Vision embraces NPA’s gentrification plan for the Downtown Eastside

Longtime Downtown Eastside advocate Jean Swanson has written a letter to City Council and City staff strongly urging them to “hold off on giving developers added density in the DTES…until the Social Impact Study & the DTES Vision are done, [and until] the tenure and assets of the low-income community are secured.”

The letter, sent Dec 10 2010, comes in response to Vision Vancouver’s apparent commitment to finalizing an NPA-initiated rezoning package for the Downtown Eastside. The rezoning package, which the City calls the “Historic Area Height Review,” and which others call the “DTES Gentrification Package,” calls for 7 condo towers at particular locations in the Downtown Eastside, as well as a general rezoning of the area to make it more affordable for developers to tear down buildings and replace them with condo developments.

The final policy document will be coming to City Council for approval on Jan 20 2011.

In anticipation of this rezoning policy, developers are already well underway with plans to build condo towers on the old BC Electric building at Hastings and Carrall, as well as at the corner of Abbott and Pender. The general upzoning has led, for example, to a decision by the owner of the Pantages theatre to replace earlier plans for a preserved theatre flanked by social housing with new plans for an 80% condo development adjacent the Carnegie Centre (The Mainlander will explore this development in future articles).

History of the Vision/NPA gentrification package for the Downtown Eastside

The “Historic Area Height Review” was initiated in 2007/8 by then-Mayor Sam Sullivan as part of his “EcoDensity” initiative, as a way to help some of his developer associates who wished to build twenty 30-storey condo towers in the Downtown Eastside. Sullivan wagered that he could justify the plan by claiming that taxes accrued from the developments might be used to help the poor. The June 2008 justification for the study claimed: “The intent of this direction is to support heritage conservation projects, to provide replacement low-income housing, and/or to support other public benefits and amenities.”

Under normal circumstances, a community planning process would include working closely with residents to develop community goals and a broad vision, and only after that would a rezoning package be proposed to meet these goals. But Sam Sullivan had already decided that the goal was to build condo towers, so City staff were instructed to ignore all human and social factors, and to instead discuss only “built form” and architectural issues. City Staff obediently drew up criteria for evaluating “opportunities” for building condo towers, and these criteria were couched in abstract planning jargon: patterns, nodes, distinctiveness, light, shadow, “view cones,” FSR and so on. There was little if any mention of human beings. City staff then hired Ray Spaxman to produce a report based on these non-human criteria. The final report, which came out Sept 15 2008, was rich in computer-generated pictures of boxes, but was almost entirely silent on social goals or impacts.

The report itself articulated the frustration of making rezoning recommendations without considering the human element: “The consultants stress the importance of including the broader social, economic and environmental implications of higher densities and higher buildings when planning the future of this especially complex and sensitive area of the city” (page 5 of final report, linked above).

Vision “owns” the gentrification package

Weeks later, Gregor Robertson was swept into power with a mandate to end homelessness, and even to curb real estate speculation. It might have been expected that the new Council might take a new approach, and instead consider “broader social, economic and environmental implications” of development in the Downtown Eastside.

But, through the summer of 2009, Vision steam-rollered ahead with this “Height Review.”

In the lead up to the Olympics, it became clear that the Vision Council indeed wanted to rezone the Downtown Eastside for condo towers. A draft report to Council on the Height Review, published on Jan 4 2010, advocated building towers at “special sites” in the Downtown Eastside, and general upzoning throughout the area. A flurry of private negotiations began between City staff, developers, and community groups. Staff told community groups to support the proposal as a good compromise, because if they didn’t support it, the plan could include even more condo towers!

One City staffer told me that councilors were making deals with developers behind closed doors, and that by including these condo tower proposals into the report, this staffer was trying to at least bring these backroom discussions into the public arena.

Widespread community opposition to the gentrification package

The Jan 4 2010 staff report claimed that the City’s main planning advisory body – the Vancouver Planning Commission – supported the report’s recommendations. But that was not the case. On Jan 18, the Chair of the City Planning Commission wrote a letter to city staff saying the the commission “was unable to arrive on a consensus on a response to the HAHR.” This was a polite way of saying they did not support the recommendations. Their argument was the same as the that of Spaxman: “Moving forward, we would encourage the scope of the study beyond issues of built form to embrace the complexity inherent in the development of this area” (see page 2 of this staff update).

Downtown Eastside groups were particularly concerned about having been totally ignored. The Carnegie Community Action Project (CCAP) had spent two years consulting the community to develop a framework for developing and assessing methods and goals for community planning in the Downtown Eastside. They had thoroughly researched existing strengths to build upon, and gaps to fill. As it became clear that Vision was intent on ramming through the NPAs unfinished business, the hitherto hopeful CCAP was shocked and dismayed. They wrote a short-and-sweet letter to Council demanding that they “Stop the height review now” because first there needed to be a resident-driven plan, and because the “The City and DTES residents have no information about the social, economic and land use implication of the height study option on the low income DTES community.” CCAP followed-up with letter outlining the “ripple effects” of condo development on the DTES community (see pages 4-6 of the above linked staff update).

Another organization wrote a letter, signed by ex-premier Mike Harcourt, also arguing that the City was putting the cart before the horse: “As with other City initiatives in the DTES and with locally-generated plans in the area, there is no framework to assess the merits of this proposal against an overall vision for the area. Without such a framework there is no means for comparing the impact of the height study proposals on the existing local plans…We recognize that this review originated with a previous Council. However the question of height and density in the communities of the DTES is very important and deserves thorough discussion” (see pages 7-8 of the above linked staff update).

City staff conceded that social factors needed to be considered before deciding to build towers:

“Many of these issues [affordability, securing community assets, etc] cannot be addressed through the Height Review process, and require a broader and comprehensive community strategy for the DTES with its diverse communities. In 2010, with completion of the HAHR and Chinatown Community Plan, some of the DTES planning staff resource will be focused on starting a community dialogue process to scope a possible local area planning program for the DTES…Further, with the Woodward’s development project so near to completion, it behoves the City to undertake a well-timed post-occupancy evaluation of the project in order to understand the social and economic impacts that this innovative project brings to bear on the DTES neighbourhood more specifically” (see page 17 of this).

But staff recommended that council approve the height increases and “special” towers anyway! At the Jan 26 2010 Council meeting, Vision voted yes to direct staff to hammer out the details of building up to 7 condo towers (15 stories), as well as general up-zoning throughout the area.

“Social Impact Study”: the effects of condo development on low-income community

Due to pressure from CCAP and the dozens of DTES delegates that spoke to Council, the decision of 26 Jan 2010 included a commitment to investigate the impact of condo development on the low income community. The final decision read: “C3. That a social impact study be conducted to assess the effect on the existing low-income community of new developments in the historic area and where opportunities for enhanced affordability and live-ability may be achieved” (see page 2 of this).

As of today, Dec 10 2010, this “social impact study” has not yet started in earnest, never mind been completed. In January, a committee of City staff and DTES residents will begin planning a process for engaging the broader community to assess the impacts of condo development. The process will take many months. The final report of the social impact study is supposed to be written by a second-year UBC Planning Master’s student. (This student recently wrote a report on the Woodward’s development. Many in the DTES community considered the report to be a whitewash, because it ignored the history of struggle at the site and overlooked Woodward’s many gentrification ripple effects; read this for one critique by Dave D of Streams of Justice).

Despite not knowing the social impact of their gentrification package, the City was set to vote on the final policy of seven towers and general up-zoning of the DTES next week on Dec 16 2010. That date has now been pushed back to Jan 20 2011.

Isn’t it time to put to rest Sam Sullivan’s gentrification plan for the DTES, and start afresh working with the community instead of against it?