The anti-gentrification protests that have been going on nightly outside Pidgin restaurant since it opened last February have had an unintended consequence. They’ve made the fledgling eatery, whose dishes include sea urchin and foie gras, a Vancouver hot spot. Indeed, its owners and others pouring money into the surrounding Downtown Eastside could not have bought better advertising alerting outsiders to the change going on in a neighbourhood long considered a no-go zone.
For decades, city hall has tried desperately to convince businesses and developers to invest in the Downtown Eastside. But most of them took one look at the country’s most notorious neighbourhood—gorgeous but crumbling buildings, a crack-cocaine epidemic on top of a heroin problem, mentally ill people living on the streets—and shook their heads.
Not anymore. Thanks to a raft of small and large city policies, high prices elsewhere, and the slow creep of upscale businesses into the fringes, the area’s vacancy rate has been halved. Doughnut shops, condo developers, locavore delis and longboard shops are suddenly moving in. “There have been 20 new businesses in our area the last year,” says Wes Regan, executive director of the Hastings Crossing business association. “Other parts of the city have gotten too expensive.”
Most recently, Anthem Properties, a significant player in Vancouver real estate, bought two iconic buildings on Hastings Street, the Save On Meats restaurant/butcher shop and the B.C. Electric Building, soon to become the head office for the Earl’s casual-dining chain. “A lot of their employees live around the area, and the building is on all the bike lanes,” says Anthem spokeswoman Alexa Ulinder-Baughen.
Another player, Steven Lippman, is spit-shining the once notorious American Hotel and other properties into space suitable for condo-furniture shops, restaurants and hipster bars. The Port Capital Group is developing a condo project up the block from two homeless shelters. “The energy from changes around us has been building up for a while,” says company founder Tobi Reyes, noting the city’s plan to convert its hulking former police station into a technology incubator. Daniel Boffo, whose company is planning a project combining condos and subsidized housing, affirms that “the heart of the city is moving east.”
Can the newcomers coexist harmoniously with an incumbent community anchored by 7,000 government-run and not-for-profit housing units? The business association makes a point of encouraging “social-impact businesses.” Some, including Pidgin, Save On Meats and Boffo, strive to hire local residents. The more upmarket consumers and the businesses that serve them are attracted to the area, though, the less likely they are to be so community-minded.