British Columbia

Blood Alley Square redesign aims to jump start the 'heart of Gastown'

Residents and business owners hope a redesign of Blood Alley Square and Trounce Alley will make it safer and cleaner without excluding low-income people.

City of Vancouver wants to improve safety, accessibility in square and adjacent alley

A man takes a break in the corner of Blood Alley Square. (Catherine Rolfsen )

Residents and business owners hope a redesign of Blood Alley Square and Trounce Alley will make the area safer and cleaner without pushing out low-income people.

In many ways, the historic laneway is a microcosm of the contrasts and tensions of the Downtown Eastside.

Its leafy trees and cobblestones give it a welcoming, European vibe. But these days, the square is a gathering space for drug users, dealers, and residents of the adjacent Stanley Hotel, a single-room occupancy hotel catering to people with mental health and addiction issues.

"It's kind of like a gorgeous-looking alleyway that has fallen on some hard times and seems to be clawing its way out of it," said Sean Heather, who owns the nearby Irish Heather Gastropub, and has been doing business in the area for 19 years.

Heather hopes the city's redesign plans — which will be showcased at public open houses Aug. 24 and 27 — will return the alley to the vibrant community space it was in the past.

The Stanley Hotel backs onto one side of Blood Alley Square. (Catherine Rolfsen )

Improving safety a primary concern

The city is presenting two design options, which include tweaks like reclaiming the cobblestone, improving lighting and "opening up the darker corners of the square".

"We want to increase the safety, introduce programming, really make it a place that the community can gather and enjoy," said Karen Hoese, the acting assistant director of planning for downtown with the City of Vancouver.

They'll also be looking at ways to eliminate the alley's 16 dumpsters, which some say have become a place to use drugs and defecate.

An image from one of the proposed redesigns for Blood Alley Square. (City of Vancouver )

Will locals be pushed out?

As with many developments in the Downtown Eastside, there are worries this redesign will come at the expense of marginalized residents.

"If it's changed, it has to be so that low-income people feel comfortable there," said Jean Swanson of the Carnegie Community Action Project.

Stanley resident Parker Rothgardt isn't sure that will happen.

"I don't think they're going to tolerate meth users and people shooting up in the alley here, right?"

"On one side there's places where people pay a lot of money to go and eat," he said. "They don't want to look out the window and see some addict shooting up in the alley, right?"

Fears of gentrification haunt the Downtown Eastside. (Catherine Rolfsen)

The city says the redesign will be guided by the 2014 Downtown Eastside Plan which stipulates that developments "do not significantly exclude or negatively impact the low-income community."

But nestled between high-end restaurants and a low-income hotel, the square redesign could be a tricky balancing act.

"It has to be welcoming to everybody," said Hoese.

"There's businesses that line the square. It's really the heart of Gastown, and so we want to ensure that anyone can come into this area and enjoy it."

Heather welcomes change to the area, but sympathizes with those concerned about gentrification.

"It's a nervous time for them, because they've been screwed many times, royally," he said.

"I'm skeptical of any change at this stage because I've been down here so long. But if it goes off … the way they say they want it to, I think it could be great for everybody."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Catherine Rolfsen

'Finding Refuge' story producer

Catherine Rolfsen is a story producer with The Early Edition at CBC Radio Vancouver, currently following stories of Syrian refugees in B.C. Catherine's work has been recognized with regional and national awards from the Radio Television Digital News Association. Reach her at catherine.rolfsen@cbc.ca or @crolfsen

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