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No building freeze in Downtown Eastside, city manager says

Architect Robert Fung views an area of West Hastings Street that he is currently in the process of developing in Vancouver, British Columbia, Thursday, January 27, 2011.

Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail/rafal gerszak The Globe and Mail

There is no freeze on building in the Downtown Eastside, no matter what neighbourhood advocates or fearful developers think.

That's the word from Vancouver's increasingly hands-on city manager, Penny Ballem, who is personally negotiating with Downtown Eastside groups over how to conduct a planning process for the oft-discussed neighbourhood, while also working to ensure that development continues in the area.

"We want to respect that process but we are absolutely not putting a moratorium on there," said Ms. Ballem, who has had two meetings with the local groups. "We want to move ahead on as many things as we can there. Some are within existing policy and some are aligned with what people want down there. But there's no moratorium."

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Ms. Ballem said 150-foot towers likely won't go ahead while the city and neighbourhood groups are negotiating to create an overall plan for the area. But there are other projects - some that exceed current height restrictions and will require rezoning, and others more modest - where the city will move forward.

"In the interim, there are 10 to 12 inquiries or applications that we are going to be bringing forward as a group to council in the next while."

Some of the projects will bring low-cost housing to the area - though not the social housing that neighbourhood groups say has to be the priority - along with other needed space for health facilities or social-enterprise groups.

Ms. Ballem acknowledged that owners and developers have been confused ever since city council decided abruptly last month that it would postpone a decision about increasing allowable heights in some parts of the Downtown Eastside.

That decision came after only a few days of public pressure from academics and neighbourhood groups, who said the increased heights would lead to increased development pressure and speculation in an area that has historically been home to the city's biggest pool of low-cost housing.

In the weeks since the decision, which stipulated that the city would work with a committee that included neighbourhood activist groups, developers and their consultants have expressed bewilderment.

"I don't think anybody has a sense of what you can or can't do," said Robert Fung, a developer who has specialized in rehabilitating small, historic buildings in Gastown and the Downtown Eastside. "There's been a lot of concern and a general sense of confusion. The decision was completely counter to what council had been moving toward after five years of height studies and reviews."

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Mr. Fung had been planning a tower on the corner of Abbott and West Pender that, although it's blocks away from Main and Hastings, has been stalled as a result of the council decision.

He is also currently rehabilitating a small residential building on Carrall, not affected by council's decision since it doesn't involve a rezoning.

Development consultant Jim Green, a former city councillor, said he's been telling clients that he just doesn't know whether they should go ahead with Downtown Eastside projects.

"Many people believe there's a moratorium for a year. I'm advising them that it's a very difficult situation." Mr. Green said neighbourhood groups have circulated information saying all projects are stalled indefinitely, adding to the confusion.

The Downtown Eastside has occupied a special place in city planning for decades. The area, with 24,000 residents, is home to 30 per cent of all the social housing in the city. As well, it has another 4,000 units of low-cost housing in residential hotels and rooming houses.

City planners have stipulated several times over the years that the city's goal is to maintain the area as primarily low-income. However, planners also said they expected to see the amount of market housing to double to 4,000 units between 2005 and 2015.

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About the Author
Urban affairs contributor

Frances Bula has written about urban issues and city politics in B.C.’s Vancouver region, covering everything from Downtown Eastside drug addiction to billion-dollar development projects, since 1994. More

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