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Vibrant Metro Vancouver neighbourhoods face urban decay as businesses become COVID-19 casualties

Last Updated Apr 5, 2021 at 9:35 pm PDT

(Courtesy Facebook/StrathconaBIA)

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VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) — With so much changing so quickly, Metro Vancouver community leaders and stakeholders are anxious to maintain some control over what their neighbourhoods will look like both during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.

President of the Strathcona Residents’ Association, Dan Jackson worries the decline of small businesses could suck the hard-earned character and community out of the burgeoning area.

“There are certain core businesses in this neighbourhood which really help bring the neighbourhood together,” he says.

“There’s not a lot of franchised stores that come into the neighbourhood, it’s really people starting their own coffee shops and their own restaurants and it’s those kinds of things that give us what we feel is kind of our unique character in this neighbourhood. So, it’s troubling to see those business owners struggling.”

Jackson says Strathcona is a resilient place full of resilient people and he hopes to stand out as a shining beacon of hope for what neighbourhoods can do to adapt to support local retailers and service providers as the crisis continues.

“We’re trying our best to maintain that sense of community in the face of almost daily roadblocks being put up to do that.”

Essential character

The City of Vancouver describes Strathcona, the city’s oldest neighbourhood, as “a community that has managed to survive, and thrive, despite constant pressure for change.”

But Monique Cherrie is worried that just as her young co-working space is getting up and running she is having the rug pulled out from underneath her.

She runs Makeshift Work Space, and fears members who rent in her building are facing permanent shut downs and what will be lost, she says, are essential services that have positive impacts right there in Strathcona.

RELATED: Small businesses fear losing locations as expenses pile up, rent is due amid virus crisis

One such company, Brave Technology Co-op, offers an app to Downtown Eastside residents who are alone and at risk of overdose. The app connects them with a frontline worker to prevent overdose deaths.

“It’s such a scary moment for them and there’s a lot of talk of ‘please don’t let COVID reach the DTES because it will rip through there like a wildfire,” says Cherrie, adding many other companies at Makeshift were doing essential work in the environment, journalism and local area.

“They’re young, they’re driven, they’re trying to do great things,” says Cherrie, who is waiving rent for her members even though she will have to pay the building owner her monthly dues.

Still, she wants the government and banks to come up with a rent abatement plan and a better solution than more debt to shoulder at the end of the crisis. (The federal government is providing businesses with up to $40,000 in loans).

Without that in place, she says hundreds, maybe thousands of unique Metro Vancouver startups, nonprofits and firms could disappear within just a few months.

Forced responsibility

In historic Cloverdale, the president of the local business improvement association, Paul Orazietti says the quiet streets make it easier to see disparity and poverty.

“It’s time to put money aside; we have to be more compassionate as business people and I think this community is very good at that, I’m very proud of what they do,” says Orazietti.

Cloverdale’s shopping village was also on the brink of a major breakthrough in growth and densification, he explains, saying the last two years had been especially productive as new residential builds were completed and small businesses were starting to see viable foot traffic, a welcome relief after competing with nearby malls for revenue for too long, he says.

“The sobering reality is it kind of ground to a halt at the beginning of this emergency,” he says emotionally.

Now the Cloverdale BIA is doing as much humanitarian work with homeless people as it is trying to help its members navigate new government programming.

“[COVID-19] is Forcing us into social responsibility. There’s a vulnerable part of the population that unfortunately for a variety of reasons have fallen through the cracks and they’re suffering. A lot of mentally ill people, homeless people, people who are drug-addicted; people who were originally were marginalized,” says Orazietti.

He doesn’t believe this pain will be permanent and when he tosses out projections for the number of businesses that will reopen in Cloverdale, he likes to shoot for the stars, recognizing the answers are infinitely unclear.

“I can’t honestly tell you how many people can survive on the government’s plan. It will harm a lot of people and unfortunately, it does set the stage for a long period of recovery,” says Orazietti.

He says the isolating nature of being a business owner means many of them will face these challenges without wide support networks and he is increasingly concerned for their mental health.

Responding today, shaping tomorrow

Every community plan in Vancouver aims to build more walkable, sustainable, mixed-use neighbourhoods but if we had more of those right now, we’d be a lot better off says urban design expert and author, Charles Montgomery.

His Vancouver-based urban design consulting firm Happy City, has a number of recommendations on how municipalities can make changes to help “flatten the curve” of COVID-19 infections rates in B.C.

“We’re being told it’s good to go out and get exercise, in fact, it’s really important and yet people are afraid to do so because the sidewalks are getting crowded so this is unsafe and unfair especially considering vehicle traffic is down 70 per cent in some places,” he says.

He points to cities like Calgary, Portland and New York that have already reclaimed some vehicle lanes for alternative uses; changes being tracked and mapped by the Atlantic’s CityLab.

This means people can go out to these essential services and shops such as grocery stores on foot, on bike, while exercising, while social distancing,” says Montgomery

Online, a tweet from Lisa Corriveau, a member of Vancouver’s Transportation Advisory Council asks residents which streets need more space to make it possible to maintain physical distancing. Hundreds of people responded with serious concerns.

Montgomery says there are plenty of leaders and city builders doing great things to make cities more livable for the duration of COVID-19 but it’s equally as important to start thinking about the future.

“It’s really important now that cities don’t just react to the crisis. We need to work to make our cities thrive in the future,” he says, adding one way of doing that is to keep residents involved in the decision making process.

Unfortunately, public consultations and hearings are off the table while social and physical distancing measures are in place, as cities cancel those events.

“We see public processes grinding to halt here. Public engagement; cities have stopped doing it,” says Montgomery, who is also working to connect residents with their elected local representatives using online tools.

If people react from a place of fear instead of evidence, the consequences for future cities could be dire and could even include urban blight and an exodus from the city centre, some experts fear.

Montgomery believes density is a part of sustainable cities of the future and points to populous Asian cities that have had success in containing COVID-19.

“Some superficial analysis of cities in this crisis suggests if proximity is making us sick then we just need to sprawl more, we need to move further and further away from each other and build more auto dependent communities,”

He says that narrative is a complete fallacy and that researchers on pandemics are making the case for isolated, small zones, like neighbourhoods within cities, where people are more self-contained and sustained.

“It means we need to do all we can to build more complete, walkable, connected, mixed-use neighbourhoods; where you can accomplish everything you need within a ten-minute walk. If we had places like that right now, we could more effectively isolate in communities and we could stop the spread of the pandemic.”