Another East Vancouver dust-up.

I’ve got to admit it, as much as this may be a very unpopular sentiment in East Vancouver right now: my outrage-o-meter is pretty much all tapped out when it comes to the recent kerfuffle about the Waldorf Hotel and the announcement that Solterra Developments wants to put some kind of project (condos, hotels, bars?) along Hastings Street.

I mean, don’t get me wrong, I hope the Waldorf can be saved through some creative architecture, and that the City is looking at ways to provide financial incentive to see that happen. Venues for artists are important, and the Waldorf has a history people feel attached to (though the current clientele can’t really testify to that since they kicked the long term sports bar and longshore drinkers out when the building was renovated three years ago) – on those counts it would be nice to see it get saved.

But I’m struggling with this becoming a fight about gentrification without a larger discussion about the future of housing in Vancouver, and I do think there needs to be more thought put into the discussion around what happens along the Hastings corridor as a whole.

Firstly, much has been made about gentrification and how the Waldorf is being impacted by that. But really! The current lease-holders of the Waldorf re-built the hotel knowing that the neighbourhood (from below Clark to Renfrew) is all potentially slated for mid and low-rise condominium development. There are condos going up at the old Canadian Tire site beside Gourmet Warehouse, not to mention the Millenium development across the street from the hotel; Penticton and Hastings saw a development four years ago and is about to experience another one with the London Drugs building coming down later this year. And up at Kaslo and Hastings is another three-story condo development going in with a credit union in the bottom, right next door to where the Pharmasave/condo development went in two years ago. (Those are just the ones I can think of off the top of my head.) It was this future the Waldorf folks hoped to cash in on. They just didn’t expect the building they were leasing might become impacted as well.

If you know the neighbourhood, you will recognize that besides the Waldorf, these new condo developments are mostly replacing vacant lots, parking lots/auto dealerships, or single-rise storefronts that were all but falling into the ground. Basically, we are losing a lot of fallow space in exchange for more housing on transit corridors. That is – more housing suitable for the growing number of people who live alone, more housing close to work and that doesn’t require owning a vehicle, more housing overall.

But housing is an issue that people can’t seem to come to terms with in this city. While we know that we need more and cheaper housing, we aren’t sure what that means in practice.

One way to get cheaper housing is to increase the available stock. While I don’t know what the specific plan is for the Solterra development, I do know that condos built right on Hastings Street (a highway for all intents and purposes) are not generally of the high-end, luxury variety and a great number of them will eventually end up becoming rental stock (as happens in every condo building, low or high-end). Is it gentrification because these are condos? Would it be better if it was high-rent apartment building? Low-rent apartment buildings? What if some of the condos become low-rent units? What is the model of housing development that people would like to see beyond social housing?

We really do need a mix of housing models – condos, townhouses, socially-owned, co-ops, and private market….. And of course there is  the demand that a percentage of social housing units should be provided for in every condo development that goes up in this city.

But again, this isn’t about a community engaging around the future of the neighbourhood – this is about a community engaging around a single business that for all intents and purposes came into the neighbourhood with the hopes that it would gentrify. These are people who have the attitude that “there is nothing there” but the Waldorf – never mind the other businesses and the Native Friendship Center and the Longshore Union Hall and the live/work spaces down on Powell, and the quirky galleries and etc. Never mind the pre-reno Waldorf itself, which catered to people who actually lived and worked in the neighbourhood. And all that stuff I’ve heard in the past few days about how the Waldorf has “revitalized” that strip of Hastings? Where’s the proof of that exactly, beyond the destination of the Waldorf itself? The new commercial development going in on the Canadian Tire site has very little to do with the hipsters across the street  – the car lot next door is as skiddy as it ever was (in the last two years the owner has used his fence space for men’s rights banners detailing his child custody issues – not exactly an upscale approach to car sales).

So let’s go back to the beginning. I think there are creative ways to save the Waldorf, to have it planned into whatever is being developed in that corridor. Not only that, for the developers, it serves as a draw in selling units not to mention cut them a break on some City taxes. I would like to see the unique building that is the ‘dorf saved but I think all the facts need to be straight, and it needs to be recognized that there are various approaches to what we want (and really, the infantile comments on the Solterra development FB page? not getting you anywhere people.)

As someone who uses and travels through the Hastings corridor every day, I do not want to see it preserved as it is right now – a zone that  often feels unsafe due to lack of pedestrian traffic, where traffic whips through above the speed limit and there aren’t nearly enough pedestrian crossing lights. The paved over earth without a bench or a patch of grass, are signs of an old model of development in East Vancouver that I’m pretty sure we can move on from now.  But what do we want instead?

We want artistic venue space, and we want meeting/drinking/eating places, and we want housing. More of it. Cheaper. Closer to work and places to go. We need to remember that vibrant neighbourhoods have people living right in them, not traveling to them. We need to think about how vacant lots and car dealerships are crap uses of land when there still isn’t enough housing (affordable and otherwise). We need to put pressure on the city to demand a higher social tax from housing developers so that we get the mix and range of housing to meet the widest arc of need. We also want businesses that cater to the actual residents of neighbourhoods. We want space for community social services, libraries, recreation centers and parks. In short, we want it all, right?  And we want to engage in more than just a public temper tantrum. So I would encourage people who care about the *neighbourhood* to get engaged in letting the city know what you want beyond a single hotel in the middle of a concrete sea of parking lots…. because there’s got to be more than just that, right?

(There’s a whole other argument in here about the need for urban industrial space that I don’t really want to get into….. mostly because I don’t know the stats on declining industrial space and need, and I also know a lot of the warehouses in the Waldorf area are empty and/or under-utilized. Funny how everyone gets upset about the possibility of empty condos everywhere, but at the same time fights to preserve the crumbling architecture of empty apartments and warehouses.)

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