Vancouver Province column: City leaders must take strong stand against this downtown lawlessness

A friend who moved to the edge of the rough-and-tumble Downtown Eastside last year was recently on the receiving end of a 4 a.m. emergency alarm — forcing him to evacuate his highrise condo until firefighters arrived.

It turns out that some troubled individual had broken into his building and intentionally started a minor fire on the tower’s 23rd floor.

Short on kindling, this amateur arsonist torched his own jacket to make the mini-blaze a scary reality. A scene from the movie Towering Inferno it was not, but the early-morning commotion provided a dose of cruel reality for groggy residents.

It’s not the first time my pal has been victimized in his new haunts. Earlier this fall, his car was stolen from the building’s supposedly secure underground parking garage.

To the credit of the police, he eventually did get his wheels back, albeit strewn with garbage and empty beer cans. But his story points to a larger problem: The lawlessness that pervades the Downtown Eastside and its periphery threatens to scare off new residents and undermine the neighbourhood’s long-awaited revival.

It’s a side of the gentrification story you won’t read about in the glossy real-estate brochures. Still, the influx of new residents is inevitable.

The recently-released draft of the ecodensity charter, brainchild of Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan, recommends lifting height and density restrictions for several areas in the city core, including the DTES.

And that means Metro Vancouver’s most troubled postal code is slated for more condos, plus the shiny, happy people who inhabit them.

Sullivan might be on to something. The revitalization of the area, already underway, could become a major success story — at least if all goes according to plan — and serve as a model for other shell-shocked inner-city neighbourhoods across North America.

There’s a sense of excitement over the building boom, highlighted by the Woodward’s redevelopment project, which includes a 40-storey residential tower, a major art school and social housing to go along with the pricey condos.

Other groups are looking to join the party, including development giant Concord Pacific, which earlier this year bought several key properties on a tough stretch of Hastings Street. In fact, hundreds of Downtown Eastside lots have changed hands in the past 24 months.

But while the new housing developments are being marketed to hipsters and young professionals, don’t expect a tsunami of yoga studios, izakayas and doggie spas to push out the district’s notorious culture of drug-dealing.

Whether they like it or not, local politicians and real- estate developers just can’t wish this trouble away. And civic leaders need to take a strong stand against the current tide of lawlessness.

Whether they live in glass towers or government housing, all residents of the Downtown Eastside deserve so much better than the depressing and dangerous status quo.

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Filed under Gentrification, Law and Order, Real Estate, Vancouver, Vancouver Province Columns

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