Gentrification knocking at Strathcona’s door

Rising property values threaten neighbourhood’s unique commercial character, advocate says

Joji Kumagai, executive director of the Strathcona Business Improvement Area, outside the Ted Harris Paints building in the 700 block of East Hastings | Jen St. Denis

It’s a common pattern in cities around the world: artists and creative businesses are attracted to a rundown urban neighbourhood by cheap rent. New development and investment follows and property values rise.

Next thing you know, there’s a Starbucks on every corner and a once-interesting streetscape has become uniform and boring.

Members of Strathcona’s vibrant business community are trying to figure out how to keep the area from falling into that familiar gentrification pattern. At the second annual Made in Strathcona event on June 13, the Strathcona Business Improvement Area (SBIA) is slated to show off the diverse manufacturing and creative businesses that make the neighbourhood their home.

The SBIA has also organized a panel hosted by the man many Vancouverites think of when the topic of skyrocketing real estate values comes up.

“We want to have a robust discussion,” condo marketer Bob Rennie told Business in Vancouver. “With success comes that change that starts to get to borderline gentrification.”

Rennie has been outspoken about his belief that building multifamily housing, even in single-family neighbourhoods, is the key to solving Vancouver’s affordability crisis – not new rules targeting foreign ownership or speculation.

“West 4th Avenue at one point was cheap, Commercial Drive was cheap at one time,” Rennie said. “But once businesses move in and you see development go in, the rents go up. Is it change or is it gentrification? People want to live in the city.”

Rennie owns a building at 757 East Hastings, which he says he bought in part to save the historic Ted Harris Paints neon sign. He rents the building to artists.

East Hastings is poised to see a lot of change as zoning changes brought in by the city several years ago are now starting to take effect, said Joji Kumagai, executive director of the SBIA. Those changes include allowing a wider mix of commercial uses, but protect 50% of the land for industrial use.

Property values for some properties have risen 300% over the past 10 years, based on data the SBIA tracked between 2002 and 2012; even for the “most suppressed” areas near Oppenheimer Park, values have risen around 94%.

That could pose a risk to the area’s unique mix of manufacturers, wholesalers, inventors and clothing designers, Kumagai said.

New developments in the area’s future include the 280-unit Strathcona Village condo development at 900 East Hastings, developed by Wall Financial and marketed by Rennie’s company. Low Tide Properties, a company owned by Chip Wilson, has also shown an interest in the area. The company owns six commercial buildings in Strathcona. Low Tide usually renovates the buildings it acquires and rents them out to a variety of tenants, said president David Ferguson.

Some Downtown Eastside advocates have decried a new local area plan put in place by the city, saying it doesn’t include enough social housing and leaves the vulnerable neighbourhood open to condo development that would force out low-income residents. But Rennie believes that plan will help prevent outright gentrification in the community and adjacent neighbourhoods.

“With 30% housing stock zoned in perpetuity for social housing, it’ll never be gentrification, it’ll always be diversification,” Rennie said. “I think that diversification is what prevents gentrification.”

One idea Rennie thinks would help preserve the “patina” of the historic neighbourhood is allowing more affordable retail and smaller light industrial spaces in the alleys.

“Whether it’s an ice cream store or whether it’s handmade pottery or artists, how do you keep that finer fabric once [a neighbourhood] becomes popular?”

The SBIA's Made in Strathcona event runs Saturday, June 13 from 11 am to 3 pm at MakerLabs, 780 East Cordova.