VIDEO: Vancouver’s notorious Downtown Eastside changes with development

Longtime residents say they’re being pushed out

Fraser Stuart looks at a chic, new tattoo shop metres away from the heart of Vancouver’s notorious Downtown Eastside and shakes his head.

A man saunters by mumbling “Drugs?” and flashes plastic bags in the palm of each hand.

Inside, a young man in tight jeans and a toque chats with a tattoo artist, a bear’s head hangs from the wall.

“Ridiculous,” says Stuart, a longtime resident and activist in the neighbourhood.

“There’s also a bicycle shop up the street where you can buy a $7,000 bicycle, if you want.”

There is a shift happening in the makeup of what has been called Canada’s poorest postal code, known as home for people struggling with mental illness, addiction and homelessness.

Entrepreneurs, developers and more affluent residents have moved into the neighbourhood’s periphery at an accelerating rate, thanks to skyrocketing real estate prices elsewhere in the city, loosened zoning restrictions and the community’s burgeoning appeal as a hip and happening place.

Dan Olson, who opened Railtown Cafe in the district’s northern fringe five years ago, said he was shocked when he first visited the area.

“I kind of looked around the neighbourhood and thought, there’s no way that I want to open up a restaurant here,” he said.

Things have changed for the better, Olson said, though there are still issues with needles in the alleys and makeshift tents around his business.

A recent surge in property values reflects the accelerating change, said Landon Hoyt, head of the area’s business improvement association.

Numbers he provided show the assessed value of commercial property in the area jumped 11 per cent in 2015, 17 per cent in 2016 and 30 per cent this year.

“We’re seeing a lot of businesses close because of that,” he said.

The transition hasn’t been without conflict.

Brandon Grossutti opened Pidgin restaurant five years ago on the border of the Downtown Eastside, prompting pickets for months from protesters who said the business was a symbol of gentrification.

But for Grossutti, who also has partnerships with non-profit organizations in the area, the decision to locate in the neighbourhood was partly a matter of survival.

“The math doesn’t make sense to open an independent business anywhere in Vancouver short of lower-rent districts,” he said.

Everyone in Vancouver is being displaced by property prices, though it is far more difficult for the city’s most vulnerable, Grossutti said.

“People always talk about pushing. I feel like it’s being squeezed,” he said, blaming a city planning project that restricted development to neighbourhoods immediately surrounding the district’s core.

Community activists are protesting the pressure felt by lower-income residents.

Jean Swanson of the Carnegie Community Action Project contributed to a report last year that criticized the city for its failure to protect the most vulnerable in the Downtown Eastside by welcoming businesses and development that cater to higher-income residents and visitors.

The pressure is inflating rental prices, which means more residents are being forced onto the street.

“Some people are pushed out of the neighbourhood,” Swanson said. ”But for a lot of them, there’s just no other place to go. There’s no affordable housing, so people just stay on the streets. That’s all they can do.”

Real estate agent Adam Scalena said he has noticed an abrupt shift in the interest clients are showing in the area’s neighbourhoods.

“It used to be, ‘I want to live in Kits or Yaletown or the West End,’ “ Scalena said. ”Now we’re hearing almost continuously young people and even downsizers and people new to Vancouver saying, ‘I want to live in Strathcona. I want to live in Chinatown. I want to live in Railtown.’ “

Some of the best bars and restaurants are in the area and people are moving in for lifestyle reasons, he said.

Plans to redevelop the nearby waterfront area of False Creek Flats, including the new home for St. Paul’s Hospital, will increase the pressure, Scalena added.

“It’s going to be very hard for … the residents who have been here for many years to remain,” Scalena said.

The city is conscious of the challenges and its 2014 local area plan was meant to cement its approach of “revitalization without displacement,” said Tom Wanklin, a planner responsible for the area.

“We are doing our best to manage particularly the heart of the Downtown Eastside, that it is a low-income priority area for those residents, rather than just a complete, open, anybody-can-come transformation process,” Wanklin said.

For instance, new businesses mean more jobs, but revitalization also risks putting a squeeze on existing residents, he explained.

The city’s development plan emphasizes social housing and rental property, as opposed to condominiums, Wanklin added.

For Stuart, those words ring hollow.

“It’s so discouraging because it’s just words coming from the city,” he said.

Stuart said in the mornings, there are more tents on the streets than he remembers in the past.

In Chinatown, he said, seniors are calling the area Coffeetown because of all the cafes opening up.

Geordon Omand, The Canadian Press

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Chilliwack school board chair running in provincial election

Dan Coulter will run against incumbent John Martin and former school trustee Diane Janzen

Chilliwack man hoping to restore ‘59 Chevy with big lottery win

Hervey Blois, a retired veteran, says he’s ‘dumbstruck’ by $500,000 win on lottery website

Flash bangs and police chopper were part of ERT operation in Chilliwack

Police say Lewis Avenue incident last Thursday night was part of ‘ongoing RCMP investigation’

Defence in Fraser Valley chicken abuse cases asks BC Supreme Court to drop the charges

Sofina Foods and Chilliwack company say undercover video by ‘vigilante group’ violates Charter rights

European fire ants infesting area of Chilliwack near Jinkerson Stairs

Crews from City of Chilliwack will be working to clear section near the top the stairs Monday

Weekend sees 267 cases, 3 deaths in B.C.; Dr. Henry says events leading to COVID spread

There are currently 1,302 active cases in B.C., while 3,372 people are under public health monitoring

Lightning strike: Tampa Bay blanks Dallas 2-0 to win Stanley Cup

Hedman wins Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP

Liberals seek to fast track new COVID-19 aid bill after CERB expires

Government secured NDP support for legislation by hiking amount of benefits by $100 to $500 per week

Police investigating shooting in North Delta

Police say occupants of two vehicles exchanged gunfire near 120th Street and 82nd Avenue

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

B.C. VOTES 2020: Echoes of HST in B.C. debate over sales tax

Cannabis, tobacco, luxury cars still taxed in B.C. Liberal plan

TransLink CEO asks riders not to enforce mask rules after Surrey bus punch-up

A fight broke out on a bus at 96 Avenue and Scott Road involving a man who refused to wear a mask

She warned her son about toxic drugs, then he was dead

Donna Bridgman’s son died at the age of 38 in Vancouver

Most Read