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Walley Wargolet, executive director of the Gastown Business Improvement Society, says the business community needs to be part of the solution to restore the area, but they need Vancouver’s support.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

Gastown businesses are ready for a comeback.

In the past 18 months, Vancouver shoppers have disappeared from the area’s stores as remote workers and residents became reclusive inside their homes. At the same time, people living in crowded social housing have been forced onto the streets and there was a spike in vandalism and crime. Condo owners who want to sell have been waiting for the stalled market to turn around.

Now, there’s “cautious optimism,” says Walley Wargolet, executive director of the Gastown Business Improvement Society. Twenty shops and restaurants had closed in the past couple of years and now a couple of dozen have either opened or reopened. Microsoft has opened a new office on Water Street with 300 employees, Kit and Ace has reopened its clothing store in the same building and Kozak restaurant has taken over for Bauhaus Restaurant at 1 West Cordova. Bauhaus owner Uwe Boll has posted on social media about the horrors he witnessed before closing his restaurant in 2020, including his wife’s discovery of a dead body on the roof of her car. He referred to Gastown as “the epicentre of the disaster.”

But Mr. Wargolet is hoping that the historic neighbourhood will soon have a renaissance, restoring peace and drawing more people back to the streets.

“There are some negatives, and there are challenges,” Mr. Wargolet says. “Twenty businesses closed, but now in the course of what we have been hearing, we have over 25 new businesses opening up, so really, we are going to be net positive over the course of the next few months – which is phenomenal given everything that has been happening,” he says. “There is optimism, and opportunity, being able to have lower rent than prepandemic. All those things are playing into it. I think people do see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

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Brock Worobel, who poured his savings into his condo at the Paris Block on West Hastings about eight years ago, says he would like to sell but the buyers aren’t there. He says several of his neighbours in the building have moved away and rented out their units. Mr. Worobel is not as positive that things will pick up soon enough for him to leave the area. He says part of the reason is the intentional concentration of social housing projects and more that are in the pipeline. Mr. Worobel, like others, believes that the Downtown Eastside plan that was approved in 2014, to build at least 60 per cent social housing and 40 per cent market rental, sans condos, has failed. An integrated and more diverse mix of people and incomes, he says, would have worked better for the neighbourhood as a whole.

“Having been down here for [almost] 10 years now, I’m not hopeful,” he says. “[Government leaders] haven’t learned from the past. People with substance use and who are homeless are mixed with criminals and they put them into this five block-by-five-block radius and expect things to be hunky dory. And then they turn a blind eye to it.”

Artist Michael Miller, who lived in Strathcona for eight years, became a realtor during the pandemic and works in Chinatown. For most of the past year he’s seen first-time buyers opt to buy in the suburbs rather than live in Gastown, but just last week he was approached by new clients from the U.S. who want to purchase investment condos in Gastown. He’s also met with investor buyers who are looking in nearby Strathcona. He believes they’re looking to buy before the market there picks up.

He also applauds the owner of Bauhaus restaurant for speaking out about the tragedies he and his wife witnessed.

“It’s tough to speak about it, because we don’t want to admit that’s what is happening. It’s not just the [business community] getting involved, it’s the government getting involved and supporting those in need, and addressing why this is taking place. It’s heartbreaking, but I think we need more business owners speaking to that experience.”

Mr. Wargolet says the business community needs to be part of the solution, but they need the city’s support. And although government has spent millions purchasing buildings for emergency shelters and creating support services, the past 18 months have shown that more needs to be done.

“We have compassion for these folks: They shouldn’t be on the streets, but they are. There doesn’t seem to be the services necessary to get them off the streets and into the help they need, to help themselves and protect others, too.”

Mr. Wargolet believes that a diversity of housing types would help the situation. He’s also been in touch with companies such as Microsoft and Amazon, which are opening offices in the area and are looking at hiring thousands of workers who will need housing. Allied Properties Real Estate Investment Trust recently purchased the Dominion Building at Cambie and Hastings. The Toronto-based company, which has a large portfolio of heritage commercial buildings, also owns the nearby Sun Tower building and the Landing, on Water Street. Their typical tenant base is the tech worker. The old army and navy buildings, on 1.2 acres of land in the heart of Gastown, are also set to undergo a major redevelopment transformation. The Cohen Block would include retail and restaurants and amenities, and significant affordable and market rental units, but no strata units.

“They need that housing immediately. We need to stop housing moratoriums and be creative, and get some housing built quickly, across the spectrum – from social housing to market housing, condos as well as apartments,” Mr. Wargolet says.

“There are things we need to take a look at. We are working together to try to pressure the province on some of these issues. We are concerned, we care about our community and we are also looking for alternatives.”

Mr. Wargolet, who’s part of a community-wellness committee, is consulting with researchers at Simon Fraser University, who’ve studied homelessness over the course of a decade. Clinical psychologist and distinguished professor Julian Somers prepared a “call to action” for the province in June. Mr. Wargolet is hoping an alternative program like the one SFU offers could help ease the suffering and dysfunction on the streets.

Prof. Somers is frustrated that so much money has been put into approaches that are not working, when the team’s “recovery oriented housing” model has shown evidence-based results. It also costs roughly the same as the current approach.

“It seems to me that they have been so consistently making the wrong move – temporary housing, housing people with super complex needs all together, with fairly minimal supports – it’s like one misstep after another.”

His team studied hundreds of people who were the least likely to get housing, and about 85 per cent of them came from outside the Lower Mainland. Because it takes on average about a decade for them to reach the Downtown Eastside, he says the intervention should begin before then.

“So after about 10 years they make their way to a place like Vancouver, so the logic of investing our resources where the evidence of troubles is greatest is poor, because it compels people to go through that prolonged and very difficult and taxing migration period before they are at all likely to receive assistance. So we’ve got to ship it out to where people might be a little bit closer to their home communities, and be in a position to intervene earlier.”

Another finding is that the vast majority of people chose housing located outside of the Downtown Eastside. Prof. Somers says that the best housing is “recovery oriented,” which is not grouping everyone together in a former hotel but instead giving people a choice of independent housing with supports aimed at well-being, similar to Finland’s housing program. His team finds landlords who enter into agreements, and if the tenant doesn’t work out, they find them new accommodation. No one is evicted. Someone like himself would check on them daily, to go shopping, see the dentist, cook a meal together, or just talk about the future.

“It’s housing so that people can get better. It’s not the way we usually think, like abstinence, or anything like that. It’s simply better. Like, ‘I have a much healthier sense of my identity. I feel like a different person. I’m way happier. I’m in a relationship. I’m working.’ Stuff like that, better.”

Prof. Somers says that to rebuild, the business community needs to be part of the solution. Entrepreneurs could collaborate with work programs; landlords could participate in a housing inventory. Everybody would need to be clear on the risks and benefits.

“I think the impact on businesses is pretty profound, and that includes landlords. The street chaos is pretty brutal. And I get that they are not seen as terribly sympathetic. … But of course it’s true what liberal-minded folks say about strength in working together. The private sector is of course a major source of employment, but they are also landlords, the private sector, and so landlords and employers play critical roles in the very intervention that we’re talking about, whether it’s in Finland or Portugal or here.”

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