“Cautious optimism” for the return of Gastown

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Walley Wargolet, executive director of the Gastown Business Improvement Society, says the business community must be part of the solution to restore the region, but it needs Vancouver’s support.DARRYL DYCK / The Canadian Press

Gastown’s businesses are set for a comeback.

In the past 18 months, Vancouver shoppers have disappeared from area stores as remote workers and residents have become reclusive inside their homes. At the same time, people living in overcrowded social housing have been forced onto the streets and there has been an upsurge in vandalism and crime. Condo owners who want to sell wait for the market to stagnate.

Now there is “cautious optimism,” says Walley Wargolet, executive director of the Gastown Business Improvement Society. Twenty stores and restaurants had closed in the past two years and now two dozen have opened or reopened. Microsoft opened a new office on Water Street with 300 employees, Kit and Ace reopened its clothing store in the same building, and the Kozak restaurant replaced the Bauhaus restaurant at 1 West Cordova. Bauhaus owner Uwe Boll posted on social media about the horrors he witnessed before closing his restaurant in 2020, including his wife’s discovery of a corpse on the roof of his car. He called Gastown “the epicenter of the disaster”.

But Mr Wargolet hopes the historic district will soon experience a renaissance, restoring peace and drawing more people to the streets.

“There are negative points and there are challenges,” says Mr. Wargolet. “Twenty businesses have closed, but now in what we’ve heard we have over 25 new businesses opening, so really we’re going to be net positive over the next few months – which is phenomenal considering everything. that’s what happened, ”he says. “There is optimism and opportunities to be able to have a lower rent than before the pandemic. All of these things play a role in it. I think people see the light at the end of the tunnel.

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Brock Worobel, who poured his savings into his condo in the Paris building in West Hastings about eight years ago, said he would like to sell, but the buyers are not there. He says several of his neighbors in the building have moved and rented out their units. Mr Worobel is not so certain that things will pick up soon enough for him to leave the region. He says part of the reason is the intentional concentration of social housing projects and other ongoing projects. Mr. Worobel, like others, believes the Downtown Eastside plan that was approved in 2014, to build at least 60 percent social housing and 40 percent market rental housing, without condos, has failed. An integrated and more diverse mix of people and income, he says, would have worked better for the neighborhood as a whole.

“After being here for [almost] 10 years now, I have no more hope, ”he says. “[Government leaders] have not learned from the past. Drug addicts and the homeless are mixed with criminals and they put them in that five block radius and expect things to be okay. And then they close their eyes to it.

Artist Michael Miller, who lived in Strathcona for eight years, became a real estate agent during the pandemic and works in Chinatown. For most of the last year, he’s seen first-time homebuyers choosing to buy in the suburbs rather than live in Gastown, but last week he was approached by new US customers who wanted to buy. investment condos in Gastown. He also met with buying investors looking at nearby Strathcona. He thinks they are looking to buy before the market picks up.

He also commends the owner of the Bauhaus restaurant for speaking out about the tragedies he and his wife witnessed.

“It’s hard to talk about it, because we don’t want to admit that’s what’s happening. It’s not just the [business community] getting involved is the government getting involved and supporting those in need, and explaining why this is happening. It’s heartbreaking, but I think we need more business owners to speak out about this experience.

Mr. Wargolet says the business community needs to be part of the solution, but it needs the city’s support. And although the government has spent millions to buy buildings for emergency shelter and create support services, the past 18 months have shown that there is still a long way to go.

“We have compassion for these people: they shouldn’t be on the streets, but they are. There don’t seem to be the services to get them off the streets and get the help they need, to help themselves and protect others as well.

Mr. Wargolet believes that a variety of housing types would help the situation. He has also been in contact with companies such as Microsoft and Amazon, which are opening offices in the area and considering hiring thousands of workers who will need housing. Allied Properties Real Estate Investment Trust recently purchased the Dominion building in Cambie and Hastings. The Toronto-based company, which has an extensive portfolio of heritage commercial properties, also owns the neighboring Sun Tower building and Landing on Water Street. Their typical tenant base is the tech worker. The former Army and Navy buildings, on 1.2 acres of land in the heart of Gastown, are also set to undergo a major redevelopment transformation. The Cohen Block would include retail, dining and convenience, as well as large affordable and market rental units, but no strata units.

“They need this housing immediately. We must end the moratoriums on housing and be creative, and have housing built quickly, in all areas, from social housing to market housing, including condos and apartments, ”said Mr. Wargolet.

“There are things we need to look at. We are working together to try to put pressure on the province on some of these issues. We are worried, we care about our community, and we are also looking for alternatives. “

Mr. Wargolet, who sits on a community wellness committee, consults researchers at Simon Fraser University who have studied homelessness over the course of a decade. Clinical psychologist and distinguished professor Julian Somers prepared a “call to action” for the province in June. Mr. Wargolet hopes that an alternative program like the one SFU offers could help alleviate the suffering and dysfunction on the streets.

Prof Somers is frustrated that so much money has been invested in approaches that don’t work, when the team’s “recuperation-driven housing” model has shown evidence-based results. It also costs roughly the same as the current approach.

“It seems to me that they’ve always made the wrong choice – temporary housing, housing people with super complex needs all together, with pretty minimal supports – it’s like one faux pas after another. “

His team studied hundreds of people who were the least likely to get housing, and about 85% of those were from outside the Lower Mainland. Because it takes them on average about a decade to reach the Downtown Eastside, he says intervention should start before then.

“So after about 10 years they are heading to a place like Vancouver, so the logic to invest our resources where the evidence of problems is most severe is weak, because it forces people to go through this extended period of migration. , very difficult and trying before they are likely to receive help. So we need to ship it to where people might be a little closer to their home community and be able to intervene sooner. “

Another finding is that the vast majority of people have chosen housing located outside of the Downtown Eastside. Professor Somers says the best accommodation is ‘recovery oriented’, which does not put everyone in an old hotel, but rather offers people a choice of independent accommodation with similar wellness supports. to Finland’s housing program. His team finds landlords who make deals, and if the tenant doesn’t work out, they find them new accommodation. No one is kicked out. Someone like him would check them every day, to go shopping, see the dentist, cook a meal together, or just talk about the future.

“It’s housing so people can get better. It’s not the way we usually think of it, like abstinence, or anything like that. It is simply better. Like, “I have a much healthier sense of who I am. I feel like a different person. I am much happier. I am in a relationship. I work.’ Stuff like that, better.

Professor Somers says that to rebuild, business must be part of the solution. Entrepreneurs could collaborate with work programs; owners could participate in a housing inventory. Everyone should be clear about the risks and the benefits.

“I think the impact on businesses is pretty deep, and that includes owners. The chaos of the street is pretty brutal. And I understand that they are not considered terribly likable. … But of course, it’s true what liberal-minded people say about strength in working together. The private sector is of course a major source of jobs, but they are also owners, the private sector, and therefore owners and employers play an essential role in the very intervention we are talking about, whether in Finland or in Portugal. or here. “

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