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Vancouver council approves Downtown Eastside condo project

A rendering of the proposed condominium complex on East Hastings Street in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

GBL Architects

Vancouver City Council has approved rezoning for a Downtown Eastside condominium project that includes market and social housing along with commercial and light industrial space.

The project – at 955 East Hastings Street and backed by developer Wall Financial Corp. – also includes the ingredients for a heated neighbourhood debate, with critics charging it will drive up property prices and push low-income people out of the neighbourhood.

Supporters, meanwhile, say the project will add to the city's overall social-housing supply and could help generate jobs and business activity in an area that could use more of both.

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"There are a number of positive benefits to the project, including preserving industrial space," Joji Kumagai, executive director of the Strathcona Business Improvement Association, said on Tuesday.

As one of the community groups involved in the city's Downtown Eastside Local Area Planning Program, the Strathcona BIA has been lobbying city staff and developers to consider potential new jobs – especially for neighbourhood residents – when contemplating new projects, Mr. Kumagai added.

The zoning for 955 East Hastings provides for a 12-storey mixed-use space that would include 352 residential units as well as commercial and light industrial space.

Seventy of those apartments, or 20 per cent, would be social-housing units owned by the city.

Those units won't offset the loss of low-income housing that could result if rents go up in nearby single-room occupancy hotels, says Jean Swanson of the Carnegie Community Action Project, a Downtown Eastside community group.

Of the seventy social-housing units, only a third (23 or 24 units) would be rented at the shelter component of welfare rates, currently set at $375 a month.

"So what we're afraid of is, we'll get those 24 but we'll lose 152 [SRO units]," Ms. Swanson said.

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The Carnegie Community Action Project has been lobbying city and provincial governments over gentrification in the Downtown Eastside, where projects like the redeveloped Woodward's complex, designer boutiques and upscale restaurants are popping up next to single-room-occupancy hotels.

There have also been complaints that the 955 East Hastings project is moving ahead even as a broader neighbourhood planning process is under way.

The city says the application for the project was made before the neighbourhood planning program began and that it will be evaluated in the light of other city guidelines, including the Downtown Eastside Housing Plan adopted by council in 2005.

"There are a number of groups that supported our project, that I worked with, that see real possibility for this project to make a difference in the Downtown Eastside," Bob Ransford, a consultant who has worked with Wall Financial Corporation on the project, said on Tuesday.

More residents, small businesses and an improved streetscape would be positive additions to the neighbourhood, said Allison Spurrell, co-owner of Les Amis du Fromage, a cheese shop that opened an East Hastings outlet in 2009, taking a gamble on a 12,000-square-foot commercial property that the company would not have been able to afford on the west side. Her shop is one block west of the proposed new development.

"Change can be good and bad for all the people in the neighbourhood – but there needs to be some growth," she said.

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