The housing market’s war on culture and community

New residential buildings in Downtown Vancouver – but what type of community are they creating? | Photo by Tim Niu

World’s best city to live in”, and “World’s most reputable city” were the accolades thrown around by just about anyone who learned about my imminent departure to Vancouver. To my mind, the city has an immediate appeal and aura that these various reports and surveys seem to have tapped into: it’s pleasant, safe and in a rather impressive location. The sobering truth is that Vancouver now wears neither of those two crowns, and it may very well have something to do with the fact that Vancouver has the second most expensive real estate market in the world relative to average annual earnings.

First impressions

Something I began noticing after it was brought to my attention on a causal evening stroll downtown is the substantial number of condominiums in this city that appear vacant. UBC adjunct urban planning professor Andrew Yan suggests that nearly a quarter of condos in Coal Harbour are either empty or occupied by non-residents, according to data from the 2011 census. The sight of the condos in this area in particular can provide an ominous and alienating experience to those walking the southeast end of the Stanley Park seawall. The walkways that contour the modern-looking development projects are mainly occupied by fitness-obsessed joggers and photo-taking tourists. It is the ideal place to take in the elements from a safe distance, but certainly not the right place if your aim is to get a feel of the Vancouver vibe. This sort of development project ultimately brings to mind a question regarding the general outlook for Vancouver: what sort of a community are we aiming to foster in these high-rise neighborhoods that are swiftly emerging?

The investment that neighborhoods like Coal Harbour, Yaletown and Gastown are seeing, whether it be foreign or domestic, seems to have created a class of residents who are not part of the active population of Vancouver. I admit that the latter two neighborhoods, much like the areas near Denman and Davie, do boast a large number of well-frequented shops and restaurants, which account for a substantial portion of the city’s cultural output. But on the other hand, the many shops and restaurants in Coal Harbour give a false impression of the level of activity in this neighborhood. Aside from the fact that most coffee shops and restaurants in this area are of the chain brand variety, they tend to close not long after the regular daytime work hours are over, and are no busier on weekends than they are on weekdays.

The road ahead

highly anticipated TED conference took place only a stone’s throw away from Coal Harbour, and the response seemed rather underwhelming. Not even the 747-foot sky sculpture that soared over the event space(half the span of the Brooklyn Bridge), could entice residents to congregate around Canada Place. To my mind, the take-home message is that city planners should carefully reflect on recent and future changes made to Vancouver’s skyline.

Simon Fraser University’s Vancouver campus is sometimes regarded as the intellectual hub of the downtown core. Yet the university has also been at the forefront of the gentrification process of the historical East Side, a continuing process that threatens the livelihood of several iconic establishments on Hastings that define the city’s raw-and-real entertainment culture. It would come with great remorse to see the Hasting area be irreparably altered by the sort of housing developments found in Coal Harbour: a neighborhood created ex nihilo, with a transient community that can’t seem to make a meaningful mark on the cultural fabric of this city.

Alexandre Agnello

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