Three Vancouver business leaders offer hope for change in Downtown Eastside

Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside has in the pandemic taken on a new density of despair.

Once again, the summer heat has driven the traumatized and victimized out of sweltering warehousing riven with violence and virus.

If this were Toronto or Montreal, for certain policymakers would have brought relief and not containment. A social emergency would have been declared and it would have been a national mission to address. But this is Vancouver, where the geography and social priorities are in Ottawa’s mind at the far end of the line.

A recent investigative project by Glacier Media journalists determined there is available information (with elbow grease and gumshoes) on who owns the buildings in the district. In general, we do, in that governments own a large portion of the properties or are in the process of acquisition.

Political leadership on the Downtown Eastside has been what they describe in Texas as all hat and no cattle. Their prescriptions have had the impact of a blunt instrument in an operating theatre. It has been evident for decades, too, that the private sector has been far from angelic in many instances in managing and developing the district as some sort of investment instrument in its deepening hardship. There is ample evidence that the $1 million-plus poured into the district each day is making scant difference in the quality of life.

Some of the best hopes for the area are vested in the dedication – and their commitment of money and time – by individual leadership to rehabilitate the frayed framework of Canada’s poorest postal code within walking distance of many of its most affluent ones. Many have tried and failed, but it is evident the wealth of Vancouver will need to transfer more, try more and even fail more if a difference is to be eventually made.

So it has been a month of good news with the emergence of a proposal and clear progress of another, of promise but not particular immediacy for a changed landscape for the so-named DTES. The hurdles are high, the expectations outsized and the questions are more plentiful than answers.

The two projects are emblematic of the overwhelming part of the community that wants, but has not achieved, a more livable district without gentrifying it beyond accessibility. It will be some time before judgment can be passed on their successes, but the first thing to say is that they will be earnest in their ambitions.

The most extensive is still in its infancy, a partnership of iconic business leaders Jacqui Cohen and Colin Bosa. She holds the sprawling property that bridges the DTES and Gastown on Hastings and Cordova Streets that had until recently been the flagship of the Army & Navy retail chain that had so served the community for several decades. He leads the prominent development firm, Bosa Properties, and will steward what stands to be one of the city’s historic opportunities for vision in a neighbourhood so hard to see.

The second is a long-empty lot at 58 West Hastings that has taken a full decade to tick sufficient boxes to proceed. Less patient and principled leaders than Carol Lee would have folded the tent long ago, but last week there she was in the presence of deputy prime minister Chrystia Freeland bringing rain to the arid proposal in a partnership among governments, Vancouver Coastal Health and the Vancouver Chinatown Foundation. Sure, it has a pre-election scent, but that doesn’t matter when what will be delivered is a 230-unit building with a health care centre, a large part of it designated for lower-income Vancouverites. To do so, though, everyone had to exceed the stretch goals.

The Army & Navy site, which will transform into what will be known as the Cohen Block, will be purpose-built rental housing at its core, retail retained in some form, offices on offer, and vast opportunities to bring culture and other amenities. The challenge for Bosa will be to devise a project in conjunction with Cohen and the Michael Green Architecture firm that meets the test of credibility of inclusivity and a pro forma that offers owner Cohen sustainable economic viability. There is also the not-small matter of satisfying the city, which is bound to view the development as an opening to ladle a long list of objectives that might douse enthusiasm along with financial feasibility. That’s quite the needle to thread.

As we have seen this decade, the experience of the Woodward’s project is an object lesson on how the best of intentions can meet their match in reality, and Cohen and Bosa are clear they have been tutored on how it might be best to not proceed. They are in the early stage of what Lee has endured in trying to align community needs with commonsensical building.

Taken together, though, these two projects change the game in the projection of a more diligent care structure for the citizens of the DTES. Government will help, but can’t do it all, and it will take many more business leaders to step forward so the district may do the same.

The exhaustive experience of the three prominent personalities atop their development ought to produce plans and practices over the coming half-decade that will serve as their legacies. That ought to tell us something about the resolve that exists amid us to take ownership of the challenge of the DTES, to minister care and mitigate harm.

Lee, Cohen and Bosa are staking much of their reputations on what happens when, in fact, they needn’t.

Kirk LaPointe is publisher and editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.