Main Street has become a frontier for high-end real-estate development.

Whether at Little Mountain, 33rd Avenue, King Edward, 16th Avenue, Broadway, South East False Creek or the Downtown Eastside, the entire Main Street corridor has been re-imagined as the new horizon for redevelopment and increased rent extraction. Right in the center of Vancouver’s working class heart, a precedent setting new luxury condo is in its rezoning application phase, and has incited a battle between a large majority of concerned residents and an individual but well-heeled real-estate developer.

This past Tuesday Jan 16 2012, the City of Vancouver and the Rize Alliance presented an updated plan for the controversial redevelopment of Broadway and Kingsway. There are few changes to the plan since March of last year when at a consultation 90% of the community spoke out against it. The fact that now, post-election, the planning department is asserting its position against the wishes of the community and in favour of the developer is a sign that the political battle, the Public Hearing at City Hall, is just around the corner.

Rize Alliance

Rize’s current proposal consists of a nineteen storey tower with 241 units of market condos, one 85,000 sq. ft. retail space, and an underground parking garage of 320 spaces. On Tuesday, two major changes were announced: scrapping a proposed 9,200 sq. ft. artist-studio space, for a cash contribution to fund an off-site cultural or civic facility, and the removal of 15 market rental STIR units — the same program that the Vision Vancouver has consistently defended as a successful policy to build affordable housing. During the election campaign, Vision differentiated itself from the NPA by pointing to the STIR policy, and even called on voters to vote for Vision in order to defend STIR.

If the other project developed by Rize in Mount Pleasant and the current marketing material is any indication, the new condos will not be affordable to long-time residents living in the neighbourhood. New units in Rize’s OnQue, on the corner of Broadway and Quebec start at $349,000 for a 640 sq. ft. one bedroom. According to the most recent census figures, the average income in Mt. Pleasant is approximately $10,000 below the city’s average, or $37,000 a year.

On top of that, the 85,000 sq. ft. retail space is set to be filled with a new big box store that will place even more pressure on already struggling small businesses in the neighborhood and residents who cannot afford to pay for over-priced fruits and vegetables. Already businesses along Main are feeling pressure. Some are organizing fundraisers, some are moving east, and others are having their keys taken by the bailiff.

This Rize project and pressures faced on Mount Pleasant is a textbook example of gentrification, the result of which is and will be the continued displacement of the largely low-income community who call the neighborhood their home. This is part of the reason why the redevelopment of this particular site is drawing attention from both the neighbourhood itself and from the development community. If this project does go through despite significant opposition, it will set a major precedent for other large-scale projects throughout East Vancouver.

A found public art piece on the Rize site, with the caption DEC 25. A fire, still suspect by many Mount Pleasant residents, burned down retail and artist’s studio space here on Christmas Day, 2009.

For far too long artists and other cultural producers have served as passive scapegoats for critics of gentrification, who spurn the rise of the so-called “creative class” and their role in urban redevelopment. In a recent article for eflux Martha Rosler takes a cue from Sharon Zukin, writing that in times of massive urban redevelopment, “artists and the entire visual art sector—especially commercial galleries, artist-run spaces, and museums—are a main engine for the repurposing of the post-industrial city and the renegotiation of real estate for the benefit of elites.”

Zukin’s blueprint, initiated with Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change (1982), is often misunderstood as an organic and natural process. Here, artists are framed not simply as an artistic vanguard that sets the tone and beat for cultural production, but also an economic force instigating the first wave of gentrification. As the oft-misrepresented story goes, cultural producers fill-in inexpensive lofts and retail space in poor neighborhoods, making them more attractive for young urban professionals fueling the real-estate industry. Troubled by the initial identity and politics of the neighborhood—working class, poor, or no identity at all—developers latch on to these markers of indistinction and carve out a coherent, docile identity founded on the empty signifiers of consumption. While the working poor move to the suburbs and inexpensive areas of the city, the very same cultural producers who set the trajectory of the neighborhood are in time kicked to the curb as the rising cost of living moves in lockstep with the consumption habits of urban professionals.

Certainly, Rosler is correct to claim that artists are “passive” agents in the process of gentrification, yet to lay blame on cultural producers alone would miss the target altogether. As the English Urbanist Max Nathan states, “creativity and cool are the icing, not the cake.”

Any rigorous analysis of gentrification at any level requires that we chart the explicit relations of capital (represented here by developers and speculators) and the apparatuses of the state (municipal governance, city planners, police, etc.). While the state actively produces cycles of disinvestment and uneven development, it is capital that takes the advantage of buying low, sending investment into uncharted terrain. There is a mutual relationship of two forces that purposefully props up gentrification as a viable planning option for entire city neighborhoods. What is less clear within this dynamic, however, is the direct link between the rise of the passive and post-ideological cultural producer and their complicit connections to real estate speculation.