Credit: Flickr / tiddlywinker

Do Commercial Drive residents need to sacrifice some elements of livability in order to preserve the neighbourhood’s best features? Maybe.

Commercial Drive is a neighbourhood in flux. It’s a vibrant, friendly community full of interesting characters, funky small businesses and a healthy dose of political activism and hippie environmentalism. It’s a nice place to visit and a great place to live. However, this may prove to be its undoing, unless residents and planners can agree on steps to make it, well, a little bit less livable.

The same things that make the area attractive to longtime residents have also made it popular for new buyers. This has naturally made homes less affordable for the artists and bohemians who had come to define the neighbourhood over the past couple of decades.

The tension between livability and affordability  

Can Commercial hold back gentrification? If it can’t, is it possible to retain the neighbourhood’s distinct character? These were the sorts of questions that participants were dealing with at the recent Drive to Resilience forum on envisioning the future of Commercial Drive, hosted by the students in the Semester in Dialogue program at SFU. Those in attendance included residents, local business owners and representatives from various neighbourhood organizations who were guided through a day-long exercise in collaborative problem solving.

Much of what participants discussed revolved around developing more support for affordable housing, help for artists and small businesses, and even programs to support the integration of the area’s homeless and marginal people into composting efforts. In this sense, much of Commercial Drive’s character seems dependent on low rent and subsidies for those with low income.

Ironically, the characteristics that define Commercial Drive may have actually become more pronounced due to the gentrification of areas like Kitsilano, which has sent artists and working-class holdouts fleeing for the Eastside. But in a few more years, rent increases for residents and businesses may conceivably turn the area into a slightly more mellow version of South Granville—with its Le Chateau, Pottery Barn and Chapters stores—sending purists and the area’s poor fleeing for some other as-yet ungentrified corner of the city.

If the consensus from neighbourhood residents and Vancouver-area citizens who make the Drive their second home is to preserve a working class neighbourhood and artist refuge in the midst of a rapidly growing, trend-setting cosmopolitan metropolis, the simplest way to keep rents down is to disincentivise certain yuppie types from moving into the neighbourhood. How to do that without going so far that you actually put the area into decline is tricky.

Keeping the gentrifiers out

Two recent developments in the neighbourhood—provoked by local residents who may not have been aware of the consequences of their actions—might illustrate the challenge.

First of all, no one likes living in stank. A group of Commercial Drive residents tried to get an odiferous neighbourhood rendering plant shut down. Problem was, the plant was there before the residents showed up. Also, air quality around the plant was determined to be within acceptable limits by the BC Environmental Appeal Board.

End result, the plant stays. Despite what the complainants may think, this appears to be a good decision for those who want to keep demand—and prices—lower for the existing housing stock. Smelly is good.

Shadowy public spaces taken over by crime also deters buyers from moving in. But Grandview Park, in the heart of Commercial Drive, is getting a $1.5 million facelift. The aim is to beautify the area and push out criminal activity. If the project succeeds in its aims, the predictable consequences may be a rise in real estate prices and rents.

Given that affordability is so central to the perpetuation of livability—at least for a certain style of inhabitant—for Commercial Drive, was it a consideration for residents who complained about the rendering plant? Was it discussed extensively when residents first heard about the proposal for the park renovation? At least from the news reports, it doesn’t seem as though affordability or gentrification was part of either story.

Yet it ought to have been. So much of Commercial Drive’s "resilience" will come down to perpetuating affordability. It’s going to require a greater awareness by residents about being careful what you wish for—and perhaps more dialogue about how to foster a great livable community that’s affordable and inclusive.

Can a neighbourhood maintain its flavour and livability without losing affordability? How?