The city of Vancouver has spent the last couple of years going through a new Downtown Eastside local area planning process
Hastings Street was once the heart of downtown Vancouver, home to the city’s top shops, restaurants and hotels.
But that was about 1910.
Today, Hastings is the heart of the Downtown Eastside, Vancouver’s most troubled neighbourhood. Hastings has become synonymous with drugs and poverty, an internationally-known eyesore.
But change may be around the corner. The city of Vancouver has spent the last couple of years going through a new Downtown Eastside local area planning process (LAPP), in tandem with many of the neighbourhood’s most vocal anti-poverty activists.
The complex plan is scheduled to go to council March 12. And it’s already controversial.
The plan calls for the city to create a condo-free zone on Hastings between Carrall Street in Gastown and Heatley Street in Strathcona.
That’s seven blocks of prime real estate, all designated rental-only. If the plan is adopted, new developments in the area could charge market rents on only 40 per cent of the units — 60 per cent of the units would be reserved for social housing.
Anti-poverty activists argue that this will retain the low income character of the area, yet provide much better housing than the current stock of SRO hotels.
Others argue it will create a permanent ghetto, and kill Hastings as a retail street, once and for all.
The Battle of Hastings is about to begin.
If the Downtown Eastside plan succeeds — and that’s a big if — much of Hastings between Clark Drive in Strathcona and Abbott Street in Gastown is likely to be replaced with new developments. Taller buildings filled with single room occupancy hotel rooms, known as SROs, around Hastings and Main will probably survive, but most everything else is up for grabs, unless it is a designated heritage building or existing social housing.
There will be condos allowed in the five blocks between Clark and Heatley, as well as in the two blocks from Carrall to Cambie. Any new development will have to include 20-per-cent social housing.
The condo-free zone between Heatley and Carrall is called “Hastings Central.” Maximum heights range up to 12 storeys, although pure social housing projects can apply to go higher. All new projects in this zone have to be at least 60-per-cent social housing.
Overall, the plan calls for 4,400 social housing units to be built in the Downtown Eastside. Most people think this is the rough patch around Hastings and Main, but the city plan defines it as a much larger area that includes surrounding neighbourhoods like Victory Square, Gastown, Chinatown, Strathcona and Thornton Park.
This is where the controversy started. After Downtown Eastside activists protested a review of the maximum heights allowed in Chinatown, the city decided to set up a committee to plan the entire neighbourhood, with half of the membership from the low-income community.
The committee was co-chaired by the Building Community Society and the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood Council. Retired Carnegie Centre director Michael Clague and former city planner Ray Spaxman represented the Building Community Society, a group of professionals that has worked in the area. Wendy Pedersen represented the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood Council.
Pedersen is one of the most high-profile anti-poverty activists in the Downtown Eastside — she was one of the people involved in the protests against Pidgin restaurant on Carrall Street.
She is also one of the leaders of the Carnegie Community Action Project, an organization that has led many Downtown Eastside protests. One of her cohorts in the Action Project is Ivan Drury, another high-profile activist.
The committee wound up including representatives from Downtown Eastside groups such as the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, the Western Aboriginal Harm Reduction Society and Survival Sex Workers. In addition, there were two representatives for Chinese seniors, and three spots for “low income residents at large.”
There were also spots for four local business associations. But there was only one spot reserved for the Strathcona Residents Association, which represents 5,760 people. So the association initially refused to participate, feeling the committee wasn’t balanced.
“We rejected that and boycotted the process for the first year because we thought it was pretty token,” said Strathcona Residents president Pete Fry. “We thought that setting it up that way was not an accurate reflection of all the different perspectives in the community.”
Former Vancouver Mayor Larry Campbell, who is now a senator in Ottawa, sighed when told about the makeup of the planning committee.
“It’s just difficult striking a balance between the Carnegie group and society, quite frankly,” he said. “I didn’t mean that in a derogatory way. The Carnegie action people clearly have to be involved in their neighbourhood, there’s no question about it. (But) it’s not either/or, it’s not either we have this, or we have this.”
The most surprising omission from the planning committee was the two big social housing projects in Strathcona/Chinatown — Maclean Park, which has 2,700 people, and Stamps Place, which has 2,200.
Many of the low-income residents in the neighbourhood use the Ray-Cam Community Centre, which also didn’t get a spot on the committee.
Judy McGuire works at Ray-Cam as coordinator for the Inner City Safety Society and co-authored a report titled Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside: A Community in Need of Balance.
She would like to see the Downtown Eastside diversify.
“I think a mixed-income neighbourhood is the only way to go,” said McGuire.
“There are an awful lot of individuals down here who live in single social housing who frankly would rather live somewhere else, if they had the option. There are families that would rather live somewhere else, if they had the option.”
McGuire says if you get too many “high-impact” people with drug or mental health problems in a single building or neighbourhood, it creates problems. She said the best practice is to only have a “minor percentage” of high-impact people in any given project.
“So maybe 10 per cent, 15 per cent of absolutely high-impact, high-needs people, and you kind of go up the ladder from there, so there are a certain number of really stable people (in a project),” she said.
“What that does is that allows everybody to stabilize. You put too many people with the same problems in the same housing, and even people who are trying to stabilize their lives don’t have a hope.”
Wendy Pedersen, on the other hand, argues that the problem of the Downtown Eastside is the “crappy” housing in the private SRO hotels, which forces low income people to use Hastings as their “living room” because their rooms are intolerable.
“Those people aren’t living in social housing,” said Pedersen. “The people you see on the street are living in (dumpy) hotels, and they’re not spending their day at home because it’s so terrible inside. So they’re outside. Those people need their housing replaced and upgraded to real social housing, with their own bathroom and their own kitchen. And they will then have a new lease on life.
“They will have more energy to deal with health issues, to deal with volunteering, to deal with all those things they would love to do. And housing is a fundamental piece that’s missing.”
Pedersen thinks it’s important to retain the Downtown Eastside as a low-income neighbourhood, because that’s where poor people feel at home, with the social networks and the social services they require.
“It’s a non-judgmental place to live if you’re poor,” she said. “You don’t feel that constant stress of being less than other people. Some low income people can handle that. They grew up with that mindset, and they’re OK … like, going by a fancy $12,000 couch store doesn’t bug them. But for others, it’s like a constant stress.”
Campbell thinks social housing should be built all over the city and region. He fears concentrating social housing in the Downtown Eastside will create a slum.
“When I was mayor, we went to Chicago,” said Campbell, who is now a senator in Ottawa. “I spent a day with (Chicago mayor) Daley. At that time, they were tearing down (housing projects). If you remember in the 1950s and ’60s, they had this idea that as long as you build housing, then everything would be OK.
“And the housing was pretty well all (full of people living in) poverty and low income. It turned into these towers of ghettos with gangs and all the rest of it.
“My vision is more along the lines of what Art Phillips did in False Creek: mixed housing, everybody goes to school together, that type of thing.”
As it turned out, Wendy Pedersen had to resign from the planning committee because of health problems before the study was finished. Her cohort Ivan Drury was kicked off the committee by Vancouver’s powerful city manager, Penny Ballem.
“There was some contention about a presentation that was made at city hall early on that was noisy and disruptive,” explained Michael Clague. “Ivan was associated with that. I don’t know personally if he was the source of it.”
After Drury and Pedersen left the planning committee, the Strathcona Residents Association decided to participate. But Strathcona’s Fry is still thinks the planning process “has been largely token.”
“A lot of the critical stuff we really haven’t had the opportunity to dig deep into, such as housing and built form, public benefits and how the whole thing works,” said Fry.
“And to be honest with you, those goalposts keep shifting. I just had a meeting where we were told the population projections have been revised to jump by about 7,000 people in the next 30 years. So it went from 28,000 to 35,000.
“That’s troubling, because these are the kinds of details that are most critical to the plan. Because how we densify, and where we densify, has a huge impact on things like community amenity contributions and public benefits like parks. Not to mention the sense of livability and scale.”
The 30-year plan for the Downtown Eastside is certainly ambitious. It attempts to address all sorts of issues, from protecting the area’s stock of heritage buildings to reinvigorating Hastings as a retail street.
The condo part of the plan could develop quickly. Wall Financial is already marketing a 15-storey development at Campbell and Hastings.
One of Vancouver’s biggest developers, Onni, purchased the old Brave Bull restaurant site at Clark and Hastings for $2 million. Lululemon founder Chip Wilson is believed to have purchased two development sites at 895 and 828 East Hastings for $2.55 million and $5.6 million, respectively.
A good example of the city’s vision for the no-condo zone is a three-storey building at 49 East Hastings that houses the “street charity” United We Can, which offers low income people money in exchange for bottles they collect.
It is likely to get torn down for a new housing project by Atira, the social housing powerhouse that operates 12 of the 22 SRO hotels owned by the province in the city of Vancouver.
Janice Abbott of Atira said the new building will be 14 storeys high, have 198 units, and will feature the 60-per-cent social housing/40-per-cent market rental mix the local plan calls for in that part of Hastings. She expects the monthly rents to range from $375 (the welfare rate) to $850.
“There will be a mix of kinds of social housing,” said Abbott.
“The market rental will be at the top of the building, and then there will be a mix of shelter rents and what are called housing income limit rents. On the main floor we’re putting in a community-friendly grocery store — so an inexpensive grocery store.”
Abbott said the construction budget is $18 million. Asked how much money Atira has of that at present, Abbott replied “at this point, zero.”
“We’re counting on donations,” said Abbott, who is married to Shayne Ramsay, the CEO of BC Housing, which manages subsidized housing for the provincial government.
The Atira project would seem to be the prototype for what the city wants to do on Hastings. But Abbott said doing it without a lot of government funding is hard.
“I think it’s difficult for this particular building to be precedent-setting,” she said. “I can’t begin to tell you the gymnastics we had to do to make it work financially — it was a difficult building to pull together. It’s difficult to make this work, for this particular unit mix to be feasible from a financial perspective.”
Nonetheless, Vancouver’s general manager of planning and development, Brian Jackson, said there has been some development interest in the no-condo zone.
“We have already had three or four inquiries in this area by non-profits and developers who are interested in following through with the model that we’ve identified,” Jackson said.
But real estate consultant Michael Geller doesn’t see developers buying into the 60-per-cent social housing/40-per-cent rental concept.
“It’s just not going to happen,” said Geller.
“In recent years, with some of the incentives offered by the city, we have seen developers building rental housing. Ian Gillespie, Westbank, is building a rental project in the West End. But that’s because they were allowed five times the permitted density, in order to make it viable.
“(But) you can’t charge the same rents in the Downtown Eastside as you do on Comox Street. There may be some non-profits with charitable giving who can make these sorts of projects work. But private developers won’t build new projects with this 60/40 split.”
Judy McGuire worries the proposed condo-free zone may wind up being development-free.
“The problem is, the city can legislate (the 60/40 social housing mix) from now till doomsday, but they don’t have the money to actually build any of that stuff,” she said.
“The province isn’t about to come up with the money to build any of that, they’ve said that pretty clearly. The worst case scenario I’ve heard is that it’ll just sit there for 10 years and then a different council will basically let it go and it’ll go to condos because they’ll already have the height allowance in there.”
BY JOHN MACKIE, VANCOUVER SUN MARCH 8, 2014
Photograph by: Arlen Redekop , Vancouver Sun
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