases like “land value,” “rent gap,” “value gap” and “price gap” can be problematic to define. All in all, the necessity and long-term benefits of urban revitalization are in the eye of the beholder.


“It seems that the negative impacts [of gentrification] outweigh the positive impacts at the neighbourhood scale, but at the citywide scale this is not necessarily the case.”


Yet despite the debate, urban planners, government officials and non-profits who represent the interests of low-income residents all agree the future of the DTES is a vastly complex issue that requires immediate action.


The DTES is no stranger to grit, controversy and suffering. It is a community with a distinct identity, forged in tumultuous surroundings and often-bleak odds. As Wyly writes in Gentrification, “Vancouver as a bastion of liberal tolerance and cycle-path hedonism is suddenly disrupted in a place where ‘one hundred years of struggle’ have left a landscape of agony and addiction, for which the frequent remedial prescription is gentrification in the guise of ‘revitalization’.”


Photo by Justin Langille. 

The gentrification of the neighbourhood takes the form of a “rental rat-race” resulting in “structural violence,” according to activists Dave Diewert and Harsha Walia in a February column in Rabble.ca. The pair echoes American urban theorist Neil Smith in his opinion that “gentrification has become a strategy within globalization ... to attract capital and tourists.”


Gentrification is clearly sweeping across the neighbourhood. A cursory stroll along Hastings yields a parade of upscale businesses and restaurants, places like Acme Cafe, a trendy mom and-pop diner where coffee can cost anywhere from $1.75 to $8. Even a simple grilled cheese sandwich goes for $8.75.


There’s the luxury donut shop, Cartems Donuterie near Pigeon Park on Carrall Street, where sugary confections with names like ‘sweet snow’ and ‘citrus dust’ sell for $3 each. The neighbourhood is also home to a host of Gastown foodie destinations like critically acclaimed restaurateur Sean Heather and his coterie of pubs and restaurants such as Bitter Tasting Room and the Irish Heather, with entrees in the $20 to $30 range.


Then there is Mark Brand’s collection of hugely successful neighbourhood restaurants: The Diamond, Sea Monstr Sushi and Boneta. Brand’s foray into the DTES has been famously captured on OWN’s Gastown Gamble, which chronicles his struggles to re-open the iconic Hastings Streets’ Save On Meats diner and butcher shop, which Brand and his wife Nicole purchased after the former owner Al Deslauriers retired in 2009. Eager to see Save On Meats continue operating, Deslauriers refused several offers to sell the building to developers.


Brand and other restaurateurs have, to varying degrees, endeavoured to integrate their businesses into the neighbourhood, in some cases hiring low-income residents or attempting to offer affordable menus. But the mere presence of these restaurants has nevertheless met resistance from community advocates, who say their gestures to include the existing community fail to provide the sustainable or meaningful employment opportunities that should be the cornerstone of any neighbourhood revitalization efforts.


“Although it is often assumed that the benefits of revitalization will ‘trickle down’ to the lower and working classes ... they are often completely captured by the middle and upper classes,” writes Wyly.


A history of change


Called ‘Brownstoning’ in New York, ‘Homesteading’ in Baltimore, ‘Whitepainting or Whitewalling’ in Toronto, and ‘Red-brick Chic’ in San Fransisco, the trend towards urban renewal isn’t new to Vancouver neighbourhoods.


The West End and Kitsilano have experienced their own gentrification growing pains in years past, when the “creative class”—artists, bohemians, professors, entrepreneurs and young middle class families—purchased and restored beat-up, turn-of-the-century houses in areas that were once thought of as bad neighbourhoods.


The DTES itself has undergone immense change since 1870, when the area’s fishing and hunting First Nations community was displaced by European and Asian settlers. Sawmills and industry sprung up in Gastown, creating a thriving commercial zone along Hastings Street. Retail stores, banks, theatres and offices followed suit, opening their doors for business along the bustling corridor.


But with prosperity came aspiration. As an emerging middle class sought space and opportunity in surrounding areas, Strathcona and Chinatown became home to a population mostly comprising immigrants, the poor and unemployed, as well as seasonal migrant workers for railway, construction, mining and forestry jobs. Hastings Street became known as Skid Road, in reference to the logging activity that literally left skid marks along the street. Many Eastside residents were single men. Brothels, red-light districts, bootlegging and gambling establishments flourished.


The end of World War Two brought economic changes and a decline in warehousing and manufacturing jobs along the waterfront. As industries relocated to cheaper land away from the downtown core, single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels became one of the last affordable housing options for those who remained. Streetcars stopped running to the Hastings Street terminus station and by 1958 pedestrian traffic had all but disappeared. Once a thriving metropolitan hub, what's now known as the DTES became a haven for drug use, sex work and criminal activity-the cumulative effects of intersecting political, economic and social change that sent Vancouver's original downtown core into a downward spiral.


Planning a community whole


It’s now a new century and the City of Vancouver has seemed to realize a piecemeal plan won’t do—particularly in light of the mass protests and ensuing media storm that accompanied redevelopment of the vacant Woodward’s building on West Hastings Street nearly a decade ago.


“For at least the past 25 years, community planning in the Downtown Eastside has been mainly reactive, designed to address perceived crises rather than to develop a comprehensive strategy for maximizing community capacity,” states a City report from 2005.


“Initiatives have been largely targeted at individuals and issues deemed most at risk and/or having the highest negative impact,” the report continues. “Most of the neighbourhood has been ignored.”


Photo by honeymae.

To combat this, City Council established the Local Area Planning Process (LAPP) committee in January 2011 to provide “a clear but flexible framework to guide change and development” that considers both long-range and short-term solutions for the neighbourhood, based on existing assets and opportunities.


City Manager Penny Ballem says the endeavour has presented hurdles from the beginning.


“A challenge at the start of this was how to hear the voice of the low-income community ... It hasn’t been easy. At times it’s really fantastic and at times it’s a bit gnarly. This is a very innovative community planning process. Sometimes we don’t all agree on everything, but we haven’t had anyone drop out of the process.”


“The most fundamental thing we have to get right in this plan is social asset mapping of parks, community space, libraries, arts and culture centres, and places to get food or a cup of coffee at a reasonable price,” Ballem says.


The planning process is long overdue, according to LAPP co-chair for the Building Communities Society, Michael Clague.


“There’s nothing that knits the whole area together from Richards to Clark and the Waterfront, and south to Terminal,” he explains.


Clague has been involved with the DTES community since taking on the role of director at Carnegie Community Centre in 1999. A Point Grey resident himself, Clague says the health of the area is something that should concern all Vancouverites, regardless of where they live.


“To some extent, we have unfairly burdened the DTES around issues of mental health and addiction and so on, because our other neighbourhoods haven’t been prepared to address it for our own residents who are facing these issues.”


But why does he care when so many others lean towards apathy or NIMBY-ism?


Clague explains his vision for the planning process. “I have a saying for myself, and that’s ‘Stick to your principles, and not to your answers.’ ...There may be an answer that isn’t mine, but it may speak to my principles—it’s just that I hadn’t thought of it or known it was out there. I think that’s the kind of openness we’ve got to approach the planning process with.”


It’s not for me to provide the picture of what the area would look like, my job is to contribute to making sure people are creating that picture together.”


Clague says a challenge of the planning process is the sheer volume of information, ideas and input from the LAPP committee’s 30-member panel.


“How do we take that and get it beyond what I call ‘feel-good generalizations’, to bring it down into more concrete themes and issues that can be meaningfully discussed and debated?


“We provide a report to the City this coming December and the hope is that we’d have a draft report ready next Spring, to be ready and finalized sometime after that in 2013.”


From revitalization to segregation


For the impending plan to be successful, Clague says outcomes must satisfy not only the board’s 17-member low-income representation, but the other 13 business, development and government interests—particularly addressing housing and the local economy in the DTES.


“One of the things you don’t want is a high-end or a low-end community,” he explains. “That is segregation; psychologically gated communities—if not in practice—gated communities.”


Urban planners worldwide are focusing on a mixed-income community model ensuring neighbourhoods have a variety of affordable housing options available to all, despite their earnings.


It’s something city planners pushed for in the redevelopment of the Woodward’s building, Ballem says. Woodward’s compromises 200 non-market social housing units, non-profit space, a daycare and post-secondary education facility, in addition to the 536 units that sold at market prices in April 2006. The project brought in about $200 million, all units selling the same day they were put on the market.


But critics of the Woodward’s redevelopment project, like the DTES Neighbourhood Council (DNC) and Carnegie Community Action Project (CCAP), say the building has changed the face of the community, perpetrating much of the gentrification it sought to avoid, given that the project’s guiding principle was to serve as an “urban revitalization catalyst.”


Wendy Pedersen of DNC and CCAP says the City could be doing far more to protect low-income residents.


“What they should do is buy hotels and buy property for social housing, but neither have been done in the last three years. The City could create a huge and public lobby for social housing for residents with incomes under $20,000, but they don’t do that. They could ‘downzone’ this neighbourhood so land is less valuable and then buy up property before it gets expensive again.”


Nevertheless, Clague says the Woodward’s model was a move in the right direction, albeit flawed.


“In its former time, I don’t think anyone was happy about the street scene at Woodward’s, regardless of income. There was nothing there, it could be intimidating, it was not a place you could feel that it was yours.


“Now it’s a transition zone, where I’m not sure that all low-income people will feel comfortable, particularly because of the new retail activity that’s coming in ... It’s obvious that Woodward’s is leading to a change along Hastings Street and a significant amount of that is gentrification-driven.”


Ballem wouldn’t comment on the success of the Woodward’s redevelopment project in reshaping Hastings Street. She says it’s “too soon to tell” if the project has met its goals for a diverse and sustainable community.


“CCAP has been very clear they’re not keen on Woodward’s but we have a lot of other groups that say it has been a good thing. The formal evaluation has not yet happened.”


Progress on pause


While the DTES neighbourhood plan smooths out its kinks, the City has suspended most other development in the area. Council adopted the Downtown Eastside Interim Development Management Guidelines on March 28, which outline restrictions on liquor licensing, grants for storefront improvements and heritage facades. It has also implemented an Interim Rezoning Policy that effectively states that no rezoning will happen without the consultation of the LAPP committee for the next 18 months.


“In a very concrete way, we’ve actually put a lid on any further development until we have a good plan,” Ballem explains.


“On a one-by-one basis, projects that are very much aligned with our Interim Rezoning Guidelines—anything that’s going to increase social housing or supportive housing or shelters in the area [is] going to proceed—we’re trying to keep the quick action going.”


At present, all rezoning applications for Victory Square and Chinatown South will continue to be considered without restriction, based on existing plans that had been approved at City Hall.


As of June 2012, two significant rezoning processes are currently in the application process, while two development applications under existing zoning have been approved. Should all four projects proceed to development, Chinatown could see approximately 600 new residents in the next three to five years, strengthening the residential customer base for local businesses.


Additionally, a Chinatown Neighbourhood Plan and Economic Revitalization Strategy was approved in late July and includes a residential intensification strategy that allows for small-lot and midrise developments in the 10-block neighbourhood.


When contacted, the Chinatown BIA declined to comment on what these changes will mean for their community.


Housing the homeless


At the crux of this impending plan is the need to solve Vancouver’s homelessness and housing affordability issues. The City loftily endeavours to end street homelessness in the DTES by 2015, something Ballem says can’t happen without the support of senior governments.


“We’ll never get the federal government or the province to play if we don’t have a coherent, evidence-based plan,” Ballem adds.


Clague agrees. Despite all the time and effort city staff have invested in the project, its success hinges on federal and provincial government decisions.


“It’s not just a question of money on their parts, but it’s reintroducing tax incentives that used to exist for developers, such as residential rehabilitation programs where they get some breaks for improving buildings ... They’re the heavy lifters.”


Since 2001, the provincial government has created approximately 3,000 units of housing in the DTES neighbourhood at Woodward’s, The Lux, The Pennsylvania, Grace Mansion and the Lore Krill Housing Co-op. It has committed $87 million to the renovation and restoration of 13 provincially-owned SROs, including maintenance over the next 15 years. Meanwhile, the federal government has contributed close to $30 million.


In 2007, the B.C. government partnered with the City of Vancouver to building 14 new supportive housing sites with more than 1,500 units, three of which are in the DTES. The B.C. government is contributing more than $300 million while the City contributed the 14 parcels of land, valued at approximately $64 million.


But there’s still a long way to go, despite the fact LAPP will most likely have a plan ready by next summer, Clague says.


“I think the goal of LAPP—for me—is that a low-income person could come out of their refurbished or new home in the Downtown Eastside and feel at home in their neighbourhood,” he says. “And similarly, that a person who is not low-income can come out of their door and feel the same way, with a respect for the history of the area and the range of interests in the people who

live there.


“I don’t think that’s too idealistic to imagine—people recognizing that they share this area together.”



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