DTES Local Area Plan pleases, and enrages, everyone

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So just to recap. Under this compromise Geller doesn’t get what he wants  (continued new market ownership) housing and poverty activists don't get what they want (100 per cent social housing defined clearly at shelter rate) and those of us who are just curious as hell about how the numbers are supposed to work don’t get what we want (the Coriolis report...well I guess we got it a couple of days before the draft plan went to council) but we all get something. And let's remember that this is only in one sub-area of the overall Planning Area. At the end of the day the plan ensures that anything built in the Community Based Development Area comes in at 60 per cent social housing and 40 per cent rental so as to help mitigate the speculation that has been driving up property values and displacing residents and in some cases businesses. All this while still allowing for social 30 something university educated hipster friends who work at the nearby coffee shops and restaurants. It’s aimed to be a compromise, and as planning and planners here and elsewhere seek to make the best compromises possible, people or organizations sometimes view these types of things as defeat or betrayal despite the fact that they have both received concessions or have both shaped the policies.

Planning, it seems, is a thankless and gruelling job at times. You rarely get thanked for giving the public what we want (amenities, social housing etc.) but are quick to get beaten up for the ways in which you got them (Density bonusing, CACs, height increases, or in this case a rental only zone). 

On a final note, some folks may refer to the Downtown Eastside as a ghetto, but the area is thriving with new businesses drawn to some of the most affordable retail and offices spaces in some of the city’s most storied heritage architecture. In the context of Vancouver as a whole, one we tend to neglect viewing the DTES in, one of its greatest comparative advantages is its affordability, particularly in regards to locally owned small businesses who have been priced out of Robson, Yaletown, Granville or elsewhere. We need to retain the businesses that serve the thousands of low-income and middle-income residents here and we need spaces where our younger and lower-income entrepreneurs can open ventures of their own – lest we continue to see an exodus of young talented human capital out of our city.   

In the end the broad overarching principle that the planning staff and council are putting forward by making this kind of compromise is that we, as a city, need to do something to cool down the rapidly escalating property prices and taxes (nearly a 30 per cent increase in some parts of the area last year and a 300 per cent rise in property values over the past several years) that may wreak havoc here through “creative destruction” and displace residents and businesses alike.

Some may of course see that creative destruction entirely as a good thing. Chances are if you do, you probably don’t live here.

We need to be able to manage change. Market forces are fast and forceful. At the same time, demonizing or vilifying developers, who have engaged in this difficult dance with the City and other levels of government for the past two decades, is also a misplaced use of energy in my opinion. We will continue to need private sector capital and creativity to build the housing and job spaces that this city needs, but an overreliance on them to answer our affordable housing crisis does not benefit them or the public. It only complicates what should be a more simple solution; a more robust mobilization of public funds to leverage what the private sector is doing, and not a mobilization of private funds to make up for what government is not doing enough of. 

I wanted to focus on this contentious part of the plan to illustrate what I think are some important considerations for those in the private sector, for governments, and for us as residents and voters. The implications of a 60/40 inclusionary zoning policy in the DEOD-Oppenheimer area are far more nuanced than a choice between “ghettoization” and “gentrification”. It crystallizes the dysfunction that has gripped our economies and politics regarding poverty, wealth, jobs and housing for an increasingly urban and increasingly unequal societyTo remain "business as usual" in the DTES would be a betrayal of this hard fact. Difficult decisions and difficult compromises are needed for difficult challenges with difficult answers. 

While I’ve only gone into one particular piece of it, on the whole it is a plan filled with solid principles, values and concerns, though it may be thin on exact details in some portions and lacking in content specific to some stakeholder groups. It would be impossible to write a blog post about the plan in its entirety. Someone has probably begun drafting their PhD Dissertation on it as I write this. 

I also want to end by saying that though two years of work have seemed to come to an end that this is really just the beginning still. How we implement, monitor and refine this plan will largely be up to the community it is supposed to serve. The fact that we have a plan drafted at all is an accomplishment, the political will to get us even that far took years to manifest. The legacy of this plan though will come from how we react to it as residents, businesses, and community leaders.

We need to be proactive and persistent about the things we are both unhappy and happy about in this plan, such is the nature of urban citizenship. 

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