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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Strathcona chair Pete Fry, chairman of the Strathcona Residents' Association, told me that he'd like to see a healthier mix of low-income, working-class, and market-rate housing go up as the viaducts come down: "We've seen in the past, city policy being a bit of a failure: it's been either one or the other." The SRA advocates this 30/30/30 model, under the idea that a balanced and mixed community is a healthier community. Fry notes, "There's a real crisis for affordable rental housing here. I love my city. It's a great place to live. I grew up here, and I'm seeing people squeezed out.  [The phenomenon] is city-wide, but it's more poignant for Strathcona because it's a small community."

Locals are also worried about the traffic on Prior St. The city's promise of traffic-calming measures along Prior Street were jettisoned: if traffic will just be routed straight through Strathcona anyway, the argument in favour of tearing down the viaducts in the first place is seriously undermined.

Fry concedes that development revenue drives city planning in Vancouver, but adds, "Our concern is that the plan, once the viaducts are gone, is the new road that will collect the vaiduct traffic as well as that from the new developments. The city says it won't [make existing traffic worse], but we need guarantees."

Expanding Prior Street to traffic  would also make access to Strathcona Park and the Community Gardens even more fraught than it is today. Perception of personal safety, or lack thereof, scares people away from the park already.

"We want to see this done right," says Fry, adding, "There's an opportunity for affordable city housing, which is great." The Eastern Core strategy needs to be solid, though, and the needs of existing rate-paying residents must be met. Community engagement with the city has been fractured since the beginning, as the city has made a habit of consulting with each group in private.

Whether this divide-and-conquer approach has been intentional or not, it has hindered the various Eastern Core factions in their opposition to what they see as irresponsible development.

Fry advocates a more meaningful conversation with the community as a whole.

For example, the city's plan must extend beyond the intersection of Prior and Gore: whilst the map ends there in terms of the viaduct plan, real-life drivers and pedestrians would eventually have to deal with Main Street.

The Eastern Core strategy is more than just the viaducts. It can be a microcosm for how Vancouver can reinvent itself. A problem, yes, but a huge opportunity.

In a nutshell, the construction of the viaducts destroyed Vancouver's black neighbourhood, and they may destroy Chinatown as they're torn down. (That only sounds mean if you don't know the area's history: we'll get to Hogan's Alley in a few moments.)

Fry insists that the Eastern Core is not doomed to an unhappy ending: "We want to see the the city engage us-- all the players-- put us all at the same table so we can have a frank and honest discussion about what's going to happen with the Eastern Core."

(On April 1, the SRA is holding a Reclaim Prior rally to shore up public support for Eastern Core traffic calming.)

NIMBY vs NIMBY

It's easy to shout "NIMBY" when trying to discredit opponents of urban development. It's intellectually dishonest, though, to equate opposition to irresponsible (or straight-up ugly) development to knee-jerk fear of change.

Next time you walk along Pacific Street through Yaletown toward the stadiums, look up. You'll see what looks like a series of architecture thesis projects, in which the entire class copied the work of a C-student. Make that C minus.

Yaletown itself looks like someone tried to build New York City's East Village, but using only episodes of Sex and the City for reference. The whole neighborhood is a diminished echo. Yaletown is Vancouver's first suburb: why does it have to look like it was just built last Wednesday?

The thing is, responsible gentrification and community-friendly development are possible, and they're happening right here in Vancouver. Newcomers can blend in and even enhance the area if they want to. Michael Bennett's and Daniel Poulin's Peking Lounge opened its doors in 2003: sure, it's customers are coming from outside Chinatown, but the shop represents its neighbourhood well.

East of Main Café is another example of responsible gentrification: its profits go to Project Limelight, a performing arts program for East Van kids.

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