How Gastown became one of Vancouver's hippest neighbourhoods

It’s no accident that the city's heritage district staged a comeback after enduring hard times

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      On a Saturday afternoon in the bustling Revolver coffee shop in the 300 block of Cambie Street, it’s hard to spot anyone over the age of 40. A relentless procession of modish customers line up for made-to-order coffees costing $3.50 and up.

      At a window seat overlooking the Cambie Hotel, digital-media entrepreneur and former NDP candidate Matt Toner tells the Georgia Straight that there’s a different demographic in this part of Gastown than at Main Street and Broadway, which he characterizes as “hipsterville”.

      “Here, you get a lot of young, creative, technical people who are a little better off,” he comments.

      Toner, who lives on Abbott Street, moved his company, Zeroes 2 Heroes, to 55 Water Street almost two years ago to become part of the area’s growing cluster of technology firms. He adds that it’s not unusual to see other high-tech entrepreneurs sitting across from one another at all of Revolver’s tables on a weekday morning, including Perch Communications CEO Danny Robinson, Ayogo founder Michael Fergusson, GrowLab’s Jason Bailey, and venture capitalist Leonard Brody.

      Vancouver doesn’t have “miles and miles of start-ups like Silicon Valley”, Toner emphasizes, which is why the digital-media industry is converging on Gastown. “Here, you kind of want everything in one place, ” he says. “You need coffee shops, decent restaurants, and lunch places like Meat & Bread. You need entertainment close by and bars. This is what makes it a livable, workable area. But I still think you need places like the Cambie to give it that authentic grit.”

      Leanore Sali, executive director of the Gastown Business Improvement Association, tells the Straight over the phone that there are approximately 60 restaurants and coffee shops in Gastown to go along with a flourishing independent fashion scene. One of the retail anchors, John Fluevog Shoes, opened on Water Street in 2008 just a block away from where the original Fox & Fluevog store existed from 1970 to 1982.

      Sali also points out that architects and designers have always been attracted to the area but the growth of the creative economy has led to a proliferation of dot-com and animation companies.

      In September, the Vancouver Film School is expected to move into the old Storyeum space in the 100 block of West Cordova Street, which will add more energy to the neighbourhood. But Sali emphasizes that Gastown’s remarkable rise has not been sudden. The process began in earnest back in the 1980s and has been assisted along the way by a number of factors, including a density-transfer program with the city, cooperation between three levels of government, and a great deal of effort by numerous local businesspeople.

      “Our roots are really authentically entrepreneurial,” Sali says. “It’s been like that since Gassy Jack [Deighton] opened his saloon.”

      Gassy Jack’s bar opened almost two decades before an 1886 fire obliterated most of the downtown core. That was followed by a remarkable building boom, spurred by the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Over the next few years, numerous structures went up—the Europe Hotel, Leckie Building, Byrnes Block, Dominion Hotel, Holland Block, Hudson House, and Horne Block, to name a few—that give the neighbourhood its historic character. However, by the 1980s and 1990s, Gastown had become best known for selling trinkets and T-shirts to tourists in dilapidated buildings that were home to some of the city’s poorest residents.

      In a coffee shop in the 100 block of Water Street, the city’s former senior planner for the area, Nathan Edelson, explains that provincial legislation had designated Gastown and Chinatown as historic districts. It was passed in 1971 after citizens rose up against a planned freeway into the city, which would have razed buildings in the two neighbourhoods. As a result of this law, heritage structures couldn’t be torn down. But upgrading these buildings to meet modern earthquake and building codes was next to impossible because they weren’t large enough to generate sufficient revenue to cover the cost. So the vacancy rate soared.

      “The economy was depressed, but it had a large heritage stock and it had a vast majority of low-income population, so it was really part of the Downtown Eastside in an important way,” Edelson recalls.

      Many of these residents had no access to primary health care just as HIV rates were exploding. He points out that Downtown Eastside groups wanted more social housing, health facilities, a supervised-injection site, and protection for the single-room-occupancy suites. Meanwhile, Gastown businesspeople sought economic revival and opportunities to generate revenue from the old buildings. In Chinatown, the goals were improvements to the public realm and incentives to protect heritage.

      According to Edelson, some of the businesspeople in Chinatown and Gastown were worried in the mid to late 1990s that more health facilities and social housing would act as a magnet for low-income people, undermining economic development. And that led to protracted political fights that escalated into vandalism and threats against neighbourhood residents who questioned the wisdom of adding low-income-housing projects.

      “We decided to work constituency by constituency,” Edelson recalls. “We didn’t do that in a trivial way. We went to each group and asked what were their top priorities.”

      Sali notes that everyone could agree on the concept of the Carrall Greenway connecting Gastown, the Downtown Eastside, and Chinatown, though they might have disagreed on the design. And Edelson recalls that three levels of government worked together to upgrade the Pennsylvania Hotel, a social-housing project managed by PHS Community Services Society. This boosted the appeal of a tourists’ walking route from Gastown to Chinatown along Carrall Street.

      Meanwhile, the city introduced a heritage-density program in 2002 to allow Gastown property owners to sell air rights above their buildings to developers. The proceeds could be used to upgrade existing structures.

      “A lot of our policies were depending on senior government funding for housing because we knew the real-estate values would rise,” Edelson says.

      Developers such as Robert Fung and Jon Stovell made use of this program to rehabilitate numerous old buildings, laying a foundation for the revival of Gastown. It hasn’t been entirely smooth sailing, because the city hasn’t enabled the air rights to be sold at rates initially suggested. Instead, planners have insisted on community-amenity contributions from developers in other areas rather than allowing all of this density to be taken up.

      Sali insists that the heritage-density program was a crucial element in the neighbourhood’s revival. “That definitely was a turning point,” she says.

      She also praises restaurateurs such as Sean Heather and Mark Brand for taking risks in areas where many had failed before them. Meanwhile, Edelson credits Sali for working with Ken Lyotier, founder of the bottle-return depot United We Can, on programs to remove graffiti and keep the streets and lanes clean in Gastown. Edelson reveals that Sali even baked cookies for the binners in the neighbourhood. And he believes the relationships that developed between different groups in that era paid dividends years later.

      “The city was saying to Gastown, ‘We take your issues seriously, but at least form some kind of relationship with your majority population,’ ” Edelson says. “Indications that it was having some success included the common support for the Carrall Greenway, the lack of opposition to the SRA [single-room accommodation] bylaw, the lack of opposition to the supervised-injection site, and the common support for [the redevelopment of] Woodward’s.”

      He describes Woodward’s as “one of the main centrepiece projects” because it was on the edge of Gastown, Victory Square, and the Downtown Eastside. However, Edelson says that a late decision to create an additional 100 units of social housing at Woodward’s along with 200 more units of market housing undermined some of the trust that had been built up through a long community-consultation process.

      In addition, Edelson points to the importance of the Vancouver Agreement—reached in 2000 between the city, provincial, and federal governments—to pool resources to address health, housing, and economic issues.

      “We invested a lot in the public realm,” he recalls. “So we repaired the streets, the sidewalks, and we put in new lighting. And the way that Gastown reciprocated was they reinstituted the Gastown bike race.”

      Vancouver Centre MP Hedy Fry’s riding includes part of Gastown. Over lunch at Maurya Indian Cuisine on West Broadway, she tells the Straight that former mayor Philip Owen used to host meetings with all of the city’s MPs, MLAs, and city councillors, regardless of which party they represented.

      “At one of the meetings, I remember him saying that he was sick and tired of the city being seen as sort of the dregs of North America…where people would shoot up in the street and where there’s no law and order,” she says.

      That led to discussions between Fry, Owen, and then–B.C. attorney general Ujjal Dosanjh on a joint strategy to address the issue. “I said, ‘As a physician, I can tell you addiction is a disease and we have to start treating it with a public-health solution and not just with enforcement,’ ” Fry addds.

      Later, Jenny Kwan as the municipal-affairs minister spearheaded the provincial government’s role. And a city employee, Donald MacPherson, wrote a landmark report in 2001 urging the city to adopt a “four pillars” approach—enforcement, treatment, harm reduction, and prevention—to cope with the drug crisis. Health facilities were built in the Downtown Eastside, including a supervised-injection site, with the support of all levels of government in power at the time. Only after the Conservatives took power in Ottawa in 2006 did the federal government go to court in an unsuccessful fight to have the facility closed.

      Fry points out that the Vancouver police agreed to a “bubble zone”, which enabled the supervised-injection site to proceed. But she feels that in recent years, the cooperative spirit fostered by the Vancouver Agreement has dissipated with the election of different parties at the civic, provincial, and federal levels. “One of the things we had been working on—which never really got done but should have been done—would have been to take some of the old theatres and refurbish them to become cultural centres,” Fry says.

      Edelson is not surprised by the heritage district’s comeback. “Gastown is so well-positioned,” he says. “It’s right next to downtown. It’s right next to the cruise ships.”

      Meanwhile, back at Revolver, Toner says gentrification is often led by artists and creative people who are willing to take a chance on a place that offers lower rent. Whether lease rates will remain affordable as Gastown becomes increasingly chichi remains an open question.




      Jun 20, 2013 at 6:09am

      I'm sick of all this attention to Matt Toner. He's just a dumb business person. Why does he have an inside line to The Straight?


      Jun 20, 2013 at 5:16pm

      Hipsters still love calling each other "those hipsters." The word should just be done away with in '13.

      Foxxe Wilder

      Jun 20, 2013 at 5:42pm

      "HIPPEST" locations often mean the often violent and remorseless removal of the impoverished. Personally speaking, I will be glad when these so called HIP people die off as they have no class, no hearts and think the world is one sad trend after another.

      They are nothing but mindless sheep following a retarded shepherd

      Foxy Peabody

      Jun 20, 2013 at 7:29pm

      Nothing new to read here . . . just the same old cast of self important characters.

      Anne Banner

      Jun 20, 2013 at 8:11pm

      As a business owner in Gastown (Salmagundi) I have noticed quite drastic changes that have happened over the past 5 years or so. Sales are up and theft is down which of course is a good thing. It seems too that we are attracting new customers all the time, many of whom are Gastown residents. The area is becoming more eclectic and more interesting with new shops and restaurants coming into the area. Yet on my street I see for lease signs on shop windows. Deluxe Junk for example, had been in Gastown for 41 years. They closed their doors last month. This of course is the huge drawback of gentrification. It is good for business for awhile but over time the rents go up and up and the culture of the neighborhood gets affected because only large retail and restaurant chains are able to afford the rents. We aren't going anywhere but I suppose Starbucks would swiftly move into our 1890's flat iron heritage building within weeks.


      Jun 20, 2013 at 8:53pm

      I don't know, it seems a little homogeneously hip down there what with all of the comfort-food-with-a-twist, colonial beards and reclaimed barn wood. I know the faux back-to-basics Kinfolk crowd are where it's at these days - but when were real hipsters (in the old fashioned actually hip sense) ever well-heeled condo dwellers?

      And isn't this same New Antiquarian artisan fake blue collar beard farmer thing going on everywhere?

      Alan Layton

      Jun 20, 2013 at 10:52pm

      People can complain all they want but the area has improved dramatically, and there's nothing wrong with that. The best part is that they've kept the old buildings and it's still mainly a commercial area. Gastown is essentially the oldest part of Vancouver and I'm glad it's still going strong. Vancouverites should be proud of it. Just because we have poorer people (like everywhere in the world, forever) doesn't mean we have to constantly hate ourselves and everything we've created.


      Jun 21, 2013 at 9:59am

      Hazlit, 'He's just a dumb business person. Why does he have an inside line to The Straight?'you've answered your own question but i must disagree with the dumb part. Smart business people have connections and have the opportunity to self promote themselves through their friends and business acquaintances. If you can't understand this concept please don't slag others who do. Dumb business person, oh i'm going to laugh about that comment all day long.

      Oh Gastown

      Jun 21, 2013 at 11:32am

      Gastown used to be a fun and vibrant place in the late 90s, but since it has been redeveloped it has lost most of its character. The people that think Gastown is cool probably also think Yaletown is cool. If you have money, no desire to see anything different, and a desperate need to be trendy then go ahead and hang out there. Just stay away from the scary eastside or you might get out of your comfort zone and have some fun.

      Lords of Douchetown

      Jun 21, 2013 at 12:39pm

      Gastown has become so douchey you wonder what will be left for Yaletown.