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British Columbia Gentrification opponents take aim at Downtown Eastside condo project

Oppenheimer Park in the Downtown Eastside. Opponents say a 29-unit building planned near the park is a signal to other developers that the area is becoming one where profits can be made

The battleground over gentrification in the Downtown Eastside has shifted east.

While protesters continue to picket the upscale Pidgin Restaurant across from the DTES gathering place of Pigeon Park, a developer's plan for a modest condominium project on Cordova Street, just east of Oppenheimer Park, is drawing fire.

Opponents say the 29-unit building is a signal to other developers that the area is becoming one where profits can be made, and that eventually, many low-income residents will be pushed out as housing prices rise.

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"We'll fight this on the street," shouted one activist, as the city's Development Permit Board approved the project Monday. Board members noted the development will contain five units of $375-a-month social housing.

Before the meeting, Ivan Drury of the Carnegie Community Action Project said there is time for the community to map out a strategy to try to halt the project, since construction equipment will not be moving immediately onto the site, which has been vacant for years. "But I wouldn't discount [trying to stop the bulldozers]," he said. "We go to these hearings time after time, they nod their heads and smile, and agree with the problem, but they won't do anything that hurts the property owner. People are frustrated."

Nonetheless, the proposed condominiums conform with existing planning restrictions that have been in place for 30 years to protect low-income residents in the DTES-Oppenheimer district from being driven out by developers. The regulations include a requirement that at least 20 per cent of units in any new development be for social housing.

"It's worked for years, and now it's not working. This is the initial sign of that," said Mr. Drury. "It's not an ambitious development on its own. The danger is the ripple effect, based on the notice this sends to the market that the area is ripe for development."

He referred to a brochure put out by another developer who recently bought a nearby property. The developer listed a number of new investments in the area and lauded his purchase as "well-positioned to capitalize on the flurry of investment activity in East Vancouver."

Defending his project, developer Daniel Boffo said the five social-housing units will take five people off the streets. "That's five more than is currently provided on that site." As well, the 24 market-priced units will enable people working in the area to own their own place to live, he said. "All this will add to the community, not detract from it."

Mixed communities are far more preferable than ones that are segregated, said Mr. Boffo.

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His view was underscored at the board hearing by Gordon Wiebe of Community Builders, which will run the social-housing units.

"We need to figure out how people of mixed incomes can live together in one neighbourhood," Mr. Wiebe said. "No community can have only one voice." A local area planning process for the Downtown Eastside, with representation from many segments of the community, is expected to issue comprehensive recommendations by the end of the year on how best to preserve its integrity, heritage, character and income mix.

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