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Condo building protested as threat to 'drug market'

The Woodwards building, seen here July 25, 2005 was hoped to be the first step towards revitalization of the downtown east side.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

A new condominium project on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside is a threat to the neighbourhood – in part because it will upset the existing drug market, a community group maintains.

"Gentrification destabilizes the drug market and that makes it more unsafe for the most vulnerable people on the street," the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users said Thursday in a statement posted on a website devoted to housing issues.

That declaration, posted the day after a rally against Sequel 138 – a proposed six-storey project across the street from Vancouver's supervised injection site – caught the attention of Sequel developer Marc Williams.

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A Thursday morning tweet under the Sequel 138 account said: "Colossal blunder: VANDU admits opposing Sequel because 'it destabilizes the drug market…' Jeeze."

A second tweet, about an hour later, said: "Amazing admission by VANDU. They oppose Sequel: it 'destabilizes the drug market.' #DTES needs hope, not drug dealers."

In a telephone interview Thursday, Mr. Williams would not say whether he wrote the tweets – only that they came from a project account – but said Sequel would improve the neighbourhood.

"The project itself does provide social housing, it provides affordable housing," Mr. Williams said, adding that Sequel 138 features garden and art space, although such elements were not required by the city.

Proposed for a vacant site formerly home to a theatre, the $30-million Sequel 138 is at the centre of a debate over development and gentrification in the neighbourhood, where upscale restaurants and condos are slipping in next to SRO hotels and needle exchanges.

VANDU's worries over potential drug-market shakeups are part of a broader concern over how gentrification affects neighbourhood residents who are poor, mentally ill or addicted to drugs, says VANDU community organizer Aiyanas Ormond.

"The main concern is potential increased police presence and different police practices and private security guards on that block," Mr. Ormond said, adding that some VANDU members say they feel unwelcome on streets where development has already taken place, including the lauded Woodward's development.

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That project, built around a landmark department store and completed in 2010, includes market and social housing along with retail outlets, some watched over by security guards.

"They [residents]feel that the police practices have changed and there's a sense that we're not part of this community any more … that we're alien in that block, kind of persona non grata," Mr. Ormond said.

VANDU, and other groups that took part in the rally, would like to see the Sequel site devoted entirely to social housing.

Mr. Williams, meanwhile, points out that the site was formerly a commercial property, that he's not displacing anyone and that he will be increasing, not reducing, the number of housing options in the neighbourhood.

Under plans submitted to the city, the project would include 97 units, with 18 of those, or 20 per cent, deemed social housing in line with city guidelines. The other 79 units are labeled "affordable" housing units and are supposed to sell at less than market value, with cost reductions paid for by savings in the construction process.

The project is scheduled for a development permit hearing later this month. In March, it received a green light from the city's urban design panel, which "agreed that having 20 per cent of units for social housing and having it integrated into the project was commendable."

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But long before potential new residents have made their way to the neighbourhood, there's already concern about how, and whether, they will fit in.

"We suspect the people who buy $250,000 condos are going to have different expectations around what the norm is on their street," Mr. Ormond said.

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About the Author
National correspondent

Based in Vancouver, Wendy Stueck has covered technology and business and now reports on British Columbia issues including natural resources, aboriginal issues and urban affairs. More

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