This article first appeared on the UBC Master’s of Journalism website, The Thunderbird.
The hub of a recycling-based micro-economy in the Downtown Eastside is about to lose the home it’s had on East Hastings Street for nearly two decades.
If the development proposal by a social housing non-profitgroup is approved, Atira Development Society, which owns 41 E. Hastings St., will build a 169-unit project on the site and displace United We Can.
CEO Janice Abbott says the development will unavoidably bring change to the street, known for the chaotic market that has sprung up in front of the much-praised recycling centre that has provided employment for hundreds in the troubled neighbourhood.
“It will be difficult for folks to congregate on the block while construction is going on. Whether people will come back…who knows?” said Abbott, whose application for the project went in to the city on Nov. 2.
“United We Can is moving, so the folks that currently line up to get into United We Can will be somewhere else. So I’m guessing it will be a less busy and visible block.”
While some may welcome that, not everyone is convinced that it will be an improvement. Some community groups, as well as the binners themselves, are wary of the gentrification that has further marginalized already vulnerable residents elsewhere in the Downtown Eastside. They worry that this project will have the same effect, ripping out what is, for many, the economic heart of the community.
Abbott insists that the project will add value to the community.
“Let me be clear that we are a community-based organization,” she said. “And it will remain a block for the community.”
As of yet, United We Can has nowhere to go. While the city and the recycling centre have been seeking an alternative for some time, no plans have been revealed. Abbott says she knows they are looking. It’s been difficult to find a site because the operation can’t be put in the catchment areas of private recycling centres elsewhere.
Chris George, who has been binning in Vancouver for three years, worries about the possibility of a more distant United We Can.
“It would be a problem for us,” he said.
Don’t say that! That’s bad karma, man.”
-“Ray,” binner for 15 years
While Abbott understands that the new development will transform the block, she believes it will be a change for the better.
Abbott is the CEO of both the development and the women’s resource branches of Atira, as well as its for-profit property management arm.
The building, valued at $2.2-million, is one of $33-million worth of land and buildings owned between the Atira Development Society and its parent group, the Atira Women’s Resource Society.
The proposed mixed-use building would contain 169 units, 70 per cent of which would be social housing – far more than any project besides those built by BC Housing. The new Woodward’s building, just a block and a half away, has only 27 per cent of the building’s total units devoted to subsidized housing.
The plan for rest of the space in the proposed development is uncertain.
According to the rezoning proposal filed with the city, the other 30 per cent of the building would be set aside for affordable home ownership. According to Abbott, however, financial considerations may interfere.
“It’s driven by the pro forma. At the end of the day, we need to borrow money to make this work, and so we need to find a lender who likes the way our financials worth. It may be 100 per cent rental.”
The moving sidewalk
The building’s current tenant,United We Can, is not just a business. Its influence spills out on to the street outside, with the whole block bustling with foot traffic and sidewalk sales.
For some, this congregation of people selling goods, lining up for the recycling depot, or simply lingering, is an eyesore. For others, it is essential.
Ivan Drury, a social activist with the Carnegie Community Action Project, believes that the volume of foot traffic makes that block safer for homeless people.
“It’s kind of an unregulated community centre,” he explains.
Drury is well known as a vehement opponent of many developments in the neighbourhood. This proposed zoning change is no exception.
“Regardless of the merits, any kind of market project there has the danger of driving up the value of land, proving that condos can be developed here in the heart of the Downtown Eastside, and warming the plate for speculators to … displace the thousands of really marginalized people here.”
Street vendors crowd the sidewalk despite the potential $250 fine for those without permits. Many of their goods, from harmonicas to strollers, are non-recyclables that have been salvaged from binning excursions.
Bruce Matinat, pushing a shopping cart heavy with about $25 in cans from Kitsilano, said that he often finds other items in the lanes that he frequents. On this particular day, he had a small collection of mirrors.
“I’ll probably sell those, too,” he said.
Binner: an urban scavenger, who makes a living collecting recyclables and other goods from around the city. Can often walk 10km or more in search of recyclables.
The users of United We Can also emphasize the importance of the location. It has been providing income and employment in the Downtown Eastside for 17 years since Ken Lyotier founded it.
The facility is situated among those who make the most use of it, and it is the only commercial recycling centre in the Downtown Eastside.
The central location has allowed United We Can, in the original entrepreneurial spirit of the business, to provide services beyond collecting recyclables.
Today, the recycling centre employs about 100 people, many of them former binners, as cashiers and in its spinoff laneway cleaning program.It can often serve as many as 700 binners in a day.
Its clients, however, are not limited to downtown in their search for recyclables.
“Our catchment is pretty broad,” says Lyotier, now retired. “People come from all over.”
One binner, who wished to only be identified as “Ray,” was distraught at the idea of a new location for United We Can.
“Don’t say that! That’s bad karma, man,” he exclaimed. “I live right here.”
For an interactive map of binning in Vancouver, click here.
This article first appeared in BCBusiness Magazine on Sept 3, 2012: www.bcbusinessonline.ca/start-ups/crowd-funding-kickstarts-pebble-watch-project
While crowd-funding may not be meant for raising millions for new products, two former Vancouverites raised upward of $10 million via Kickstarter.com.
Even great ideas can’t launch themselves, and some can be quashed before they see the light of day if early investment can’t be secured. But as former Vancouver buddies Eric Migicovsky and Steve Johns have proven with their record-breaking product, the Pebble “smart” watch, the worldwide public knows what it wants and will invest accordingly.
Migicovsky is the brains behind the watch that set the online world abuzz this past spring, when it raised more than $10 million during its 36-day funding period with online crowd-funding site Kickstarter.com. Born and raised in Vancouver, Migicovsky cut his tech teeth competing in UBC science fairs and physics competitions, and he brought on Johns as the industrial designer for an early invention: a smart watch called the InPulse. New to Vancouver, Johns was in the right place at the right time. The two began to work together, and Johns has since been hired full-time to work on the Pebble.
Migicovsky, meanwhile, has moved on, settling in Palo Alto, California, earlier this year after studying systems design engineering at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.
“We weren’t able to raise money,” Migicovsky recalls of the circumstances that led him to crowd-funding. “We went with Kickstarter because we had a product, we had a design, we had a prototype and we knew what it would do, so we just had to put those together.”
The duo’s experience with crowd-funding is likely the exception rather than the rule, suggests BCBusiness columnist and tech-startup consultant Brent Holliday. “Crowd-funding has a place,” Holliday explains, “but it is not to raise a million dollars or 10 million dollars.” His concern is that crowd-funding might actually dilute the talent pool and the funding available to legitimate startups. He suggests the real value of crowd-funding might lie in its ability to bring projects devoted to the “social good” online, and to bring creative ideas to market, but not necessarily to start new companies.
Kickstarter.com acts as a platform for anyone with a creative idea who is in need of funding, but backers are not necessarily philanthropists. In the case of the Pebble, supporters who pledged US$115 were essentially pre-ordering a watch at two-thirds of the projected retail cost.
The watch fills an under-explored niche, but there are other such “smart” watches on the market. The devices display information from a smartphone, while also doing all of the things an ordinary watch does. What makes the Pebble unique is that it will be released with developer tools that allow users to create apps for the watch. The goal is to continuously improve functionality as apps come online. And as Apple showed with the iPhone, developers and users are more than willing to populate a marketplace with apps if invited to do so; already, more than 3,000 developers have signed up to create apps for the Pebble.
Whether or not Pebble’s success on Kickstarter is a harbinger of crowd-funding’s arrival as a major source of startup funding, it has already changed Johns’s life now that he is able to work from home on a project he is intimately involved in, without sacrificing his home life in Vancouver.
“I have a great commute, down from an hour and a half to nil,” he says. “I get to see my daughter in the morning.”