A brief history of Vancouver gentrification: The drama of urban development

" Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
                                                                   — George Santayana

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Commercial Drive is the new Robson Street

This brings us to the present, which looks a lot like the recent past. Looking at Commercial Drive now is to look at Robson Street in the Eighties. Local shops close down as rents shoot up or properties get sold off for redevelopment. Grandview-Woodland Action Committee Chair Jak King created the following graph, showing the spike of restaurants along Commercial Drive.

Kluckner pointed out that this reflects the changing demographic in the neighborhood: "People with disposable income eat out."

Meanwhile, remaining businesses along The Drive "are hanging on by a thread". Look at Little Nest, that family-friendly restaurant which couldn't afford a $2,000-per-month rent hike. What will replace businesses like Little Nest? Look at Robson Street today for the answer to that question.

Whom do we blame?

Michael Kluckner suggested several culprits in Vancouver's wave of gentrification. For example, the global gutting of the middle class as Reaganite/Thatcherite policies came home to roost. He also pointed to the failure of urban renewal, which didn't really work anywhere.

Then we have the dual nature of the condo boom. The Strata Titles Act made the condo building an easy cash cow for a hungry developer. Forget the oft-parroted line about how density equals affordability; the reason you see all these podium towers is because they're relatively cheaper and easier to build for the money they bring in. 20 stories of condos will bank a developer more cash than would 10. There's a word for it: Vancouverism. We're living in a city where architecture goes to die.

Then there's the individual buyer, who isn't necessarily looking for an investment, just a roof over her head. In all of this, we have to once again consider the whole concept of "affordability" when the term has lost all real-world meaning. You can't really afford anything; it's all about the debt you're willing to shoulder.

How do we fix this?

After the lecture, we all talked about how to put on the brakes. Activist and former Crown prosecutor Sandy Garrosino said, "Condos are just another financial instrument," noting that the marketing brochures you see at a showroom are just like those you'd pick up at a bank. Garossino pointed to the real estate marketing industry as a key culprit in this dynamic, noting that the industry is no longer selling homes, but investments. Contrast that to co-op residents, who tend to stay for the long haul. (New York has the flip tax, which makes selling one's co-op apartment an agonizing experience. It's like getting jumped out of a gang.)

Batman-worthy edge cases notwithstanding, the financial instrument that is the condo does not appreciate in value as quickly as fee-simple properties. What happens when the condo market slows down? Look at that construction on East Hastings at Slocan, which went on hiatus when too few were willing to buy into the presale. Now it's a temporary community garden in exchange for a tax break. So several local businesses were shuttered, and the City is paying for it with two opportunity costs: lost taxes from those businesses and lost property taxes due to the park-space deal. That situation is pretty rare at the moment, but what about next year? Five years from now?

We as a city should be exploring more creative modes of property ownership. We could revisit co-op rules to make shared ownership of a whole building more attractive. We could get more serious about cohousing. Meanwhile, laneway housing is finally gathering steam.

Or we could just say "screw it" and move back into illegal rooming houses.

You know what, though? We can think, imagine, and plan our way out of this.  If we want sustainable neighbourhoods, we can figure out a way, but it will be a painful process for those comfy with the status quo.

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