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Development pushes out United We Can

The hub of a recycling-based micro-economy in the Downtown Eastside is about to lose the home it’s had on East…

By Jimmy Thomson , in Business City , on November 21, 2012 Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Chris George waits in line outside of United We Can after a trip into the West End, his preferred hunting ground for recyclables. It’s a long trip, but “that’s why I’ve got my running shoes,” he says. (Photo: Jimmy Thomson)

The hub of a recycling-based micro-economy in the Downtown Eastside is about to lose the home it’s had on East Hastings Street for nearly two decades.

If the development proposal by a social housing non-profit group is approved, Atira Development Society, which owns 41 E. Hastings St., will build a 169-unit project on the site and displace United We Can.

CEO Janice Abbott says the development will unavoidably bring change to the street, known for the chaotic market that has sprung up in front of the much-praised recycling centre that has provided employment for hundreds in the troubled neighbourhood.

“It will be difficult for folks to congregate on the block while construction is going on. Whether people will come back…who knows?” said Abbott, whose application for the project went in to the city on Nov. 2.

“United We Can is moving, so the folks that currently line up to get into United We Can will be somewhere else.  So I’m guessing it will be a less busy and visible block.”

While some may welcome that, not everyone is convinced that it will be an improvement. Some community groups, as well as the binners themselves, are wary of the gentrification that has further marginalized already vulnerable residents elsewhere in the Downtown Eastside. They worry that this project will have the same effect, ripping out what is, for many, the economic heart of the community.

Abbott insists that the project will add value to the community.

“Let me be clear that we are a community-based organization,” she said. “And it will remain a block for the community.”

As of yet, United We Can has nowhere to go. While the city and the recycling centre have been seeking an alternative for some time, no plans have been revealed. Abbott says she knows they are looking. It’s been difficult to find a site because the operation can’t be put in the catchment areas of private recycling centres elsewhere.

Chris George, who has been binning in Vancouver for three years, worries about the possibility of a more distant United We Can.

“It would be a problem for us,” he said.

Financial considerations

The proposed development at 41 E Hastings St would include street-level retail space, as well as 169 residential units.

While Abbott understands that the new development will transform the block, she believes it will be a change for the better.

Abbott is the CEO of both the development and the women’s resource branches of Atira, as well as its for-profit property management arm.

The building, valued at $2.2-million, is one of $33-million worth of land and buildings owned between the Atira Development Society and its parent group, the Atira Women’s Resource Society.

The proposed mixed-use building would contain 169 units, 70 per cent of which would be social housing – far more than any project besides those built by BC Housing. The new Woodward’s building, just a block and a half away, has only 27 per cent of the building’s total units devoted to subsidized housing.

The plan for rest of the space in the proposed development is uncertain.

According to the rezoning proposal filed with the city, the other 30 per cent of the building would be set aside for affordable home ownership. According to Abbott, however, financial considerations may interfere.

“It’s driven by the pro forma. At the end of the day, we need to borrow money to make this work, and so we need to find a lender who likes the way our financials worth. It may be 100 per cent rental.”

The moving sidewalk

The building’s current tenant, United We Can, is not just a business. Its influence spills out on to the street outside, with the whole block bustling with foot traffic and sidewalk sales.

For some, this congregation of people selling goods, lining up for the recycling depot, or simply lingering, is an eyesore. For others, it is essential.

Ivan Drury, a social activist with the Carnegie Community Action Project, believes that the volume of foot traffic makes that block safer for homeless people.

“It’s kind of an unregulated community centre,” he explains.

Drury is well known as a vehement opponent of many developments in the neighbourhood. This proposed zoning change is no exception.

“Regardless of the merits, any kind of market project there has the danger of driving up the value of land, proving that condos can be developed here in the heart of the Downtown Eastside, and warming the plate for speculators to … displace the thousands of really marginalized people here.”

Street vendors crowd the sidewalk despite the potential $250 fine for those without permits. Many of their goods, from harmonicas to strollers, are non-recyclables that have been salvaged from binning excursions.

Bruce Matinat, pushing a shopping cart heavy with about $25 in cans from Kitsilano, said that he often finds other items in the lanes that he frequents. On this particular day, he had a small collection of mirrors.

“I’ll probably sell those, too,” he said.

Binners unite

The users of United We Can also emphasize the importance of the location. It has been providing income and employment in the Downtown Eastside for 17 years since Ken Lyotier founded it.

The bins inside United We Can are full of recyclables of all kinds; there is often a lineup outside to get in, and a lineup inside for payment. (Photo: Jimmy Thomson)

The facility is situated among those who make the most use of it, and it is the only commercial recycling centre in the Downtown Eastside.

The central location has allowed United We Can, in the original entrepreneurial spirit of the business, to provide services beyond collecting recyclables.

Today, the recycling centre employs about 100 people, many of them former binners, as cashiers and in its spinoff laneway cleaning program. It can often serve as many as 700 binners in a day.

Its clients, however, are not limited to downtown in their search for recyclables.

“Our catchment is pretty broad,” says Lyotier, now retired. “People come from all over.”

One binner, who wished to only be identified as “Ray,” was distraught at the idea of a new location for United We Can.

“Don’t say that! That’s bad karma, man,” he exclaimed. “I live right here.”

For an interactive map of binning in Vancouver, click here.