Planning the DTES

peak dtes

By Leah Bjornson
Photos by Leah Bjornson

Plans for 18 new development projects between Carrall Street and the base of Burnaby Mountain have created hope for a revival along East Hastings, one of the poorest and most notorious streets in Canada. However, for some, this new development may not be a welcomed change.

SFU students may have already noticed the new condos, businesses, and other buildings springing up along this strip during their daily commute up Burnaby Mountain. Since 2007, 25 building projects have been completed along East Hastings. These developments have added 423,533 square feet of residential space and 206,956 square feet of commercial space to the area.

Despite its appearance today, the Downtown Eastside (DTES) neighbourhood was once an economic and industrial hub of Vancouver. Once termed the “Great White Way” because of its neon displays, the infamous street was home to the city hall, the courthouse, the Carnegie Library, the BC Electric Railway Company, and Woodward’s de- partment store.

“What you’ve got is layers upon layers of history,” said Gordon Price, director of the City Program at SFU and six-term Vancouver city councillor. “East Hastings was really Gastown, where the sawmill was. Bars and hotels gathered around the area to provide essential services for the workers and visitors to the city. Even when the city-centre moved to Granville in the 1920s, the Downtown Eastside main- tained its purpose as a place for sawmill workers. It was still a major city centre, even as its pop- ulation declined in income.”

After Vancouver’s city-centre moved to Granville, a new, low- income population moved into the DTES area. This migration was followed by the arrival of new drugs, which spurred the creation of services in the area such as the needle exchange and the Union Mission Gospel, which in turn attracted more poor, struggling individuals. This chain of events led to East Hastings metamorphosis from a historical and cultural centre into Vancouver’s very own “skid row.”

Now, the Vancouver City Council is looking to revitalise the area with new developments. One of these is SFU’s acclaimed School for the Contemporary Arts, which relocated downtown to a new building in the historic Woodward’s district in Septem- ber 2010. Dr. Michael Stevenson, then President and Vice-Chan- cellor of Simon Fraser University, commented at the time: “We celebrate the move of SFU’s School for the Contempo- rary Arts to Woodward’s as participants in this great project of social and urban transformation in the heart of Vancouver’s Down- town Eastside. We are here not as an elite educational institution, opportunistically seeking its own advantage, but as partners in this most challenged and challenging part of our community.”

Nevertheless, not everyone is on board with this urban transformation. Critics worry that new development would lead to gentrification of the last af- fordable neighbourhood in the city for impoverished and low income citizens.

Price describes the conundrum faced by the city councillors as a catch-22, in which neither option really solves the problem. “Critics argue that the area should remain as it is,” describes Price. “But this also creates an en- vironment and market for the drug trade. The policy to keep develop- ment out of East Hastings is one of preserved dysfunction.

He continued, “But these impoverished areas exist in every city in the world. If it needs to be somewhere, this is the place.” Solutions for the problem of affordable social housing include a proposal for a 14-storey rental building at 41 East Hastings. Sixty per cent of the planned 169 housing units are slated to rent for below- market rates, with 52 units reserved specifically for women.

Even still, Price speculated that projects such as this may not be enough to reverse the tide of change enveloping the neighbourhood. “Cities are organic,” says Price. “Our tendency as a culture is to plan and lock in ideas if they benefit us, but cities must always be responsive to change. You can’t control everything, and to some degree you don’t want to.”