During the short walk from Cambie Street to Carrall Street along West Hastings there are 24 plots, new developments and derelict buildings for sale or rent. In the centre lies 58 West Hastings, gentrification “ground zero” in Vancouver, where local action groups are pitting themselves against the city council and real estate developers.
In June, Concord Pacific, Vancouver’s largest real estate developer, was given permission to build 160-condominiums on the empty plot, despite the protests of more than 200 residents.
Many fear condos will further marginalize the area’s poor and homeless. Advocates for the development say that it is necessary to make the area accessible for everyone.
Downtown Eastside resident, community activist and researcher for the Carnegie Community Action Project (CCAP), Wendy Pederson, led about 40 interested citizens on a gentrification tour of area. She ended the tour at 58 West Hastings, which she called the “frontline” of gentrification in the area.
“When we found out we hit the roof. At a city hall meeting we handed in letters from 206 residents who disapproved of the project. We stalled them initially but the planning department approved it anyway,” she said.
She went on to explain that CCAP wanted more community involvement in deciding how to develop the Downtown Eastside (DTES), Canada’s poorest post code.
“We need to freeze what’s happening so that new developments work for everyone, especially the 75 per cent of low-income residents on the DTES. There has to be more public consultation,” said Pederson.
Condominiums will overwhelm the neighborhood. We want a moratorium on further planning for the area. So far we’ve gotten zippo.”
Balancing market housing with community
Not everyone feels the same way. Michael Geller, Non Partisan Association (NPA) Vancouver City Council candidate, believes that the condos will add to the community.
“For the ultimate health of the community we need a component of market housing,” he said. “Of course there should be non-market housing as well, but we do need renters and homeowners for a healthy community.”
Jim Makin, 69, a retiree who lives on the DTES, also thinks that condo development will be good for the area.
“It might help to clear all the drugs off of the streets. There’s a nice community down here but there’s also a lot of people who are up to no good,” he said.
The CCAP isn’t alone in its concern over the development. In October, a group of activists from the Anti-Poverty Committee also protested at 58 West Hastings. Carrying banners and megaphones, around 50 protestors marched to the site where they joined Food Not Bombs, a local food distribution group, and other members of the public.
Anti-poverty committee member, Anne Hunter, organized the event. A legal advocate for the Downtown Eastside Residents Association (DERA), Hunter said the rally was to protest the gentrification of the neighborhood at the expense of the provision of social housing.
“Concord Pacific are not wanted in the community. All that building luxury condos will do is force poor people out of the area. The new development will bring in a wave of high earners and the shops, services and security that come with them,” she said.
The DTES housing plan adopted by Vancouver City Council promises to provide one new social housing project for every market project. There are currently three new social housing complexes being built in the DTES, however, Hunter said politicians are failing to protect the community and deliver on the plan.
“How can we have a fair policy when Concord Pacific provide funding for the city’s political parties and gifts for its politicians?” she asked.
Hunter was referring to the donations Concord Pacific has made to the NPA, Vision and COPE, totalling more than $125,000 since 2005. According to an investigation by the Vancouver Courier, councillors have also accepted free concert passes, tickets to Canucks games and arts events, dinners and yacht rides from the group over the last year. The information was obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
Many low-income residents also worry that condo development will push out the poor community. Kevin Schewaga, 49, who lives in an SRO hotel on the DTES, said that the government should be clear with local residents concerning condominium development.
“They should be honest with the people first off. You can see the condos encroaching on the Eastside. You can see its been squeezed out slowly but surely and yet its not really talked about,” he said.
“They talk about initiatives to help the homeless but at the same time they’re slowly squeezing it further east. I think they should be honest about what they intend to do down here which is try to get rid of it.”
David Autiero, a project facilitator for Vancouver City Council, said the city was doing its best to comply with the housing plan and that each planning application in the DTES would be considered according to procedure.
Regarding the building of condominiums at 58 West Hastings, he confirmed that development would go ahead without further public consultation subject to technical details being met.
“Community involvement takes place before the development permit is given. Typically after that there is no more public involvement. At this stage of the process there are no plans for further public consultation,” he said.