Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Two Debates in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside

I've been following two debates recently going on in Vancouver related to the Downtown Eastside--one was triggered by the city's Historic Area Heights Review and the other by future locations for social housing--and thought it would be helpful to compile some of the discussion in one place.

Historic Area Heights Review

The Historic Area Heights Review sought higher building height limits in the DTES and Chinatown. You can read the document here (I know it looks long, but after page 16 it's appendices only). If you don't want to read all that, you can check out the presentation version, which also discusses view corridors and height reviews in other areas of the city. It also has the benefit of looking very slick.

Basically, what the study recommends is rezoning in the DTES and Chinatown to allow for higher buildings of around 120 - 150ft at certain locations. The study also notes the distinct character of this historic area should not be compromised and that the higher densities should bring public benefits.
(image taken from the HAHR report)

This prompted a slew of Vancouver professors, planners and politicians to write a letter to council expressing their concern that the added density and height would compromise the low-income nature of the DTES, ultimately contributing to higher rents that would push out at-risk tenants. Mike Harcourt, former premier, wondered why there was a "height-only" study when the needs of the DTES required a broader social and economic study. Sounds like a reasonable request to me.

Michael Geller argued on his blog that the real issue was preserving the heritage nature of the district, something that higher buildings would encroach on.

Ultimately, city council cancelled the public hearing set for January 20, 2011 (which had a large number of speakers signed up) in order to call for a social-impact study to be completed and a community committee to be formed with the intent to create a local area plan for the DTES. A Georgia Straight article noted the public hearing led to an outcry against council for anti-democratic tactics, but that it was ultimately seen as a victory (for now). The Vancouver Sun's Jeff Lee wrote that city council had simply split up the area, so that while the DTES height reviews are on hold, the Chinatown ones will proceed with public hearings in February. Local action group Fight the Height used the headline: "Council strikes down the heights review...sort of."

Concord Pacific Social Housing Swap

As if that wasn't enough, a deal being drawn up with Concord Pacific (that ubiquitous developer of Vancouver's forest of glass towers) to have the developer turn over two DTES sites to the city for social housing development instead of including those units in the development of the North False Creek area, has triggered another debate. This time about where future social housing should be built--mixed with the rest of the city or located to the DTES?

On the one hand, the city has found it extremely difficult to build social housing units in developments in other parts of the city, the most publicized recently being the problems at the Olympic Village site. Compounded with this is the fact that the DTES has an established community and network of services for low-income citizens so it makes sense to provide social housing there.

On the other hand, you have Michael Geller's argument that we shouldn't be relegating Vancouver's poor to the DTES and should instead be including them in other areas of the city. A pretty hateful and vitriolic article by The Province (no surprise there) takes the view that the Downtown Eastside should be destroyed and social housing should be built outside of the DTES, but totally ignores the fact that in Vancouver NIMBYism on such projects is quite high.

I have no idea what is best. My instinct tells me that we should be providing low-income citizens with opportunities to share in the wealth of the city by including them in these mega-condo projects. While many residents of the DTES feel a connection to the community and wouldn't want to leave (nor should they have to) there are probably some that would rather live in other areas of the city.



  1. Glad you haven't forgotten about us!

  2. I'm finding this current DTES saga very difficult to follow as well - more twists and turns than a Steph Meyer novel. Thanks for trying to make some sense of it Jake, and kudos for writing about Vancouver from over there!

  3. Clayton, I think you just outed yourself as a Twilight fan.