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An artist’s rendering of a revitalized Downtown Eastside in Vancouver. (McILHARGEY / BROWN ASSOCIATES LTD./Lori Brown)
An artist’s rendering of a revitalized Downtown Eastside in Vancouver. (McILHARGEY / BROWN ASSOCIATES LTD./Lori Brown)

CITY LIMITS

Downtown Eastside redevelopment debate is the same old game Add to ...

It has kind of become the way we do things in Vancouver: present an initial idea, spend a couple of years getting city staff to put flesh on the bones, try to get the affected communities and stakeholders involved, hold some workshops, some community meetings that rely heavily on Expo markers, newsprint flipboards and the made-up verb “visioning.” Then get city staff to write up a several-hundred-page report on it, appoint an unlucky lead councillor to carry the message, and finally release the thing to the public to a wall of opposition. Marpole, Grandview-Woodland, Oakridge, the West End – just some of the neighbourhoods where opponents of redevelopment plans have forced council to backtrack, rethink, or delay their plans.

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But the Downtown Eastside Local Area Plan is the mother of them all.

This is the plan to spend $1-billion of fictional money over the next 30 years to remake, finally, what former mayor and former B.C. premier Mike Harcourt referred to this week as “not just the poorest postal code in Canada but a place that is appalling in its human wreckage.”

Mr. Harcourt told CBC this week: “The present reality is 100-per-cent failure.”

And remember, this is coming from a fan of the neighbourhood who is quick to talk about its historical significance and its importance as one of the few places left for people with little or no money.

The plan calls for 4,400 new social-housing units to be built in the Downtown Eastside over the next 30 years, and another 3,300 elsewhere in the city. Single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels would be upgraded or eventually replaced, and rents would be heavily subsidized.

The plan depends on other levels of government contributing about half the funding, with the other half coming mostly from the city and developers.

City Councillor Andrea Reimer told me earlier this week that the city can go it alone if necessary, albeit on a much smaller scale. But she says at the very least, having a plan makes it more likely that the province and federal government will get on board.

So far, the provincial minister responsible for housing, Rich Coleman, has offered a blunt “no” each time he is asked whether the province will contribute. So there’s that.

But by far the most contentious part of the proposal is that the core of the neighbourhood the city calls DEOD (Downtown Eastside Oppenheimer District) would be a condo-free zone. The district, which includes Main and Hastings streets and the area surrounding Oppenheimer Park, would require any new housing to be 60 per cent social housing and 40 per cent rental.

On one end, you have critics such as architect and developer Michael Geller, who say barring condos from the Oppenheimer District would lead to the “ghettoization” of the area, and that, without the significant contributions of developers, the plan would fail.

On the other side, you have the Carnegie Community Action Project, which is demanding that more housing units be built, that 60 per cent be social housing, and that the units are actually affordable to people on social assistance or pensions. The CCAP also wants what it calls “a social justice” zone. A statement on the group’s website reads, “The future of the Downtown Eastside (DTES) is being decided by rich real estate investors and developers who are profiting off changing the neighbourhood from a place where low-income people feel at home into yet another upscale area.”

It was Ms. Reimer who reminded me that the previous housing plan for the Downtown Eastside was approved in 2005. It was mainly concerned with making sure SROs were not replaced with condominiums. Feel free to debate how well that went.

Around the same time, there was The Vancouver Agreement. Remember that one – three levels of government would work together to solve “the problem” of the Downtown Eastside? After listing its accomplishments over its 10-year lifespan, the final report concluded in 2010, “Although one agreement cannot completely erase serious systemic problems such as poverty, drug addiction and homelessness, it can spark a renewal. The Vancouver Agreement directed fresh people, ideas, policies and practices at old problems.”

And maybe that’s the best we can hope for. Every few years, a new set of people will muster the energy to consult with the community and experts, gather data, get out the flipboards and markers and hold those public meetings. They’ll talk about maintaining the Downtown Eastside as a “vibrant” and “caring” community and gloss over the brutal realities of the place.

And very little will change.

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