City Hall protest against DTES condos: ‘Rich get rich, the poor get pushed around’

Published in Rabble.ca | April 23, 2012 | Circulation: 250,000 unique monthly readers

Jack, a Downtown Eastside resident, walks in front of the future Sequel 138 condo site. Photo by David P. Ball

For many residents of the block around 100 Hastings Street – the heart of Canada’s poorest off-reserve postal code – a condominium development proposed for the Downtown Eastside (DTES) poses a threat. But a few say any change is needed for the area – but the need is affordable rental units, not condos.

Last week, community members took over City Council chambers to oppose the project. Downtown Eastside community members will protest at Vancouver City Hall again today at 2:30 p.m. (They will be meeting and traveling together at 1:30 p.m. from the Carnegie Centre at Hastings and Main Street — in anticipation of a City Hall debate on the project at 3 p.m.).

The Left Coast Post spent yesterday afternoon around Main and Hastings asking peoples’ opinions. We even ran into a film crew from controversial Sequel 138 developer — which insists its project offers ‘affordable, entry-level housing for artists & entry-level housing for workers in non-profits helping the people of the Downtown Eastside.’ They explained that they were documenting support for their project among elderly residents who couldn’t make today’s City Hall debate on the project.

Here’s a small sampling of the people I met.

Interview with Jo, just south of Hastings on Main Street

LEFT COAST POST: What do you think about the Pantages condo development? Are a lot of people down here are against this?

JO: They are. It’s totally, again, the rich get rich and the poor get pushed around, right?

LCP: You said the rich will get richer, could you say more about that?

J: Well, that’s what I believe. They’re opening it up so people with money can come here and buy. And the people living down here for years, doing whatever little thing they do to make money – selling things, setting up to barter – we’re being pushed out. The rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting displaced.

LCP: People are going to City Hall tomorrow to protest this, right? Do you think it’s going to make a difference? Is the City going to listen?

J: Well, I think a lot of people down here, if they could get out and protest, they would. But because poverty is a cycle that keeps pushing people down, I don’t think a lot of people from this particular neighbourhood will go protest. It’s not because they don’t want to, or they shouldn’t – it’s because they’re stuck. Again, they don’t believe their opinion matters, it doesn’t count. It didn’t count before when they (protested) the $610 (welfare rate). If you could get the people of the community out there, would it make a huge difference? They should just leave us alone – leave this corner what it’s been for 70 years to people in this community… I think (developers) should step aside, and police should just leave this community alone. The community will fend for itself – it’s functioned for lots of years. They really should.

LCP: The people protesting Pantages are saying instead of condos they should be putting in social housing – that the City should be buying lots. Do you agree with that?

J: Yeah, I do believe that. They should be putting in social housing. Keep the police out, and give (the neighbourhood) back to the people.

Interview with Jack (pictured above), in the long line-up for curry just west of Main on Hastings Street:

LCP: Do you have any thoughts about the condo development and the protest against it?

JACK: You know what? I don’t think there’s enough people around here you could get together to make a difference at City Hall. There’s too many problems: drug addiction, inaction. It’s hard to get a group like that together.

LCP: Do you support it, though?

J: I don’t think there should be condos down here. I think they should keep this area residential, and build low-income housing.

LCP: How come?

J: Because there’s no stock in town. People are in hotels for geared-to-income housing. I’ll show you my room: there’s seven million cockroaches, mice, it’s fucking mouldy. It’s gross. There’s a leak out the shitter from the next room above. It’s gross. It just comes down like a waterfall once a week. So, I mean, the conditions are shitty.

LCP: What do you make of the developers saying, ‘We’re going to help the area, and improve it — clean it up’? Are you still going to have the cockroaches and shit coming out of your ceiling?

J: Well, it might help it, of course. But, when they get as old as these places are, they might be in the same state. If they gave most of these people a chance to move into a nice place, they’d keep it nice. Most people keep a new place really nice.

LCP: Do you think the City should block this condo application? Should they stop it and say we’ll have rental housing instead?

J: Yeah, I agree.

LCP: Some people say development should be off-limits on these blocks.

J: Off limits to building?

LCP: To private developers building condos. That it should be only social housing here.

J: I think so, yeah. But I think what they’re doing – 10 per cent social housing or whatever they promise to give you – should be more like 90 per cent. They’ve made grandiose promises over the last five years, and they haven’t stuck to one of them. What do you do, right? Writing letters – there’s no point; here’s your letter (throws it in imaginary trash bin). But there’s really no avenue whereby you can go and get your feelings out.

Interview with Barbara and Tex, in front of the Regent Hotel — next door to the former Pantages site slated for condo development:

LCP: I’m writing about the condos and the protest. Can I get your thoughts about that?

BARBARA: I don’t really mind them putting up the apartments there, to tell you the truth. It brings in more people, and maybe it will change the area and make it better.

LCP: What do you think about people saying this will raise the cost of housing down here?

B: Look at the place right now? It’s pretty down-hearted. Maybe it’ll bring in some difference. I believe in change. It’s about time this place changed.

LCP: How about you, what do you think of the Pantages being developed into condos?

TEX: They’re going to turn this… they tore down the old building. This place is my home away from home.

LCP: Some say that development on this block will drive up prices, and push poor people out. What do you think?

B: I don’t want that.

T: I’ve been down here 25 years. This place never really changes. The place stays the same.

B: It is a community.

T: It’s a culture and a people.

B: This community could use change, though.

T: Yes, but…

B: Not too dramatically like that (points to Pantages site).

T: If you start pushing people to whole different parts of the city, then you’ll have little slum areas cropping up all over the city. They can’t have that, so what they do is amalgamate us into one area.

LCP: I heard somebody calling it ‘corralling’ the other day.

T: It is corralling. I was the head bartender over there, at the Balmoral (Hotel), in the 90s. This is the only city in Canada where you deal drugs across the street from the cop shop! But there you go.

B: But I do believe in some change down here. It gets depressing – I go out of town for a few days, and I come back. As soon as I round that corner at Main and Hastings, I get depressed.

T: Oh yeah.

B: It’s just like, ‘Boom!’ it hits me.

T: When I used to work at the Balmoral, I used to go down to Granville Island, behind the Arts Club, and sit on the patio — just to sit and have a couple of beers. It was by the water, it was bright. Have you seen the Balmoral (Hotel)? It’s dark, and it’s not even as dark as it was when I was there. And filthy. Even the mice died in there because it’s toxic.

LCP: Can I get some of your thoughts on this project? I’m writing about the protest happening at City Hall – they’re going to be voting on whether to approve the condo development, and folks are busing people down to City Hall to protest it. Is it going to cause property values to go up here? They’re calling it a ‘gentrification bomb.’

T: Well, property values are going to go up, I’ll tell you that. They want to change the downtown core, right? How many years is it going to take to develop that plan? People keep looking at the ‘what ifs,’ but they’re not going to get anything started down here for years. How long did it take Woodwards project to start? By the time they get this (Sequel 138) done, it’s all going to have changed anyway. It’s going to be a new area.

LCP: What about the people who live here (Regent Hotel) and across the street (Balmoral Hotel)? Where are they going to live?

J: Well, I have no friends or family – I’m a loner… What do I think about the condos and high-rises? I think it will stay the same in the end.

Interview with employees of Sequel 138, including a marketing staffperson for the project, Anthony Kuschak, a block west of Main on Hastings Street:

LCP: Can I ask you what you’re thinking about tomorrow’s protest at City Hall, how it’s going to go?

ANTHONY KUSCHAK: It’s going to be a gong show. City Hall last week was a gong show – (the activists) took over and didn’t want to leave. They negotiated a half-hour, then they wanted something else. They don’t negotiate. We’re very sympathetic towards their needs – it’s hard. But time will tell I guess.

LCP: What do you think of the huge polarization that’s happened around this development?

AK: Well, it’s just that. Unfortunately, when you have polarized views, there’s no middle ground for strategy or negotiation, or solutions. Each side wants something. I think the Sequel project is trying to move from pure market condos to more affordable condos, plus have amenities that deliver urban gardens, deliver a social housing component, deliver healing arts programs – so it’s not just a condo building, but it’s a building that participates in the neighbourhood that exists and that needs to evolve. The polarization approach – on the other side, they want it like it is: they want 100 per cent social housing, or units that are $400 a month or lower, but that requires City and provincial dollars. I think there is a plan, but that’s over the next five years. During that period of time, projects like Sequel are going to happen. It is controversial.

LCP: I was talking to Marc (Williams, Sequel 138 developer) back in the fall, and he was saying that groups have taken his comments out of context – about this being a ‘dead zone’ and ‘only rats’ living there. That’s going to keep coming up at City Hall. But you’re saying the neighbourhood’s changing and will change, and people have to deal with that. Is there any possibility of negotiating or changing the plan to meet the opposition partway – in terms of building more below-market housing in there, or social housing in there instead of condos? Is the plan fixed?

AK: You have to remember the Pantages lot is privately owned. In order for the developer, Marc Williams, to meet the requirements and deliver a solution, that comes out of his pocket. In order for Marc to deliver more social housing, for instance, then the City needs to come forth, or the Province needs to come forth and say, ‘Let’s partner with you.’ I believe Marc has extended as much as he could he could do to deliver what is needed.

LCP: But he said his original proposal had more of the things people want, but it was rejected.

AK: There were 136 social housing units, plus the revitalization of the theatre. And the powers that be – the Province, the City – all said no. So when you ask, ‘Is there a way for it to improve?’ that has to come from the City, because that’s public money. Up to this point, the public money hasn’t been positioned for this project. As a private developer, he’s doing what he can – and that’s in opposition to what the activists want. We sympathize towards that, but until another player comes to the table this is the solution.

LCP: He’s taken a unique approach – responding to people directly through Twitter and his website – referring to activists’ shoe collections, this being a ‘dead zone.’ Is he trying to create a particular relationship to the community?

AK: Language can be misinterpreted by people pushing their message across. It all started when Marc referred to the property being a ‘dead zone.’ He was really referring to the fact that no one lives there on the property itself. There was no inference to individuals being dead. At the end of the day, it started with something as simple as that – he’s kept a tongue-in-cheek approach going for six months. Only rats live on the property – that was not referring to the people. But it’s so polarized, and so contentious, anything you say can be taken out of context. However, what’s true is $1 billion has been spent in the Downtown Eastside over the past 10-15 years. There’s a tonne of resources and services that cater to the needs of this community, and as that evolves, is there room for diverse projects such as Sequel? There’s going to be more projects along Hastings Street. If these projects can be diverse enough, and include these people, and have the City improve their services and get rid of the violence and drug dealers and improve the quality of people’s lives, then you’ve got a good mix. But keeping it polarized, I don’t believe that’s the solution. That’s only good for the media. The language bombs don’t make sense. Bombs never make sense.

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