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neighbourhood watch

As Patricia Barnes crosses East Hastings Street, she points out a sign rising from the sidewalk that lists the diverse merchants in her neighbourhood on Vancouver's east side.

The sign touts the array of attractions in the Hastings-Sunrise area, from independent coffee houses to family-run restaurants to chain stores. Looking up, Ms. Barnes sees a banner for East Village – the rebranded name for the business strip along East Hastings, from Commercial Drive to Renfrew Street.

As executive director of the Hastings North Business Improvement Association, she is out to place the spotlight on an area that is too often overlooked for dining and shopping, despite its handy location roughly six kilometres east of downtown Vancouver.

On Tuesday at noon, she had her cup of java from the Laughing Coffee Bean, one of the many highlights along East Hastings. There are grocers – Donald's and Como Market – and a wide range of restaurants, including the Penny, Red Wagon Cafe, Tacofino, Campagnolo Roma, Rainbow Sushi and Slocan. Dayton Boots, with its distinctive boot-shaped sign, remains a landmark.

To clear the air on a controversy, Ms. Barnes said East Village is a label that refers to the collection of businesses, and isn't intended to replace Hastings-Sunrise. What's in a name? Signals Design Group Inc. came up with the East Village terminology in co-operation with the local business improvement association last spring, and the idea is to create a feeling of community among the merchants, and get the residents on side, too.

"It's a marketing and branding strategy for the business improvement area, within the Hastings-Sunrise neighbourhood," she said. "Critics have their own opinions, but it is not a renaming of the whole neighbourhood."

Sumiko Grace, a bartender on East Hastings, said the East Village banners on utility poles that now dot the streetscape won't fool anyone into conjuring up images of the East Village neighbourhood in Manhattan. "I think it is ridiculous. A lot of Vancouverites still haven't adapted to the name change yet," said Ms. Grace, who was born and raised on Vancouver's east side.

Shane Simpson, the NDP member of the provincial legislature for Vancouver-Hastings, said it will take a further period of adjustment to get used to the new brand. "Well, it will always be Hastings-Sunrise to me for the area, but the commercial strip has been renamed East Village," he said.

Whether it's Rio Friendly Meats or Ugo and Joe's Lucky Meats or London Drugs, Mr. Simpson said there are a range of specialty shops and chains.

The current site of London Drugs will be redeveloped into a huge new store at street level, with three storeys of condos above, dubbed the Alba project. "Traditional, family oriented, multicultural, Hastings-Sunrise is an entire community unto itself, only minutes from downtown," according to Alba's sales pitch for the 108-unit project that will combine retail with residential.

The condos will start at roughly $320,000 for a one-bedroom suite – relatively affordable, by Vancouver standards. Construction is scheduled to begin this year, with completion expected in 2015, and London Drugs will operate in a temporary location until the reopening as one of the largest among the chain's outlets in Metro Vancouver.

David Young, director of brand strategy at Signals Design Group, said East Village merchants are part of the Hastings-Sunrise community. "Our exercise was a brand renewal. It's an exercise in bringing awareness to the area. It has a very strong and independent community spirit, and there is change for the better. The merchants want to survive and do well," Mr. Young said, noting that there are 22 business improvement areas in Vancouver. Each non-profit improvement district receives funding through special property taxes.

East Village's tagline – "A vintage neighbourhood with a progressive attitude" – narrows down the essence of the brand, Mr. Young said. "It's important that communities have centres and places where locals can go, and they're not having to travel too far. Many of the merchants have character and are a bit unique to the area," he said.

There is free one-hour parking along large stretches of East Hastings, and there are rewards in discovering the shops, once you look beyond the four lanes of traffic that include large trucks. In the long term, there will be an opportunity to review the zoning in the district along Commercial Drive, north of East Hastings, where light manufacturing is currently allowed. Ms. Barnes, however, envisages a future where there are offices for engineers and architects to replace the remnants of Vancouver's industrial past.

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