VANCOUVER After years of noisy protests and controversial plans, the Woodward's project on the edge of Vancouver's drug infested Downtown Eastside is finally just weeks away from its first residents moving in.
The debate, however, continues to rage over whether the multimillion-dollar development will alter Canada's biggest slum.
The Downtown Eastside has been plagued for almost two decades by widespread drug addiction, homelessness, prostitution and poverty. In an effort to transform the neighbourhood, the federal, provincial and city governments have contributed more than $130-million in tax dollars, tax exemptions and other benefits to the project.
The development promises to change the nature of the community, bringing middle- and high-income earners into a neighbourhood that is known as the country's poorest postal code. Two new residential towers with 536 condos were pre-sold at the peak of the real estate boom for more than $200-million. A drugstore, bank and grocery chain have also announced plans to open.
New Democratic MLA Jenny Kwan, who has worked for years to improve the neighbourhood, said the Woodward's project blends components that should be part of a healthy community without displacing long-time residents. She added that the development will not, by itself, revive the Downtown Eastside.
"This is not a silver bullet to solve all the problems of the community," Ms. Kwan said yesterday after a preview tour of the Woodward's site. "It is only one component of a community that is evolving"
Mayor Gregor Robertson said he expects the development to be "a huge benefit" to the Downtown Eastside. New housing, new businesses and better amenities such as a new daycare facility will create opportunities for those who live in the neighbourhood, he said.
But he does not see the development solving the Downtown Eastside drug problems. "I expect we'll make progress over the years ahead. But we will have to be determined in getting more treatment beds and detox options," Mr. Robertson said.
Premier Gordon Campbell said the Woodward's redevelopment could not have taken place without public funds.
"I don't think it could have happened without the investment the province made in expanding the [Simon Fraser University] contemporary-art program." Mr. Campbell said after the tour.
"We could have had some things happen without any non-market housing. But the city wanted non-market housing and that has public support," he said. "When you do non-market housing, you have to actively supply some subsidy."
The federal, provincial and city governments are putting $48-million into construction of 200 housing units for people with low or modest incomes. The city has also provided Westbank/Peterson, the developer, with a $15-million bonus in exchange for public amenities, such as a vest-pocket park and daycare centre.
The B.C. government in January, 2008, announced a contribution of $50-million to an $80-million complex for SFU's school of contemporary arts, an initiative that is expected to bring thousands of young, educated people to the neighbourhood on a daily basis.
Also, the National Film Board is moving its offices into the development.