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.