The world of high-tech and start-ups is coming to the heart of Vancouver's most troubled neighbourhood, with a city plan to create a "technology incubation centre" in the old police station at Main and Hastings.
It also opens a new and discouraging front in the gentrification battle in the Downtown Eastside, local activists fear.
They had hoped the hulking former police building would be used for social housing and community space for the low-income people who live there. Instead, according to a document in the province's BCBid site, the city is looking for an operator to run the 100,000-square-foot facility as a centre that "will provide subsidized working space and a range of support services to entrepreneurs with early-stage companies, with the objective of supporting these companies through their critical start-up and early growth periods."
The building could potentially also house a big, existing high-tech company. In addition, the plan is to provide some subsidized space for social enterprises – businesses that are profit-oriented but have a social or environmental mission.
The acting CEO of the Vancouver Economic Commission, a city-funded operation that looks at how to bring business to the city and sustain it, said the police station is an ideal location for a tech hub, given its proximity to Gastown and Railtown where many tech start-ups and more established tech companies are already working.
"We hope this would be a good addition to the community," said Joan Elangovan, who said the city will provide the building rent-free to the commission with the aim of seeing it become financially viable.
Councillor Raymond Louie emphasized that the building will be a home to the kinds of social enterprises that have helped the Downtown Eastside. Potluck, a catering service, and Bladerunners, which trains local residents to work in construction and mentors them in their jobs, are two examples.
"We're supporting both technology and social innovation in one building," he said.
But community activists say this is one more nail in the coffin of a fragile low-income community that is already facing pressure on all sides from developers and businesses wanting to move in.
"This is the absolute heart of the Downtown Eastside. It's been protected a little bit, but now this will be encroaching right into the heart," said Jean Swanson, of Carnegie Community Action Project.
Wendy Pedersen, an independent activist who has been protesting the arrival of the high-end PiDGiN restaurant nearby, said the plan to turn the building into a tech hub is the worst thing the city could do. "It gives a signal to the high-end market that the neighbourhood's changing and it's for sale."
Vancouver police announced three years ago they would be moving out of the 1953 building at 312 Main St. to the former headquarters of the Vancouver Olympics organizing committee on the far eastern edge of the city.
Ms. Elangovan said the city had some consultations with the business community about what to do with the site.
As well, people working in the high-tech sector started approaching the city with offers.
The centre is envisioned as a large, diversified "accelerator centre," in the jargon of the sector. That means it brings together a lot of the training and services that start-ups typically need, as well as help accessing venture capital. A model the commission looked at is the MaRS Discovery District in Toronto, among others.
There are other incubator hubs and accelerator centres already in Vancouver – GrowLab, Wavefront – but they tend to focus on one specific kind of technology. The new Vancouver Technology Centre would aim to provide services to all the different kinds of tech operations that city entrepreneurs are venturing into. The deadline for proposals from third-party operators is next Friday.
"Vancouver is really a city of entrepreneurs," she said. "What this building is going to be used for is to focus on the early-stage technology and innovation companies. This is to complement what is in the ecosystem already."