As a geographer, Simon Fraser University professor Nicholas Blomley has a long-standing interest in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. He’s familiar with the work of many local activists who advocate building more housing for the poor and the preservation of the community as a low-income-friendly neighbourhood.
When informed by Downtown Eastside activists about a city staff report that recommends allowing increased building heights in the area, Blomley promptly circulated an e-mail among his colleagues outlining his concerns about the move.
The result is a letter, signed by 29 academics at SFU and UBC, that calls on Mayor Gregor Robertson and members of city council to halt the height review until a more thorough community-based planning process is carried out.
“We’re concerned about the impact of increasing building heights on the community,” Blomley told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview on January 19, the day the letter was sent to City Hall.
According to Blomley, not only will allowing taller buildings in the neighbourhood encourage land speculation, driving property prices up, it will also put pressure on residential hotels, which provide accommodation for many people on welfare.
“As we all know, these hotels are the housing of last resort for poor people,” the geographer said.
The staff report on the height review in Vancouver’s so-called Historic Area—which includes Gastown, Chinatown, Victory Square, and the area around Main and Hastings streets—is on the agenda for council’s meeting on Thursday (January 20).
Authored by Brent Toderian, the city’s director of planning, the report seeks approval to implement a January 26, 2010, decision by council on height and development guidelines for the area, which covers most of the Downtown Eastside.
If approved, a new zoning policy will allow buildings of up to 15 storeys at 99 West Pender Street and 425 Carrall Street.
Twelve-storey buildings would be allowed in Chinatown South, while 15-storey structures could be considered on Main Street south of Keefer Street. The report notes that at least five new development sites could arise in this area with the new height regulations.
“These decisions were the result of the Historic Area Height Review, through which Council affirmed the importance of the Historic Area, and confirmed that the building height and scale for the Historic Area should continue to reinforce the prevailing heritage context,” the report states.
However, the SFU and UBC academics note in their letter to council that while the height changes will facilitate market housing, “this will lead to a further reduction of affordable housing in the surrounding area”.
“This will have a devastating effect on low-income residents and the continued vitality and viability of the neighbourhood as a whole,” the letter states. “We believe that planning in the Downtown Eastside should have at its centre the interests of the most vulnerable, rather than risk further destabilizing a community that is already facing intensifying pressures.”
The academics acknowledged that wisely managed market development can bring benefits to the Downtown Eastside. But they pointed out that this has “also led to increasing rents, conversions and displacement”.
Various community organizations have formed the ad hoc Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood Council to oppose market-housing development in the neighbourhood. The group also aims to push the city to purchase at least 10 properties that can be used for social housing. These include 312 Main Street, which is currently a police station, and the Pantages Theatre, at 114 East Hastings Street.
“While gentrification changes our neighbourhood into an unfamiliar and hostile space for low-income people, police protect the condos and boutiques and City Hall eases regulations and provides incentives to developers to speed further market development,” reads a statement issued by the group earlier this month.
Wendy Pedersen is an organizer with the Downtown Eastside’s Carnegie Community Action Project. According to her, about 50 people have signed up to speak about the height review at the January 20 council meeting.
“We will have a polite delegation heading to council, and we expect a lively debate,” Pedersen told the Straight by phone.
Downtown Eastside activists had previously planned a rally outside City Hall to coincide with the meeting. They’ve decided to hold off on mass actions for now, and wait to see what decision council makes.