A fresh take on developing the Downtown Eastside
Jeremy Stothers, ctvbc.ca
Published Saturday, April 4, 2009 10:28AM PDT
While Vancouver's politicians and academics discuss solutions to the Downtown Eastside's pervasive poverty, one developer is rolling up his sleeves and getting to work.
David Duprey, with his punk tattoos and aggressive language, would look out of place in a boardroom business meeting. But in the Downtown Eastside, he seems to fit right in.
He speaks with conviction about the area, saying that Vancouver has been passive for too long, and his developments are long overdue.
"If you've got an idea, you just go out and do it. You don't sit around and talk about it for 10 years, you just do it," says Duprey.
And he is doing it. In the past two years, he has leased eight buildings across the city, five of which were vacant for more than a decade before he got them.
Duprey owns the Plank Gallery, a non-profit art space that was the first new business in over a decade to open in the 100-block of East Hastings, a block that is known for rampant drug use and extreme poverty.
He also owns the Grace Gallery at Main Street and 3rd Avenue, as well as the hidden bar, called the Narrow, in the back of Grace Gallery. It hosts DJs most nights, and is difficult to find unless someone points out exactly where it is.
Now, he's opening three more buildings: 108, 110 and 112 E. Hastings Street, buildings that have been empty for 14 years. The space inside is devoted nearly exclusively to art studios, and will provide a workspace at dirt-cheap rates to more than 40 artists. And one store-front is set to open very soon.
Saturday is the grand opening of the Goonies Gallery, an all-girls art collective at 108 E. Hastings Street that will host art shows, parties, movie nights and workshops. It will be the first for-profit business in the area in over a decade, according to Duprey.
Dirt-cheap rental rates
The Goonies pays about 75 cents per square foot every month, which is staggeringly cheap compared with monthly rates of up to $3.50 for a Single-Room Occupancy (SRO) apartment.
And with his seven-year lease, Duprey plans to keep the rents cheap, even if condos spring up around the studios within that time.
"My whole thing is to fight greed. I make money off this, I make enough, but it's not insane. Then I can turn over the rest of the money into decent rates for the people who are there," says Duprey.
But the man who made this happen is quick to shine the spotlight on his tenants. He says these artists are the driving force behind what is happening on this block.
"What I do isn't rocket science," says Duprey as he leans forward in his chair. "I rent out a building, I fix it up, then I rent it out again. C'mon! All over the world, they're doing this--except here in Vancouver."
The 40 year-old businessman was raised in Vancouver, but spent his 20s in San Francisco. He then moved to L.A., where he managed a bar before moving back up to Vancouver. After he got back, he was very surprised at the business climate in the city.
"I was shocked when I came back here by the lack of entrepreneurial spirit," says Duprey, who learned his approach in the U.S., where entrepreneurs are not as reliant on government grants or special assistance.
A fresh take on developing the Downtown Eastside
The approach may be exactly what Canada's poorest postal code needs to balance the local demographics. The artist studios will change the landscape dramatically.
"It's going to make this into a more multi-faceted neighbourhood," said Duprey. "Down here you've got only poor people, and it's boring. We should mix it up."
That is the same approach that was suggested by many speakers, who expressed their views at "The Fix," a recent UBC forum on the Downtown Eastside.
Former city councilor Jim Green has been a resident and an outspoken advocate for this area, and he says the Downtown Eastside needs more arts and culture as well as the basic essentials for living.
"These people, they're dying for culture, we can't just think of material needs, people need culture, too," he said at the forum.
Green also supports a policy that would create diverse neighbourhoods of one-third low income, one-third middle income and one-third high income earners.
This is aimed at creating mutual understanding between the groups and allows for upward mobility for the poor and increased compassion from the rich. It would also stimulate local businesses because some people would have a budget for buying products from local shops.
And Duprey agrees with this strategy.
"I think Jim Green's absolutely right. If that's what he's advocating, then he's 100-per-cent on the money," he said.
Development would also help to keep people in the area after they get a steady income.
"It would be nice if people wanted to stay once they started to get jobs. But I can totally understand; I wouldn't want to live in one of these skid-row places," said Duprey.
A simple appraoch
And he says that turning abandoned buildings into functional spaces won't make all the homeless and drug-addicted people leave.
San Francisco is a good example; in the 1990's, it had a poor neighbourhood called The Mission that aimed to recruit artists attracted by the cheap rent and gritty urban feel of the area.
The artists opened galleries and started the hippest bars around. This encouraged development--some would call it gentrification--and luxury condos were built above Single-Room Occupancy apartments, which are affordable rooms aimed at housing low-income earners.
But the luxury condos didn't push the poor people out. They just made for a more diverse, interesting neighbourhood, according to Duprey, who says that Vancouver's Downtown Eastside could be the next most exciting and artistic area in the city.
Possibly Vancouver's hippest area
"It could be the coolest area, I think it's got tons of potential, but it's just too mono-economic," Duprey says. But injecting money into the area won't push the poorer people out.
"I don't care if they build luxury hotels. The SROs are still going to be here. So those people have to live with these people, and everyone has to get along, which I think would be awesome."
Duncan McCallum agrees. He is the manager of the building at 108 E. Hastings Street.
"I think what David [Duprey]'s doing here is really great," said McCallum.
Before managing the Hastings building, McCallum took care of a building on South Main.
"There was this dumpster out back with a great piece of graffiti on it... it said 'artists are the storm troopers of gentrification,' think about that; it's totally right," said McCallum.
And the artists who have moved in are aware of this, too.
PaperBird designer gets a fresh start
M�rida Anderson is the driving force behind the Goonies gallery and says that the people she meets on the 100 block of East Hastings are excited about the new place.
"I think it's good," she says. "People walk by and stop to take a look, they tell me 'I haven't seen this place open in like, 20 years.'"
But she knows that gentrification is soon to follow.
"In 10 years there's probably just going to be big, stupid condos everywhere, and it's a bummer. But what can you do?"
Anderson has sold previous seasons' garments from her clothing label PaperBird and is investing all her time, energy and money into this new space.
Duprey is quick to say it's people like Anderson--not himself--who are the real heroes.
"She's just awesome, that whole collective is awesome," said Duprey.
In addition to the Goonies gallery, two other store-fronts will open next door: a screen printing workshop and Vancouver Skate Shop.
But with a luxury condo already planned on the block, only time will tell what the lasting impact of these ground-breaking developments will be.