A Corporate Developer’s View
On mornings when I open the café, I walk about fifteen minutes down Kingsway towards its awkward intersection with Main. While not very scenic – all cars and car dealerships – it is the most direct route. Things improve as I cross 12th Avenue, where on clear mornings I see the sun reflected off the skyscrapers downtown, and the mountains looming behind them. The buildings look like they’re on fire. As I continue downhill, I can spot the Broadway intersection and the flock of pigeons that make its southwest corner their hangout. Some mornings I get to admire them stretching their wings, tracing arcs in the air with that unison particular to flying animals. Other days I might catch them in the middle of a turf war with a few seagulls, the outnumbered party raising their wings and screeching like entitled assholes. Most days, however, I just see them perched on the power line above me, maybe admiring the view. Considering the state of the sidewalk underneath, it’s some wonder I’ve never been shat on here.
Now and then I idly wonder where these pigeons will be in two years’ time. Will they, stubborn creatures, continue to loiter in front of what will then be a row of low-rise townhouses? Or will they relocate to the corner of 10th and Watson, to what will then be one of Vancouver’s largest private parks? Or perhaps they will want the grandest view around and nestle themselves on top of the Independent’s 21-storey tower. Will residents put up with this unwanted encroachment on their property? I mean, shitting on the pets is one thing – thank goodness for the on-site dog spa – but those dry cleaning bills add up. Living in a city is about uneasy community. It is only a matter of time before some are made to feel unwelcome.
If anything, the way the city has handled Rize’s rezoning of 285 East 10th has only underscored how beyond our control this whole phenomenon is. The Residents Association of Mount Pleasant has been on the developer’s case since this project’s inception five years ago, even filing a suit against the City of Vancouver last August over its final plan, which was upscaled from what council approved in 2012. Nevertheless, the city granted final approval on November 25th of 2014, allowing construction of a building that nobody I’ve spoken to in the community wants. I suppose we shouldn’t be too surprised.
It might be useful to take a look at successful neighbourhood movements of Vancouver’s past, such as the stands taken in the 1960s and 70s against Project 200 in Gastown, as well as the Chinatown Freeway. In the end these successes have been followed by such dramatic upscaling in property values that increasingly-disenfranchised residents can no longer afford what they sought to preserve. It is not clear that groups like RAMP in Mount Pleasant have learned from this history, and their critique of the Rize development often doesn’t even take affordability into account. Instead they contend that the condo is out of character with the neighbourhood. The failure to address what “character” and “preservation” even mean, as entrenched residents increasingly find they can no longer afford rent in their neighborhood, only underscores how the fight against gentrification means little when it’s stuck inside of a middle class vacuum. The situation today is complicated by Vancouver’s desirability on the world stage which, along with a peculiar host of political and environmental factors, has led to a system of urban planning favouring those developers with the most money to throw around.
As all its residents hopefully recognize, corporate interests are increasingly superseding community interests in Mount Pleasant. What is especially pernicious about this trend is the way in which developers such as Rize try to disguise their private aims as the voice of the community, placing themselves in some projected harmony with the neighbourhood. The consequence is a selective vision of a community, a paper-thin simulacrum that presents only those aspects of a neighbourhood that developers deem marketable while wilfully omitting everything else. This rhetoric has been especially strong with Rize’s marketing of the Independent, and I feel this needs closer scrutiny.
What better place to start than with the development’s aggravating name? The Independent. An adjective made noun with a definite article, it stands alone not just in light of the word’s meaning but in its semantic structure. It embodies a built space at the same time it embodies a lifestyle. Tossing all subtlety out the window, it condescends to you in equating a space with some whitewashed version of bohemianism. It is a name that digs its heels into cultural anxieties over distinguishing oneself from the masses, and slaps you in the face with its promise to make you stick out. The slogans that surrounded the showroom’s construction site up until recently left no room for confusion: “Stand apart and stand for something”; “Be unique and embrace individuality”; “Embrace passion, soul, craft and craftsmanship.” Who knew that the soul could be bought at $500 per square foot? By choosing a name in a definite and singular voice, Rize also sets up the imaginary risk of imitators, colonizing a state of being prized by capitalist society and creative individuals alike.
In our postmodern world these two groups have more in common than you might think. As David Ley has articulated in his study of gentrification in Canadian cities, the phenomenon has been spurred on from the very beginning by a fetishizing of alternative and artistic lifestyles, which is perceived as an antidote to the conformity of mass culture. In this new market, the “artist serves a social role as a broker of fashionable middle-class taste, demarcating the new frontiers of cultural distinction.” So to oversimplify, artists move in, imbue a place with cultural cache, and then developers follow suit, selling the promise of a unique lifestyle achieved through stylish consumption – the artistic made artisanal. Mount Pleasant has a strong community of artists; studios and galleries dot the warehouse district around Main Street. Many of these artists congregate at my café, and a great many more of them keep themselves afloat in the service industry. Based on the 2011 Labour Force Survey, Canadian artists on average earn wages 39% below the combined national average, and that only accounts for those who spend more hours on their art than at other jobs. The reality for most artists, in other words, is less than romantic, and it is no great stretch to assume that the vast majority in this neighbourhood – stuck between increasing rents for living and studio spaces – couldn’t afford buying property even if they wanted to. One of the conditions of Rize receiving their zoning permit was to contribute $6.25 million to some of Mount Pleasant’s local arts organizations. It is almost too bitterly appropriate that the largest contribution went to VIVO, a video archive and gallery space that was recently evicted out of the neighbourhood. Though Rize may have aligned themselves with sections of the local arts community, we must ask ourselves if this model of one-off donations from corporate developers is even sustainable and, deeper still, what it spells for the role of art in the market.
“The centre of the city just shifted,” reads the showroom’s entrance in bold all-caps. Centrality is another one of Rize’s selling points for its development. Marketers have long capitalized on people’s fears of missing out, and the obvious implication here is that if you’re in the middle of it all, you won’t miss out on anything. Take a look at their map of Mount Pleasant, hosted on the development’s website and printed in several back issues of the Georgia Straight. In a twee hand-drawn style the viewer is presented with a highly curated bird’s eye view of the neighbourhood which, despite stopping west of Cambie and south of King Edward, is labelled “Vancouver” anyway. Any verisimilitude is abandoned in favour of blowing up and highlighting local signifiers, such as Heritage Hall, the clock at Main and Kingsway, Science World, and the Lee Building (sort of). City Hall is amusingly absent, though I suspect it was erased to leave room for the true stars of the map: hip local merchants. As an ode to stylish consumption, Rize’s map assures prospective homeowners that they will never be short of places nearby to, yes, consume stylishly. Though I am not much surprised, the café I work at got a name drop (without the current owner’s permission, I might add). Honorable place is also given to the neighbourhood’s parks, where figures in various shades of white lounge alone. Their one inclusion of public art is that $97,600 poodle at Main and 18th (expensive and groomed just like the neighbourhood, right?). The map’s biggest landmark, of course, is the future development’s 21-storey tower, looming like Barad-dûr in the very centre of this place of leisure and capitalism labelled “Vancouver.”
This map finds a companion piece in Rize’s minute-long commercial for the Independent. I was first subjected to this while out at a movie in Kits and, if I’m being totally honest, it was what incensed me to write this article in the first place. Open to a long shot moving down the middle of an upscale residential street, all parked cars and no people, and the phrase “The centre of the city just shifted” flashes front and centre. The camera is pulling away from this quiet scene, out of reach, out of fashion and anyways out of budget. So never mind the suburbs. Cut to various shots of Main Street’s cafes and bike shops opening for business. It’s a new day in hipster paradise, so time to meet the locals. Young attractive people in various configurations of ethnicity jog, play basketball and interact around their tablets to an indie rock soundtrack. Like the setting of Logan’s Run, the neighbourhood is curiously absent of old people, though at the same time no one’s pushing a stroller around. Instead, free of burden, the young and beautiful bike, shop, caffeinate and stuff their faces. They all seem to have an awful lot of free time. These are intercut with shots of people working, but working the sorts of jobs that don’t translate to owning property. By simple juxtaposition, these workers in effect become the underclass, your able and underpaid servants here to furnish your hip urban leisure. As the commercial progresses, some of Mount Pleasant’s local signifiers flash on screen, reminding viewers that this isn’t just any other gentrified part of Vancouver. The final shot centres on the face of a young girl, the only child in the entire commercial. Maybe she signifies the family you’ll raise in your new condo. Or maybe she personifies Rize’s vision of Mount Pleasant: beautiful, well-groomed, young, full of promise, and white.
So much for what this vision includes. What about its glaring absences? Missing is the Mount Pleasant Community Centre, home to the neighbourhood’s public library branch, child care facilities and a food bank. Missing is the Kingsgate Mall, the decidedly un-boutique shopping centre across the street that’s on the table for redevelopment. Missing are Our Town and Reno’s, two of the closest restaurants to the Independent, but whose mixed crowds and homey aesthetics must not fit into Rize’s vision. Missing are the arts spaces that received CAC funding, or any other arts spaces, really. Missing is any indication that the development stands along the busiest transit route in North America, the sardine can B-Line which in its current state could not possibly accommodate any more density. Missing are any grocery stores for those who can’t shop at Whole Foods or Granville Island. Missing are the homeless people panhandling outside of Tim Horton’s or under the cover of the Lee Building.
Missing, in other words, is any evidence that Mount Pleasant isn’t the strict domain of the young and financially stable. In public hearings over the rezoning three years ago, Ivan Drury of the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood Council speculated that, after the Downtown Eastside, Mount Pleasant has the highest concentration of low-income and aboriginal people in Vancouver. A 2008 report by PIVOT fleshes out this soberer picture, finding that about 70% of North Mount Pleasant’s population are renters, and more than half among them first and second generation immigrants. What we are presented with in Rize’s vision is Vancouver as a postmodern capitalist utopia, but one that exposes its dystopian underbelly, whitewashed as it is of the old, the struggling, the newly immigrated, the destitute and all of the less marketable realities of city living. Even the pigeons are missing! My genuine worry is that, if this false consciousness is perpetuated for long enough, it will continue to foment the attitudes and circumstances that make this vision a reality. I have a personal stake in this, after all: I’m one of the people keeping this neighbourhood caffeinated, and I’ll be expected to know my place. Just don’t expect your white porcelain cup to be pristine.