While a dozen or more drug dealers brazenly do business in an alley off Carrall Street, developer Robert Fung dodges the dealing to get to the makeshift entryway of his latest condo project.
The development at 370 Carrall is a small project called 21 Doors, a simple reference to the number of units. Mr. Fung, whose company Salient Group has contributed greatly to the changing face of Gastown, is developing the 1980s building that had sat mostly vacant and dilapidated for many years. It had been built pre-Expo with intentions of being sold off as condos, but the building had only ever been used as rental.
The bank that owns the four-storey building, which includes one floor of retail and three for residential, has given Mr. Fung cart blanche to do what is necessary to develop condos that will be attractive to buyers, without offending the tightly knit downtown eastside community. The project, which is going to be priced relatively low for Vancouver, should be seen as a major improvement to what was previously there, says Mr. Fung.
“By the time the current owner got involved, there were only six units occupied,” he says, standing in a freshly dry-walled unit with a view of the street below. “Put it this way. They were very low-end apartments, the equivalent of a rooming house and not being well managed at that time. It was not humane housing.”
There had been previous attempts to revitalize the building as either market or non-market housing, but those fell through. The approach here is to fulfill a housing gap that exists in most popular Vancouver neighbourhoods.
Starting at $209,900 for the smallest studio unit, the price point is reasonable for a condo that is situated on the edge of one of Vancouver’s trendiest areas. The two-bedroom units are at the top end, priced at around $380,000. The studio, one and two bedroom units go on the market on Oct. 15, and construction is expected to be complete by November.
“There’s a big gap now between full market housing and non-market housing,” says Mr. Fung. “And I think there’s a real need for stuff that starts to fill that gap, that isn’t social housing, but also isn’t $700 per square foot. It doesn’t cost $350,000 for 500 square feet, like you’d see in Yaletown.
“This is really ‘small A’ affordable housing. It’s much more affordable than our other product. The unit sizes are small but livable.”
The reason prices can remain relatively low is because it’s a pre-existing building that is solidly built from concrete and steel. So far the exterior brick has been painted a clean white, new windows have been installed and the interior has been completely gutted and the old-fashioned layouts have been reworked into a more contemporary style. Every unit has windows facing both an original interior courtyard and the street.
The small L-shaped courtyard is a rarity that will give an instant communal feeling to the small residence. Once finished, the courtyard will have at its centre a long outdoor table. And a new sandblasted concrete wall will give modern juxtaposition to the old brick wall next door.
In keeping with Salient projects that have open kitchen and living areas, the 21 Doors project will have similar open floor plans, but the bedrooms will be enclosed. The retail level windows, formerly covered with security grills, will be big and open to the street.
The idea is to create a building that is open to the community, not shut off from it. Considering that it’s located at one of the busiest corners for the drug trade, it remains to be seen whether a nice new building will oust the drug pushers from the area.
“We want to do homes for people who actually work in the area and understand the neighbourhood and aren’t there because they are expecting it to change,” says Mr. Fung. “This isn’t just for people who are coming in, looking for a cool, trendy neighbourhood. A low-income community is part of what makes it great. We are not looking to displace it.
“But another positive change I think is the open drug trade, to not have it there on that corner. These [dealers]do not for the most part live in the neighbourhood.”
Mr. Fung isn’t the first to attempt transformation of the street. Across from 21 Doors is the newly renovated Rainier Hotel, with the spacious old-world charm of Nelson the Seagull café. It was immediately successful when it opened in May, the sort of place that attracts young urban types who drink espresso while they work on their laptops.
Of course, the less urban-minded would see the drug trade and poverty before they’d see the hipster-hangout across the way. But as the Woodward’s Building has already proved, a younger demographic is eager to move in.
Back in the day, it was the Army & Navy discount store that pulled people to Gastown — today a rash of top-end eateries makes it a destination neighbourhood. As well, there are little galleries and boutique stores that are popping up, giving it a charm not to be found on oppressively expensive Robson Street.
Restaurateur Sean Heather has been running various food operations around Gastown for the last 15 years. He knows the area well.
“I’m a big fan of putting normal things on corners like bakeries, because drug users need to be looked after. The dealers do not. And they don’t like normal activity because it makes them look abnormal.”
He isn’t certain if that corner will clean up in the near future, but he knows that Mr. Fung “can make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.”
Mr. Heather is also venturing further into the less trendy areas of Gastown, where rents are lower and the challenge is greater.
He’s currently got a total of eight food establishments on the go, including the upcoming Bitter, a beer-centric restaurant set to open on Oct. 17 on West Hastings, around the corner from 21 Doors. In January, he expects to open the Rainier Delicatessen, the last commercial space to be rented in the Rainier Hotel building. It is a prime corner unit, with original tile floors and plaster ceilings. In collaboration with local suppliers, he will sell olives, cured meats, and virgin olive oil poured straight from the barrel.
He also runs Penn, a wholesale bakery in the bottom of the Pennsylvania Hotel on Hastings at Carrall, which provides the baked goods for his operations. One day, he intends to open the bakery as a retail operation. Mr. Heather has seen the rents soar in his time in Gastown.
“It’s hitting critical mass,” he says. “I don’t know that we can go any higher.
“When I came to Gastown 15 years ago, I was paying $12 or $13 a square foot. Now, for the same area, you’re looking at $44 along Water Street. It goes down as you go towards Nelson the Seagull.”
As to whether he fears the arrival of a big chain store in the area, he figures he’s just leased the only possible space that would have been suitable, in the Rainier Hotel.
“I think the Rainier was the last property around that was left to be picked up. I don’t know what’s left,” says Mr. Heather. “I think we have kind of ridden that one out and got lucky, not to have been interesting enough for them when we had spaces available. And now that we are interesting enough, we don’t have space available. I can’t think of one single space big enough to look after them.
“That’s the character of Gastown – we don’t have McDonald’s or large format retailers. I’ve always liked that.”
Special to The Globe and Mail