Woodward’s residents embracing the traditional neighbourhood

Saturday, January 30th, 2010

The middle class has begun moving into the troubled area. Whether that’s a good or bad thing depends on whom you ask

Lori Culbert

The courtyard at the new Woodward’s condominium complex: While new residents find the neighbourhood to their liking, others have sounded a warning. Photograph by: Ward Perrin, PNG, Vancouver Sun

Pam Williams and friend Jesse Lawrie each have their own places at Woodward’s. ‘It’s becoming one of the best places to live, because everything is right downstairs,’ Williams says.

Mike Meyer returns to his apartment in the Woodward’s complex after a shopping trip. ‘We live in a four-block radius. We do everything here.’

Mike Meyer is hauling two breakfast bagels and some grapefruit juice in a Nesters Market bag along West Cordova, heading to his home in the new Woodward’s development.

Meyer and his girlfriend, both twentysomethings from Calgary, moved into the building — an eclectic mix of the old refurbished department store, new gleaming towers, and mainstream businesses — in October, and were suddenly immersed in an unofficial social experiment in the Downtown Eastside.

Are the Woodward’s residents embracing the traditional neighbourhood, as the shoppers in the iconic department store once did?

Are they supporting local businesses and stopping to chat with low-income neighbours, or do they walk briskly past on the way to Robson Street?

And is the injection of the middle class — right into the heart of the Downtown Eastside — a lifeline or a death-knell for the troubled neighbourhood?

Like any emotionally and politically charged debate, it depends on whom you ask.

Meyer, 26, and his 23-year-old girlfriend moved from Yaletown to Woodward’s because it was closer to her job, and the rent for their condo was reasonable. Since they both came from Calgary, neither had a romanticized past with Woodward’s — it was really just another condo project.

They were cautious at first about moving into a neighbourhood that is home to many of Vancouver’s homeless, most of whom struggle with addiction and/or mental illness.

But, Meyer said, that worry quickly dissipated. The people on the street, he said, inspired sympathy, but not fear. At first he gave them spare change, but now he buys them sandwiches or passes around leftovers from a restaurant meal.

Meyer, who has worked in construction and snowboard sales but is taking time off right now, said most days he and his girlfriend never leave the ‘hood.

“We live in a four-block radius. We do everything here,” he said.

They frequently have a pint at the Irish Heather. They go out for Mexican food at La Casita across the street. They had just bought breakfast at Nesters, and often shop in London Drugs and bank at the TD, which are all in the Woodward’s development.

A development project like this can be beneficial, says David Eby of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, because it contains about 200 units of social housing, allowing people of different economic backgrounds to live in the same building — an experiment that has been successful in some U.S. cities.

However, protections have to be put in place to ensure such developments don’t drive up rents in the neighbourhood, and that an equal number of low-income buildings are also constructed.

“There are great facilities in it and hundreds of social housing units, which are positive. People who are homeless are excited to be moving into the Woodward’s building. But the issue is whether the city will act to dispel the Woodward’s effect so people aren’t displaced,” Eby said.

Wendy Pedersen, of the Carnegie Community Action Project, said there are condo and business owners who support the low-income community, but she fears that as more computer-savvy, well-spoken, middle-class property owners move into the neighbourhood it will tip the balance away from the rights of the poor.

“That is the big problem with Woodward’s — because there isn’t a plan to control ‘change’ in the neighbourhood,” Pedersen said, adding what the community desperately needs is more housing specifically for low-income people.

“That’s the underlying story that people don’t realize: We can’t just rely on Woodward’s projects to build the number of units that we need.”

As long as middle-class neighbourhoods reject having social housing in their backyards, argued Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre project coordinator Harsha Walia, this community should not accept expensive buildings on its streets.

“The Downtown Eastside is a last safe haven for people who are non-judgmental, for people who understand the barriers that others face,” Walia said.

While she said she doesn’t want to generalize about every person living in Woodward’s, she has witnessed some low-income residents being poorly treated by shoppers in the new mainstream stores or by pedestrians on the sidewalks.

Vancouver city hall spokeswoman Theresa Beer said city staff thought it was premature to speak to The Vancouver Sun about the interaction between new and traditional residents in the area as people and businesses are still moving into the long-anticipated project.

She was not aware of any recent bylaw complaints involving homeless people near Woodward’s, and said Vancouver police told her they do not track crime complaints by such specific locations.

Houtan Rafii, project manager with developer Westbank, acknowledged there will always be anti-Woodward’s people in the Downtown Eastside, but said the response from people in the building’s 533 market units has been “overwhelmingly positive” so far.

There have been few, if any complaints for Westbank to handle between new and existing Downtown Eastside residents, he said.

He said the building remains popular, noting few original buyers are now trying to flip their units.

Woodward’s has a storied history in Vancouver. It was a place that many longtime residents fondly recall visiting for shopping trips. But the iconic department store closed in 1993 after falling on hard times, and its redevelopment has been many years in the making.

Pam Williams, 23, has lived in Woodward’s since October after finding her former hometown of Whistler too expensive. She loves the local stores, she said, and feels safe living in the neighbourhood.

“It’s becoming one of the bes places to live, because everything is right downstairs,” Williams said during an interview outside the JJ Bean coffee shop in the Woodward’s development.

Her friend Jesse Lawrie, who also lives in the building, said he likes the mix of old and new in the Downtown Eastside, when it comes to residents and businesses.

Added the 26-year-old mechanic: “I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else now.”

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