Downtown Eastside seeks new lease on life

What are the chances of the economy in the Downtown Eastside taking off?

Wendy Pedersen
Organizer, Carnegie Community Action Project

“I think it very well could take off because of Woodward’s and if there is more condo development that comes into the neighbourhood. I think we could see Gap stores and bigger places in the neighbourhood easily, unless there are some tools to manage change. We don’t see what those are. What is going to protect the small-business owner and the low-income renter in the neighbourhood?”

Jorge Mar
Chinatown shop owner

“Not in the near future. Because of the price of gas and the U.S. economy, especially in Chinatown here, we are dependent on the tourists and that doesn’t help. The past three years have been going down [in terms of revenues]. Last year, really, we felt the effects of the U.S. economy. This year is the worst. I don’t think the city can do much—maybe some cosmetic stuff.”

Bernie Magnan
Chief economist, Vancouver Board of Trade

“There are businesses that are already there and doing very well, thank you very much... What we need to do is help the people—and I’m not just talking about those who have a drug and/or a mental-health addiction problem—but also the residents of the Downtown Eastside and their children in making sure they get a proper education so they can succeed in life.”

David Eby
Council candidate and DTES–Strathcona resident

“I guess that depends on what you mean by the Downtown Eastside economy. I mean, the Downtown Eastside economy is doing really well. But until we deal with the underlying issues of homelessness, drug addiction, and mental health in the Downtown Eastside community, the Downtown Eastside mainstream economy will never take off.”

Fresh from lunch on a balmy Saturday afternoon, Coun. Peter Ladner strolls westward from the Carnegie Centre at Main and Hastings and confronts Vancouver’s socioeconomic underbelly.

Already on this short walkabout, the NPA’s mayoral hopeful and two-term councillor has talked with VPD Sgt. Tim Henschel in an alley, where the officer had recovered a stolen city engineering truck. Flustered Chinatown security guard Harold Johnson pulled Ladner aside a minute later to tell him drug users should “start rehab or serve time”.

Back on East Hastings Street, Ladner told the Georgia Straight the open drug use, dealing, and general street activity evokes “extreme frustration”.

“It shouldn’t happen,” Ladner said. “It shouldn’t happen here. We shouldn’t be putting up with it.”¦I’ve seen the [Fred] Herzog photos of this place back in the ’50s and ’60s. The Smilin’ Buddha [Cabaret], wherever it was—I think right over here—was a great nightclub [located at 109 East Hastings Street]. It was a normal neighbourhood, and it has been destabilized by focusing all of the region’s problems in this one neighbourhood.”

Today, Ladner and the rest of city council will devote more time to the issue when the city planning and environment committee addresses two staff reports dealing with the “economic revitalization” and “commercial revitalization” of the area.

The first report, for information purposes only, is a 14-page update on the Vancouver Agreement Economic Revitalization Plan and its “Downtown Eastside implementation”. According to the report, it builds on principles of a council revitalization strategy established in June 2000: to involve those already in the area in the renewal; to “preserve and enhance the sense of community” felt by residents there; to listen to those most affected; to improve the “livability and safety” of the Downtown Eastside; and to develop and implement a well-understood plan that delivers results.

The second document will ask council to report back to staff within a year on the effectiveness of current city policy, passed in May 2007, which created the Building Opportunities With Business Inner City Society (BOB). According to the report, BOB is an expansion of a $150,000 lease-subsidy program established in March 2000 to help bring viable commercial storefront activity to Hastings Street, between Gore and Cambie streets.

If council sees BOB as effective, the city will kick in $1 million over three years toward the revitalization.

Lawyer David Eby told the Straight he lives just off East Hastings in what he describes as a “unique neighbourhood”. Eby, who is seeking a council nomination with Vision Vancouver, said the first order of business must be improving housing conditions “so that people don’t need to spend all their time on the streets because their rooms are infested with bedbugs or they’re scorching hot or freezing cold”.

With people’s “personal space” established, Eby said, he would then address mental health and addiction issues, along with the homelessness that he said “plagues” the area.

“Without dealing with that, no business is going to want to locate in the Downtown Eastside,” Eby said, after noting: “Welfare rates are so low. People just don’t have the money to spend on traditional stores, so they buy three processed cheese slices at a time or one piece of fried chicken, or they use food depots.”¦There are a limited number of people that come from outside the Downtown Eastside to do their shopping, with the exception of the annual Army & Navy shoe sale.”

City staff have used the phrase “revitalization without [population] displacement”, something Eby describes as “not only important, but absolutely essential”.

Ladner said he too believed zero displacement was achievable.

“All we have to do is ensure that we don’t lose social housing here, and we are not,” he said. “We are losing some, but we are replacing it, too, and if you look at the numbers”¦generally speaking, it is being replaced.”

The Downtown Eastside by the numbers

> Number of geographic areas the city includes in the Downtown Eastside: 7 (Oppenheimer district, Industrial, Victory Square, Gastown, Chinatown, Thornton Park, and Strathcona)

> DTES residents interviewed as part of Carnegie Community Action Project visioning sessions: 300

> DTES residents who filled out a CCAP questionnaire in March and April 2008: 655

> Percentage of questionnaire respondents who would stay in the DTES “if they had safe and secure housing”: 95

> Units of DTES market housing to be built between 2005 and 2010: 1,597

> Total number of units of DTES social housing for singles for same period: 557

Source: Nothing About Us Without Us, an upcoming CCAP housing report (release date: July 28); City of Vancouver housing centre