Squeezing Strathcona: Chinatown development and endangered neighbourhoods

Houses, high-rises, and Hendrix: the changing faces of Chinatown and Strathcona. This is the war for the Eastern Core.

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Michael J. Fox and Steve Nash told us, "You gotta be here", but, no, we actually don't.

Besides real estate (and the drug trade!), for what, precisely, is Vancouver a global hub? Even our talent pool, which GrowLab director Michael Tippett argues is the city's most valuable asset, is getting siphoned away. Facebook's only going to be here for a year, and best believe they're going to take skilled Vancouverites with them when they go. Active recruitment from across the border is only one cause of brain drain; another would be the confluence of too few job prospects and a too-high cost of living.

I don't hear anybody outside the real estate industry arguing in favor of half-million-dollar condos. Vancouverites aren't rallying in the streets for more steel and more glass that cost nearly three grand a month to occupy. If anything, all I see is a sense of acceptance, that condo towers popping up everywhere is inevitable.

The Siege of Strathcona

My friend shows me Lord Strathcona Elementary school. Built in 1891, it's the oldest in Vancouver. Apparently, that this neighbourhood, Vancouver's oldest residential area, was once called the East End but was rebranded Strathcona, after the school, to avoid the negative connotations of "East End". Did you just think of Jack the Ripper when you read "East End"? Yeah, that's why they changed the name.

Strathcona Elementary School

The Brooklyn of Vancouver, Strathcona has been home to quite a few luminaries. Though it's getting more and more expensive to call Strathcona home, the neighbourhood has so far managed to hang on to its multicultural identity.

Strathcona and the Downtown Eastside are gentrifying at a dizzying pace. I saw Brooklyn's 4th Avenue develop along a similar path: First the abandoned storefronts get renovated, then they get occupied by upstart local businesses, then the apartment buildings get cleaned up. Dried chewing gum is replaced with brushed steel and brown leather. Next come the condo developments. At that point, you notice that the locals you remember are gone.

I witnessed Fourth Avenue's change over the course of a decade; Cordova and Hastings, on the other hand, are changing almost overnight.

As the towers encroach Chinatown from the south and west, The Hastings Corridor is getting developed from the east. The 900 block of East Hastings is getting transformed, with existing buildings replaced for the most part with market-rate housing. "Market rate" means "unaffordable to Vancouverites", as you've figured out by now.

How high is too high?

If we accept that new construction is inevitable (as the number-one employer in Vancouver, the real estate industry demands new construction), how can it be done without sterilizing what's left of this historic frontier city?

We can look at the Paris Model, which would suggest a maximum height of eight floors. Basically, you have to be able to lean out your window and talk to somebody in the street. You can't really do that from higher than eight floors up.

However, real estate speculators demand more. That's why we're seeing podium-tower plans along False Creek.

The City of Vancouver swore up and down that high-rise development wouldn't creep out of downtown and into the neighbourhoods. Yet here it comes. Creeping.

What will replace the viaducts?

The city is intent upon destroying the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts, pushed by the pressure to develop the land that lies underneath. The argument for tearing down the viaducts points to the flyovers as arbitrary dividers of urban space, and that removing them would not just clear the way for more housing developments, but also connect the Eastern Core to the surrounding neighbourhoods in a more pedestrian-friendly way.

However, look at the condo buildings next to Science World. Do those really connect anything to anything? Obviously not: at ground level you find a nearly-deserted corridor, hidden from the sun and funneling the wind.

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