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Real estate developers were noticeably upset when, on Jan 20, residents of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside scored a partial but significant victory against the City’s undemocratic condo-tower plan. Instead, the City was forced to finally allow a (potentially) resident-driven planning process for the area.

Shocked by their defeat, it took developers and their friends in the Corporate media over one week to respond to the democratic turn of events. Finally, on January 27, the Vancouver Sun editorial board published their talking points in an editorial titled Giving a lift to the Downtown Eastside: Build taller buildings. The piece is so counter-factual, misleading, and bigoted that it is worth unpacking line-by-line.

The Sun’s convoluted editorial begins by acknowledging that Vancouver needs more housing. Indeed, Vancouver needs more purpose-built social and affordable housing – but not more purpose-built luxury condos as the Sun prefers.

The Sun then asserts that because the Lower Mainland has a limited land-base, we must build higher buildings in the Downtown Eastside. But the Downtown Eastside already has a higher-than-average population density – why not build the towers in Shaughnessy instead?

The Sun then notes that there are “300 to 1,000 souls” who are homeless in the Downtown Eastside, but offers no solutions at all, nor any response to residents’ valid concern that gentrification will compromise the remaining low-income housing stock, pushing more people onto the street.

Instead of advocating a sophisticated approach to problem-solving in the Downtown Eastside, the Sun insults and stereotypes groups trying to address problems: “[The DTES] serves as the raison d’etre of swarms of social agencies, NGOs and self-proclaimed anti-poverty activists…Some activists have a vested interest in preserving the status quo. A gloomy ghetto of misery, destitution and squalor keeps them in business.”

Firstly, it is not acceptable to use language (“swarms of…”) which insinuates that community organizations are like insects. Nor is it ethical to suggest that it is a bad thing for people to form organizations to help each other out, to work for social justice, and to make their neighbourhoods better places.

This past Thursday, the Vancouver Police Department published a press release about a series of arrests made in the Downtown Eastside. It describes eight suspected drug traffickers who used violence, torture, and fear to cruelly control residents involved in the drug trade. Some of the conditions the victims of these criminals had been put through include being stabbed, beaten, and held in cages. As the press release states, this is the first case of Criminal Organization charges in Vancouver police history.

It took community protests to pressure police to investigate exploitation of Downtown Eastside residents. The two police initiatives leading to the arrests were part of an umbrella program called “Sister Watch,” which was designed to curb violence against women in the Downtown Eastside in response to grassroots protest.

Although it would be an improvement for the police to begin protecting residents from exploitation, it must be said that the strong-arm approach of both the VPD is a significant part of the problem of violence in the Downtown Eastside. The “war on drugs” diverts resources away from social services into policing. It simply has not been the case that police use these resources to protect residents from exploitation. On the contrary, the police impose added violence onto the poor, who are unfairly shuffled through the revolving door of “justice.”

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Last Thursday, grassroots pressure forced Vancouver City Council to halt plans for two condo towers, as well as halting overall plans for height upzoning in the Downtown Eastside. Over 80 speakers were signed up to speak at City Hall, most against the City’s gentrification plan. But rather than listen to the delegations, Vision Vancouver introduced a so-called “emergency” motion. The motion agreed to grassroots demands to conduct a community plan and social impact study before rezoning.

It is time to take stock of what happened that day. Or rather, the night before, at 4am!

The first thing that stands out is this: why didn’t Vision Vancouver agree to these demands last year? Or last month, when The Mainlander published the arguments clearly. Or the day before the public hearing, so that 80 people wouldn’t have to take the day off work, school and life to come all the way down to City Hall? Apparently, Vision Councilor Andrea Reimer wrote the emergency motion at “4am” the night before. What made Vision change its mind at the last minute, after literally years of pressure from grassroots low-income organizations? Was it the letter signed by dozens of professors? Was it this dialogue between Mike Harcourt and Councilor Andrea Reimer on Jan 19? Was it our pull-no-punches editorial (we wish)? Was it the prospect of having to listen to 80 public speakers?

AFFORDABILITY |

Several BC cities have been ranked “severely unaffordable” in a recent world-wide affordability report. The list included Vancouver, Victoria, Abbotsford and Kelowna.Vancouver ranked 324 out of 325, making it the second most unaffordable city in the world next to Sydney (another “Olympic” town).

The effects of the affordability crisis are hitting working people hard. It has been reported that working-class residents across the Lower Mainland have been struggling to find housing, and that the working-poor are increasingly turning to shelters.

In response to criticism that their policies are exacerbating the housing crisis, the City of Vancouver and the Province have repeatedly boasted about their mythical fourteen sites. Now, in another questionable arrangement with real-estate developers, the City is planning to abandon the requirement of affordable housing on North False Creek in exchange for two properties in the Downtown Eastside. But Councilor Geoff Meggs told CBC on Monday that the City might build condos for young professionals on one of these DTES sites (58 West Hastings – site of the 2010 Olympic Tent Village). Meanwhile, North False Creek would have 4 new unaffordable condo towers as part of a new casino complex (more below).

As previously reported, a coalition (10SITES Coalition) has been formed of Downtown Eastside organizations and allies to pressure the City to buy at least 10 sites per year for 5 years in their neighbourhood. Since it is now out in the open that BC cities are “severely affordable” – not merely Vancouver – housing activism will have a reason to grow across the province, and the 10SITES Coalition may prove to be a model.

CASINO |

A new casino proposal passed the first stage of approval at Vancouver City Council last week. The proposed development would also include four associated condominium towers, bringing a small-scale Las Vegas to downtown Vancouver.

Council is giving lip-service to the arguments against the Casino, but has so far approved the project. Some critics are proposing the Vision-led council is simply playing politics and that the proposal will likely go ahead.

The casino will be another way for the City to gain revenue from working-class residents instead of taxing businesses. Vancouver’s business taxes are extremely low. A study done May of last year rated Vancouver’s taxes not only as the lowest in Canada, but the lowest in the world (study here). Resistance to business taxes has caused somewhat of a revenue crisis. The recently-passed 2011 budget increased taxes by two percent, with almost all of the increases placed on residents instead of businesses.

Casinos have an interesting history in Vancouver, and are often associated with crime, corruption and money laundering. It is also important to note that the Great Canadian Casino made a significant donation to Vision Vancouver’s 2008 election campaign.

A public hearing on the casino will be held at City Hall on Feb 17.

Instead of hearing 80 speakers from the public, City Council voted today to defer hearings until a later consulation. Fifty of those speakers were at council to speak against a motion to build condos in the downtown eastside under the Height Review plan (see yesterday’s Editorial).

According to the Mayor’s website, council decided not to hear from the public and voted instead to create a “community committee, chaired by one member of the Building Communities Society and one member of the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood Council. The committee [will] engage with local residents and provide a report to council by December 31, 2011 on community priorities for planning and development in the neighbourhood. As well, the City would commit to completing the social impacts study by December 31, 2011.”

According to the Straight, “the motion called for the report, which proposes building height changes to some sites in Chinatown and the Downtown Eastside, to be referred to public hearing and for city staff to conduct a social impact study on low-income residents of the Downtown Eastside.” However, it is not clear if this is actually true, because according the mayor’s website, “Mayor Robertson is recommending that until the social impacts study and the community committee’s report are complete, that council respect existing plans and policies for the Downtown Eastside.”

This means that instead of delaying all plans until public consultation is completed in December 2011, the City is trying to defer public input while rushing ahead with existing plans under the Height Review. According to a Carnegie Community Action Project press release, “five of the condo sites in Chinatown may be going to public hearing in February and could still go ahead.” City policy recognizes that Chinatown is inside the downtown eastside, but now they are treating Chinatown as a separate entity in order to avoid criticism and input. According to Harold Lavender of CCAP, “I live in Chinatown and they just broke the DTES into artificial pieces based on the priorities of developers. If I had a say, I could have influenced their decision. This process is a travesty.” If the City is actually serious about hearing from the downtown eastside, they will stop condo plans for Chinatown until at least December 31, 2011.


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Mayor Robertson and his party won power on the backs of the poor, claiming to represent their aspirations and promising to “End Homelessness.” Today, Vision Vancouver is waging war on the Downtown Eastside, the last refuge for Vancouver’s low-income residents.

One might wonder at the use of a military analogy – “waging war” – but sadly Robertson’s party has employed ruthless political tactics to outmaneuver Vancouver’s most marginalized residents who, despite negligible resources, are nonetheless fighting back stronger than ever.

As we have reported previously, Vision Vancouver is moving to implement the NPA’s gentrification plan for the Downtown Eastside (deceptively called the “Historic Area Height Review”). The plan, which goes to Council for a vote this Thurs, Jan 20, calls for seven 15-storey condo towers in the Downtown Eastside. It is certain that these developments would impact surrounding property values. Low-income residents, as well as the stores, services, and amenities they use, would be displaced at a pace even greater than what is already underway, with the social and economic goal of gentrifying a low-income community by importing a new class of residents (which City Planning staff like to call “body heat“).

The Decoy

To distract the broader public from their undemocratic plan to gentrify the Downtown Eastside, the Vision-led City Council will be voting on a separate “view-corridors” proposal for towers in the central business district at the same Jan 20th meeting as the DTES plan. The City has purposefully attempted to link these very different plans in the public’s mind, with some success. The supposed link between them is the abstract notion of “height.” The two plans both deal with building heights, but will inevitably have more significant impacts on density and social demographics. Focusing on height instead of density changes the debate. This article from Sunday’s Province, for example, is stuck in the City’s frame about “height,” ignoring any question of social impact, and referring only fleetingly to the Downtown Eastside at the end of the article.

NORTH EAST FALSE CREEK |

A new deal between the city and the Concord Pacific development corporation might further change the social geography of Vancouver. The deal would grant the City two properties along East Hastings that will supposedly be designated for desperately needed 100% social housing.

The first site is 117 West Hastings, next to Insite. After buying the property specifically for the purposes of speculation and horse-trading, Concord put a “community garden” on it to avoid paying property taxes.

The second site is the empty lot at 58 West Hastings, which hosted 2010’s Olympic Tent Village. Concord also bought this land for the purposes of speculation and horse-trading. They claimed to have had plans to put 160 condo units on the lot, but for over two years have also been working behind the scenes with the Portland Hotel Society to pull off this North False Creek swap.

In exchange for these two sites, the City will waive the 20% social housing requirement on 4 properties in North East False Creek, where Concord plans to build condominium towers.

The two sites on Hastings are estimated to be valued at $13M. It is not yet clear how much money the social housing exemption on North False Creek is worth to Concord Pacific, although it is likely greater than the value of the two sites.

If the sites are transferred to the City, it would mean no social housing in the North-East False Creek neighbourhood of Yaletown, continuing the trend of “self-segregation” by the moneyed classes. The NPA are complaining, saying that social housing should be spread around the city, which is ironic given that NPA-linked architect Michael Geller proposed eliminating social housing from the Olympic Village, an action that sparked significant controversy. Vision-led city council cut the social housing at the Olympic Village last April by 50%.

DOWNTOWN EASTSIDE CONDOS |

Community resistance has been building against the City’s upcoming Downtown Eastside condo tower plan (“Height Review”), which proposes 7 new 15-storey condo towers for the Downtown Eastside. In response to the claim in a City staff report that there was little community opposition to the condo plan, a press conference was held yesterday, Jan 17 by a coalition of Downtown Eastside organizations opposed to the condo plan — including Chinese, Aboriginal, and low-income residents groups, as well as small businesses and artist collectives. Council is planning to vote on the condo plan this Thursday, and will no doubt hear from dozens if not hundreds of speakers.

The city has confirmed that public consultations will be held before any individual projects are accepted. However, as opposition to the gentrification plan seems to be falling on deaf ears, residents are worried that future consultations will have the same result.

NEW ART GALLERY |

The Vancouver Art Gallery is looking for a new home. The Art Gallery has been campaigning to move since last May. The current building was not designed to be an art gallery and, as a result, there are both spacial and environmental concerns.

Council is set to approve a proposal to hold onto the Gallery’s preferred new site, directly east of the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. The policy report also proposes a closer relationship between City staff and the Gallery.

The location is notable historically as being the site of riots and labour protests. While it is now a parking lot, and was also once a greyhound bus depot, it was in the past known as “Larwill Park” and acted as a place for meetings and demonstrations, serving a function similar to the current Robson Street public square.