Our downtown core is in rough shape.
It wasn’t always like this.
Vancouver’s downtown is home for over 100,000 residents and 13,000 businesses, making it one of the most densely populated residential neighbourhoods in North America, nestled in spectacular geographic splendor.
It was once studied by urban planning experts from around the world as a model for smart urban design.
But today, many offices are empty and tourism is at a standstill. Downtown businesses are struggling, and many have closed, due to the pandemic.
There are also fewer “eyes on the street.” Storefronts are smashed and robbed almost daily even though crime is down almost everywhere else in the city.
When the mayor says “he feels safe” in our city, it can only be because he hasn’t ventured much outside his home in Yaletown lately.
Police reports show that assaults, arson and weapon-related offences are also on the rise. Anti-Asian hate crimes are through the roof.
Homelessness and the tidal wave of poisoned drugs have been accelerated by the pandemic, but what we’re seeing is also the result of decades of lack of investment and outdated policies on housing and mental health from all levels of government.
The province’s purchase of the old Howard Johnson hotel on Granville Street to house people from Oppenheimer Park is one example. It was a stop-gap measure because senior governments didn’t build the kind of public housing we needed for over a generation. The police were called 1000 times from that address alone last year. Things are deteriorating there rapidly.
Why are we housing people in old hotels when there are much better alternatives such as temporary modular housing?
We need to create a “Family Friendly Downtown” initiative, focused on the principle that a thriving downtown is a safer downtown.
Our current mayor is correct when he now says we must “adequately resource” the VPD, but the police themselves know they can’t solve this alone.
Our strategy must help to rebuild connection to community and culture through short-term and long-term efforts.
Our downtown needs more space and resources for families to enjoy inexpensive activities during the day and on weekends. And we need to get to work on that immediately as we emerge from the pandemic.
We also need to super-charge our downtown night-time economy and create a healthy, active, safe, appealing nightlife the likes of which we haven’t seen before.
We should create a Commissioner of the Night-time Economy and Culture - a person who is part visionary, part promoter, part peace-maker and has been elected by all the stakeholders involved. We know this works. It’s been a proven success in New York, London and Amsterdam.
One of the Commissioner’s first tasks would be to make a stretch of Granville Street a pedestrian-friendly, family-friendly, all-weather protected, well-lit, active street. We have great examples of how this can be done right here in our own backyard in places like the shipyards in North Vancouver. Imagine this corridor – with a much broader mix of restaurants, shops and nightclubs – connected to Davie Street to create a truly world-class entertainment district.
This is just one example of what we can do.
From a longer-term perspective, we need to work closely with other levels of government to deliver on public housing and mental health.
One of the things I support is Vancouver City Council’s efforts to work with senior governments to buy up all of the city’s privately owned single-room occupancy hotels (the ones with mouldy, rat-infested rooms on floors that often have no working sinks or showers) that keep so many people trapped in a cycle of poverty.
Over time, most of these SRO’s should be demolished in favour of public, government-owned housing with appropriate mental health and community supports. We also need to advocate for increasing the $375 shelter rate.
Advocating for decriminalization of drugs and clean supply is the right thing to do, but this is just one part of the picture. We need senior levels of government to make much greater investments into the kind of services that can allow people suffering from trauma and addiction to find a path to healing.
Making our downtown safe – for residents, businesses, office workers, visitors, and the vulnerable – is a critical task for all of us who care about our city.
We must work tirelessly, and urgently, to make our downtown the family-friendly envy of the world.
Mark Marissen is a political strategist at Burrard Strategy and a mayoralty candidate in the Vancouver municipal election this October.