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Vancouver's Gastown neighbourhood, home to about 4,000 people and 500 businesses, suffered visibly during the COVID-19 pandemic.Jackie Dives/The Globe and Mail

Vancouver’s oldest and pandemic-battered neighbourhood will experiment with going car-free, as the city looks for ways to revitalize an area that has been a top tourist attraction in the past.

The city’s ABC council announced Tuesday that it will be voting to create a new plan for Gastown – the small, historic district that is Vancouver’s original settlement – and will put some immediate money into fixing the much-patched roads.

The city is promising to spend an initial $10-million in Gastown, and there could be more if the current capital plan – which the city develops at every election to set out a list of necessary large construction projects – can be adjusted.

“This aims to create a bold, pedestrian-focused vision for this neighbourhood,” councillor Sarah Kirby-Yung said.

Water street will close for the upcoming Bike Race and another night in August as part of an event called Meet Me In Gastown, said Walley Wargolet, the Gastown Business Improvement Association’s executive director. He said the group will be working to see if there could be one other car free day this summer and more car free days for Water Street in 2024.

Mr. Wargolet said it’s a relief the city is finally paying some attention to Gastown. For years, businesses had lobbied, with little effect, for repairs to the streets and improvements in lighting.

Home to about 4,000 people and 500 businesses, Gastown suffered visibly during the pandemic. Tourists from cruise ships and elsewhere, as well as downtown office workers, disappeared from the area known for its old brick buildings, faux-cobblestone streets and steam clock.

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Some businesses said the area, which is next to the Downtown Eastside and Chinatown, started to feel unsafe without its former street life. Some left.

Currently, Gastown’s vacancy rate is about 7 per cent, which is low compared with some other neighbourhoods, Mr. Wargolet said. New businesses have also moved in in the past two years, including the French-Japanese chain Maison Kitsuné and a new upscale Mexican restaurant, Monarca.

Mr. Wargolet said foot traffic is back to about 80 per cent of prepandemic levels and that numbers are expected to increase as the cruise-ship traffic returns.

Gastown is still home to many low-income residents, who live in the old residential hotels scattered through the district. There is a gaping hole on one block where the Winters Hotel burned down more than a year ago, killing two residents.

Among the changes now being considered for Gastown is a re-do of Cordova Street, which runs parallel to Water Street, to make it two-way.

There are new developments in the area that could bring other changes.

Blood Alley and the former Stanley/New Fountain shelter are in the last days of a complete refurbishment that will bring new social housing, retail spaces and a plaza to one block.

The giant former Army & Navy department store nearby, now shuttered, is being envisioned as the site of an apartment block, new office buildings and restored heritage buildings by its owner, Jacqui Cohen, who is working with developer Colin Bosa.

Mayor Ken Sim said that he thinks something that is helping Gastown already is the clearance of tents and structures from nearby Hastings Street, though that hasn’t solved continuing issues of homelessness in the Downtown Eastside.

“If we get more people into shelters and supportive housing, it will have a positive effect,” he said. “But it’s not going to magically happen.”

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