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Gentrification of Mount Pleasant: Developers, displacement and real estate's new frontier

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Main Street has become a frontier for high-end real estate development.

Whether at Little Mountain, 33rd Avenue, King Edward, 16th Avenue, Broadway, South East False Creek or the Downtown Eastside, the entire Main Street corridor has been re-imagined as the new horizon for redevelopment and increased rent extraction. Right in the centre of Vancouver's working-class heart, a precedent-setting new luxury condo is in its re-zoning application phase, and has incited a battle between a large majority of concerned residents and an individual but well-heeled real estate developer.

This past Tuesday, Jan. 16 2012, the City of Vancouver and the Rize Alliance presented an updated plan for the controversial redevelopment of Broadway and Kingsway. There are few changes to the plan since March of last year when at a consultation, 90 per cent of the community spoke out against it. The fact that now, post-election, the planning department is asserting its position against the wishes of the community and in favour of the developer is a sign that the political battle, the public hearing at City Hall, is just around the corner.

Rize Alliance

Rize's current proposal consists of a 19-storey tower with 241 units of market condos, one 85,000-sq. ft. retail space, and an underground parking garage of 320 spaces. On Tuesday, two major changes were announced: scrapping a proposed 9,200-sq. ft. artist-studio space, for a cash contribution to fund an off-site cultural or civic facility, and the removal of 15 market rental STIR units -- the same program that the Vision Vancouver has consistently defended as a successful policy to build affordable housing. During the election campaign, Vision differentiated itself from the NPA by pointing to the STIR policy, and even called on voters to vote for Vision in order to defend STIR.

If the other project developed by Rize in Mount Pleasant and the current marketing material is any indication, the new condos will not be affordable to long-time residents living in the neighbourhood. New units in Rize's OnQue, on the corner of Broadway and Quebec, start at $349,000 for a 640-sq. ft. one bedroom. According to the most recent census figures, the average income in Mt. Pleasant is approximately $10,000 below the city's average, or $37,000 a year.

On top of that, the 85,000-sq. ft. retail space is set to be filled with a new big box store that will place even more pressure on already struggling small businesses in the neighbourhood and residents who cannot afford to pay for over-priced fruits and vegetables. Already businesses along Main are feeling pressure. Some are organizing fundraisers, some are moving east, and others are having their keys taken by the bailiff.

This Rize project and pressures faced on Mount Pleasant is a textbook example of gentrification, the result of which is the continued displacement of the largely low-income community who call the neighbourhood home. This is part of the reason why the redevelopment of this particular site is drawing attention from both the neighbourhood itself and from the development community. If this project does go through despite significant opposition, it will set a major precedent for other large-scale projects throughout East Vancouver.

False opposition-false problems

The developer, City and some members of the community have framed opposition to the Rize Alliance project as one that is based primarily on height and not on affordability. After the initial meeting on March 20, the developer lowered the height from 26 storeys to 19 and advertised that the site has been lowered by 27 per cent. Upon looking at the new plans critically, a member of the Residents' Association of Mount Pleasant showed that this was not the case. It is true that the highest floors of condo towers fetch the highest prices. But height is also a false problem, meant to distract and displace criticism from the real issue at hand: the gentrification of Mt. Pleasant and the rest of the Main Street corridor. The height of the tower is not nearly as important as the more tactile changes that will happen throughout the neighbourhood: namely, the loss of the existing affordable housing stock. Without affordability, Mount Pleasant will lose its businesses, buildings, and most importantly, its residents. It is true that the proposed Rize tower will "stand out" from its surroundings, but its abnormal size is not only aesthetically unattractive,  but is also a symptom of the ugliness of developer-council collusion.

The Eastside: The developer's first frontier

Gentrification is already occurring in Vancouver and has been for some time. In Mount Pleasant, one memorable incident involved the redevelopment of the South-East corner of Main Street and Twelfth Avenue in 2004. When a few renters discovered that their homes had been bought by Holborn properties and that the buildings were going to be demolished and turned into a seven-unit townhouse, they burned their homes in protest (Jeff Lee, "Fire finishes off heritage houses," Vancouver Sun, Sep. 28, 2004). Since then, developers have been more cautious. Yet we are beginning to see the future: the 3333 Main on 16th starts at over $400,000, and includes a New-Urban strip-mall with a Starbucks, TD Bank, and Shoppers Drug Mart.

For Vancouver's real estate oligopoly, Vancouver's Eastside has been re-imagined as the frontier of gentrification. The low land prices (the cost of development), and the lax zoning (additional height means an increased potential revenue), are such that profits are maximized. In many neighbourhoods, pilot projects have already been completed, heralding the sons and daughters of the Westside's wealthy gentry. One of the best examples is the Woodwards buildings, which low-income Downtown Eastside residents fought against in anticipation of the changes we are now seeing -- the eviction of the most hard-to-house tenants, up-zoning for luxury condominiums, and the erasure of history.

If Woodwards is the foundation for gentrification in the DTES, then the Waldorf is the flag planted in a the distant seat of power. The two represent two points on the axis of gentrification. The Waldorf is continually praised by Vancouver's developer community as a "game-changer" in the neighbourhood. This month, Kris Rennie, Bob Rennie's son, bought up Ted Harris Paints at 757 E. Hastings to convert into artist studios, while a long-time collaborator of Bob Rennie's, Bruno Wall, nephew of millionaire developer Peter Wall, is proposing the first large-scale condo development project in the area, two blocks away at 955 E. Hastings. The Maleks, of Olympic Village fame, have bought a massive site for development across the street. Clearly, redevelopment and gentrification is a war of attrition fought on multiple terrains, yet the real everyday effects of redevelopment remain severe on the Eastside: evictions, displacement, and precarity become normative.

As it stands, the most profitable real estate development possible is one that strategically attacks several frontiers throughout the city. One frontier of gentrification is Main Street, another is popping up and seeping out along Kingsway, another is the swarming around the Downtown Eastside. Affordable and social housing stock is a real and symbolic threat to the developer monopoly. It is seen as both potential capital and as real competition. On the one hand, traditional working-class neighbourhoods contain the lowest property values for developers to upscale for higher profits. On the other hand, the ideology of social housing is a threat to the belief that all housing should be commodified outright.

Mandated displacement

The City of Vancouver has implemented a few policies that are supposed to stop gentrification. There are zoning laws (called "Rate of Change Regulations") prohibiting the conversion of rental apartment into strata condominiums. However, these laws fail to prevent rent increases, which are being experienced across the map, and they also do not stop landlords from evicting low-income tenants and replacing them with wealthier tenants. In fact, this phenomenon has become so commonplace that it now has its own moniker: renovictions.

When pressed by West End residents to stop these occurrences, Gregor Robertson claimed that there was nothing he could do (Tiffany Crawford, "Mayor supports 'renoviction' victims at rally," Vancouver Sun, Dec. 5, 2010). Like so many problems the municipal government faces, he argued that evictions and displacement are not the problems of the City, but the provincial government.

But as redevelopment projects in this city have consistently shown, gentrification is a top-down project mandated by the City itself -- instigated by developers but made possible by Robertson's own government. At the best of times, the current Vision-Vancouver dominated council have ignored the phenomenon of gentrification, but more often than not the current council have fully embraced the project of gentrification as its official planning policy and political re-election strategy.

This strategy includes a massive influx of infrastructure in targeted neighbourhoods when there had previously been disinvestment. Spending on libraries, roads, parks, cultural programs and events are usually welcomed by Vancouver's neighbourhoods, but the City has also implemented planning policies that aim to insert and legitimize large-scale, for-profit real estate development throughout Vancouver's Eastside. Often, cultural amenities are only possible when coupled with luxury real estate, as in the case of the new Mt. Pleasant library at 1 Kingsway, which includes 98 units of unaffordable market housing. Municipal law states that as repayment to the community for what amounts to free money (or a taller building) real estate developers must give back in the form of "amenity contributions." In the case of Mt. Pleasant Library, the space often suffers from overcrowding and is clearly insufficient, limiting, and poorly designed for a book-hungry neighbourhood like Mt. Pleasant.

Two of the most important policy decisions currently aiding and abetting gentrification, are the City's EcoDensity and Transit Oriented Development policies, both of which are being used to justify the Rize project. These policies, which allow more-than-normal injections of density on the premise of achieving "sustainability" are essentially economic incentives that geographically direct real estate activity. They allow the construction of large towers on transit hubs whose existing zoning is set for low-rise development. The regular implementation of the policies by Vision Vancouver has essentially relaxed zoning regulations. Although blanket zoning by-laws do exist, in the past three years, extremely few (if any) large-scale re-zoning applications have been denied, because it is argued these projects make Vancouver more sustainable. But when developers can get whatever they ask for through spot re-zonings, current zoning by-laws are moot. Re-zoning exceptions become the redevelopment rule, while gentrification of entire neighbourhoods is accepted as the norm.

EcoDensity is a policy that was created and implemented by NPA Mayor Sam Sullivan. In connection with this policy, city planner Brent Toderian has effectively stopped residential construction downtown. Whereas condo king Bob Rennie, the real-estate monopoly's marketer-co-ordinator, has informed the industry that development can only "move east." Three years later, this strategy is confirmed by statistics: East Vancouver has received more than its fair share of EcoDensity.

To maintain "social sustainability," City governments need to make sure that evictions are not happening for economic reasons alone. One of Bob Rennie's marketing taglines, "Be Bold, or Move to Suburbia," is exemplary. Those who cannot afford condominiums will be economically evicted from the inner city. This is exactly the type of phenomenon -- urban sprawl, commodification of the existing social housing stock and suburbanization -- that urbanists, civic governments, environmentalists, and the poor themselves have been unanimously against. Instead, all forms of sustainability -- social, economic, and environmental -- should be predicated on the principles of equality and justice -- principles that affirm that everyone who lives here belongs here, that everyone has a right to housing, a right to the city, and the right to rebel against reactionaries who want to transform Vancouver into a resort town solely for the propertied classes. At this juncture, we are at threat of returning to a problem that planners and urban activist have been trying to fight and reverse for decades.

Proponents of the project argue that the added density in the new project will eventually deflate housing prices in Mount Pleasant. It is true that Mount Pleasant needs density. The lengthy wait-lists at any of the community's co-op buildings attest to this. However, not all density is created equal. Ecodensity has not increased the overall supply of affordable housing or reduced prices. Over the past 10 years, the supply of housing throughout the city has remained constant at about 4,000 (although it has dipped below that in recent years). What EcoDensity does is focus the new density on a few sites owned by developers who fund the political parties, so as to increase the profits of these specific developers. These sites are selected to be in low-income neighbourhoods so as to further increase profits. Those profits are kicked-back to the parties to again to finance the next campaign. Rize is a regular contributor to Vision Vancouver.

A tale of two cities: Owners and own-nots

There's a reason that throughout Vancouver's history there has been the trope of a wealthy west side and a working-class east side. Geographical class distribution is apparent. Lower-income people lived happily in the east side of the city because they couldn't afford to live in the west side. The real estate boom has bolstered these divisions. Renters now pay upwards of 50-80 per cent of their income on shelter, whereas homeowners have had their net worth more than double in 10 years. In a neighbourhood the City has called one of Vancouver's most important stocks of rental housing, the sides are heavily weighted against the "own-nots." Those who put forward filtering theory -- that with new condo stock the price of re-sale condos will fall, making them affordable for local residents -- cannot provide a single example of this happening in Vancouver's history. We cannot wait for the neighbourhood to transform into an uptown Yaletown, and then question ourselves in 10 years why prices never went down.

At Tuesday's open house meeting, attended by 250 people despite less than one week's notice, the City also presented a review of the Mt. Pleasant Community Plan. Planning staff at the meeting informed attendees that over 1,700 people have submitted their opinion on the project, and that comments have been "overwhelmingly in support." However, of the 1,700 comments submitted by individuals, 60 per cent were against and 40 per cent in favour. As stated, at a consultation held in March of 2011, over 90 per cent of residents were against the project at its original 26 storeys. The City is still taking comments on the project here.

You can also call the planning department to tell the city your opposition against the project:
Yardley McNeill, Rezoning Planner, [email protected], 604.873.7727

Finally, a letter-writing night is scheduled at St. Patrick's Parish Hall (2881 Main Street) this upcoming Wednesday, Jan. 25, at 6 p.m.

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