Over its more than 135-year history, First United has continuously evolved to meet the changing needs of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. As a low-barrier social service provider, demand for its services has risen in the face of the compounding COVID-19, overdose, and homelessness crises.
Now, the needs of the community have outgrown First United’s current space at 320 East Hastings.
To answer these urgent needs, First United is redeveloping its aging 60-year-old church building into an adaptable, purpose-built facility that will provide community, connection, and care to the Downtown Eastside community for decades to come.
“First United is just such an integrated part of the Downtown Eastside,” says First United Executive Director Carmen Lansdowne. “Our primary activity is caring for our neighbours. We really try to eliminate any type of barrier for somebody to access our services. Right now, our greatest barrier is our building. It was obviously not purpose-built for the things we do now as an organization.”
First United’s vision is a neighbourhood where the worth of every person is celebrated and all people thrive. It’s calling on the Greater Vancouver community to act now to help build First’s new home—a multi-storey, multipurpose building that will incorporate community amenity space and inclusive, low-barrier services with much-needed below-market housing.
At roughly 40,000 square feet, the new purpose-built First United will be triple the size of its current space. As the pedestal, occupying the first four floors of the 11-storey building, the new First United has been designed to be universally accessible, with flexible multipurpose spaces that will enable the organization to adapt and respond to the community’s needs well into the future.
The new First United will serve as the foundation for seven stories of safe, secure below-market rental housing for indigenous residents of the Downtown Eastside, which will be operated by Lu’ma Native Housing Society. First United will lease its air parcels to Lu’ma to enable the development of housing on its site. Through this partnership, Lu’ma residents will also have access to the First United meal program, amenities, and services.
“The total cost of the project is $65 million,” says Lansdowne. “Our portion of that [for the new First United] is $30 million, so we’ve embarked on an ambitious $30-million-dollar capital campaign—and we’ve already raised nearly 75 percent of that! We’re absolutely thrilled to now be inviting more of our friends and the Greater Vancouver public to make a contribution to move First Forward.”
With the project set to break ground in early 2022, First United services are currently being relocated to nearby satellite locations in the Downtown Eastside, where they will operate until the doors reopen in 2024. Their community meal program is going mobile as Food First, the soon-to-be-launched First United food truck meal program.
First United’s redevelopment is part of a larger initiative to rejuvenate the corner of Hastings and Gore. In recent years, BC Housing has renovated its offices on the southeast corner and the social housing units above. Construction of an 11-storey mixed-use development of non-market and market housing as well as commercial space was completed on the southwest corner in 2018. And to the northeast, Vancouver Coastal Health, is expected to redevelop its site at 301 East Hastings in the near future.
As for First United’s role at the Hastings and Gore intersection, it will continue to be, as it’s commonly known, “the neighbourhood’s living room,” providing two drop-in spaces, a commercial kitchen and large dining room, a legal advocacy clinic, tax program, a commercial kitchen, multipurpose spaces, public showers, a day sleeping room, an interfaith sacred space, outdoor decks, a computer lab, and First United’s administrative offices.
Says Lansdowne, “This project is an important opportunity for us at First United, as a non-indigenous organization, to move towards reconciliation with indigenous peoples. It’s an opportunity for Vancouver to embrace, support, and build up the residents of the Downtown Eastside. By creating neighbourhoods where people can thrive, we’re also creating neighbourhoods where businesses and entire communities can thrive.” She adds, “This is an opportunity to show who we are as a society, as a community. And it’s a rare opportunity to be a part of something that will, hopefully, outlast us.”
It’s also a project that won’t happen without the support of the wider community. If you want to be a part of helping move First Forward, here’s what you can do to help:
Sign up for First United’s mailing list
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Spread the word
Share this story. Tell your friends about what is happening in the neighbourhood. Help to raise awareness about the need for community-informed rejuvenation and put this project at top of mind.
With less than $8 million to go, you can help First United reach its $30 million goal. Give what you can! Visit firstforward.ca to make a contribution.
Those interested in corporate giving opportunities, pledged donations over a five-year period, or further information about First United’s recognition program for gifts over $10,000 can contact email@example.com.