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Yaletown- Can Gentrification and Authenticity Coincide?

Posted By Laura Tate, Wednesday, April 5, 2017
Updated: Wednesday, April 5, 2017

In my last blog, I promised to alternate theoretical discussions of authenticity with case examples.  Read on for a case study of one of Vancouver’s more gentrified neighbourhoods.

Yaletown has good bones.  It was served by freight train lines and warehouses with elevated loading docks, starting in the late 19th century, and remained a vital industrial and rail precinct through the 1950s.  As highway and truck transportation gradually made the rail uses irrelevant, some warehouses lingered, mixed with single room occupancy units (SROs) and the stroll for sex trade workers well through to the 1980s and early 1990s.  Today it boasts lawyer lofts (the local term for artists’ lofts that only lawyers can afford); elegant high rise apartments with sensitively designed grade-accessed units below; and many design elements evocative of the district's grittier past.  Is it authentic?  Compared with its past, and from a market exclusivity perspective-probably not.  On the other hand: the sensitive and thorough design; policy efforts at inclusivity; and Yaletown's ongoing role as an icon of the city's past make it hard to fully label it inauthentic.  This blog outlines features and processes which hinder and help Yaletown’s authenticity.

Features hindering authenticity

Housing affordability issues are the neighbourhood’s biggest concern.  For perspective,  realtors say the median price for a Yaletown apartment (April 2017) is $1.2 million in Canadian dollars,  ($899,000 in US dollars).  Renting isn’t cheap, either. Anecdotes place rents, for a small 1 bedroom apartment, at $2,000 Cdn ($1500 USD) per month.  As a result, people on fixed incomes, service sector workers, and young people without parental help struggle to make their homes there.  It is ironic that earlier planning efforts explicitly called for safe, high density housing with social diversity and “moderately priced housing within the means of average income” (Downtown South Goals and Policies ).  Just as Zukin (2011) found in New York City, wonderful urban design and planning inspired by Jane Jacobs’s ideas could not preserve the diversity that Vancouver planners and community groups wanted for Yaletown in a context of enormous housing cost increases.

As a result, Yaletown has become a high-end district, with exclusive boutiques and restaurants throughout.  (Its target market: wealthy 20-somethings.  There is no way on this earth that my middle-aged body could fit into a single article of clothing sold in any of the area’s stores.)  Many businesses pay a studied, but sanitized homage to Yaletown’s gritty past, like the business in the photo below.   While pretty, I’m not entirely sure this artistically paint-dripped signage would be considered authentic:

Features that help enhance authenticity

As alluded above, starting in the 1980s, Vancouver's city planners made clear, detailed policy and design guidelines for future redevelopment, directly honouring Yaletown's past.  While ineffective at social preservation, they have reinforced the historic context without being kitschy.  This has included retaining portions of the older brick warehouses and the elevated loading docks attached to them, converting the latter into semi-covered public open space with their own unique design specs , which restaurants can encroach on for patio use.  These docks have become extremely popular and animated features, particularly from March through October, weather and heat lamps permitting.

The design guidelines  and other streetscape guidelines have not restricted developers to exclusively using  heritage materials.  But through extensive calls for grade-oriented access, and townhouses that line the street-fronts of high rise buildings, together with other features to enhance the pedestrian experience, they have increased the connection that residents have to the public sidewalks and streets.

Yaletown contains a significant amount of public amenity space with important historic links.  The Roundhouse Community Centre is located in Yaletown’s initial 1888 locomotive roundhouse.  Not only does the centre embody historic design features, and some of the workings of the original facility, it still contains the first locomotive engine that crossed Canada to reach Vancouver.  Railway construction (and use) was key to the broader nation-building project of the European settlers in Canada; and so, the retained roundhouse and engine have symbolic power for many.  Today, by offering publicly subsidized and free recreational programs, the centre makes this beautiful, multi-purpose heritage space widely accessible -much of the time.  It also hosts private arts and music events.   Finally, one of my favorite contemporary urban parks provides respite for anyone who lives in –or wanders into—the area.  Emory Barnes Park is tranquil and green, designed to maximize the safety enhancing aspect of openness to the street, while also creating lovely outdoor room spaces that allow for a range of park uses.  Fittingly, the park was named after British Columbia’s first African Canadian elected representative to the provincial legislature –a man who championed social inclusion.

Co-mingled with all the (increasingly pricey) market housing are several social housing developments in, or at the edge of, Yaletown.  I am aware of at least six of these buildings, which each accommodate anywhere from 30 to 136 residential units.  Several of these are home to low income seniors, and one (Yaletown Mews) provides family-oriented homes.  These units can take advantage of the elementary school and daycare space which were enabled directly by City planning efforts.

My final assessment of Yaletown

I believe that the planners, Council, and citizens of the day did everything in their power to promote inclusive and authentic development using the tools they had available.  And, the public uses and social housing which were implemented help ensure that many older residents and people with historic connections to this place can still feel a sense of belonging.  These same features make the neighbourhood accessible for people who don’t live there (but want to take in its ambience) to feel welcome.  In these respects, Yaletown remains authentic.  That said, going forward, the pressure is on to find a much wider and more effective range of approaches for ensuring that people are not lost in the process of market evolution and gentrification.  It’s a complex challenge that will take many minds and perspectives to address.

Tags:  authenticity  gentrification  Vancouver 

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Comments on this post...

Daniel Kudla says...
Posted Monday, June 12, 2017
Interesting read. I was just visiting Vancouver last month and stayed in Yaletown for 5 days. The neighbourhood definitely felt different relative to the surrounding districts (Gastown, Coal Harbour, etc.)

I do wonder to what extent the Yaletown BIA is a main stakeholder in the "symbolic economy" of the area. Based on the BIA website, it seems they very much market the area to a young "creative class" type. I do notice that the website even highlights the "it's love baby" dripped painting :p.

It would be interesting to know how much of the public streetscape is controlled and managed by the BIA and to what extent non-business stakeholders have in BIA decision-making processes. My hunch is that the BIA is a key forum through which these discussions occur.

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