In support of the Railtown I-4 Historical Industrial Designation

In support of the Railtown I-4 Historical Industrial Designation

So the I-4 zoning proposal passed with unanimous approval!! Yay!

This is my (lengthy in text) speech, in case you are curious. It’s targeted at city council comprehension – I’m working on a more accessible version for newcomers to the topic.

Thanks for all the love and support!!!

My name is Denise Brennan, I own and operate a business in Railtown. My business represents more than 30 small businesses and entrepreneurs who are directly affected by this decision.

Vancouver needs to continue its progressive perspective on growth. Social Enterprise, Social impact real estate. An understanding of how development fits in a larger context. The I-4 Zoning plan is a critical step in the right direction.

I fear that the longer we discuss the details of this decision, the more ground we will lose to louder voices and stronger financial forces. I respectfully ask you to vote in favour of this thoughtful and well imagined proposal tonight.

General office occupancy is understandably highly desirable to commercial owners, because it drives up the cost per square foot. Unfortunately, higher per square foot costs make the neighbourhood less accessible to small and or new businesses on a bootstrap budget.

And even though these higher rates result in massive property tax increases, In a desirable neighbourhood with 100% occupancy, these don’t really affect the owners, who pass them directly on to tenants.

One of the key factors in this discussion is outright vs conditional approval. I believe the new Creative Products Manufacture designation allows for a significant amount of supportive, outright approval for what businesses down here are doing already.

And on the other side of this, any other usage could be approved, conditionally. Which means that bigger businesses taking up bigger footprints, for example, are not disallowed – they just need to be vetted by the city. This system can really work – if we trust the city’s vision for development, as I do.

What’s happening now is the worst of both worlds. Many businesses are operating without occupancy permits, which has limited consequence to them – but also means the city can’t count them, and businesses don’t really get why that matters.

When we can’t be counted, we stand far less of a chance of being represented by you, our city infrastructure.

It would be amazing to have more, low cost residential development in this neighbourhood, for artists, but maybe also for a new definition of cultural or social workers. But realistically, there are not the structures in place to ensure that new residential development would be used in this way, and “just trust us” is a lousy way to ensure that commercial developers are held accountable for the decisions and plans they make.

HootSuite and Oak and Fort were previous tenants in my exact unit. I’ve heard repeatedly about the tragic departure of the two companies, and how it proves that tech development is not being supported in Vancouver.

Except that if we stood on the roof of our building, we could wave at them from here. We did not lose them. They outgrew Railtown. Which is positive. And furthermore Railtown becoming HootSuiteville would not retain the beauty and diversity of this neighbourhood, which I feel wouldn’t ultimately benefit HootSuite either. Starting in Railtown is arguably one of the reasons these companies have succeeded – the opportunity to put down roots while small, at lower cost.

The big question is, if we could go back in time, would this decision have supported or hindered the development of these companies? Does it support the potential and possibility of future HootSuites?

Railtown Cafe, on the other hand, is “growing out” of Railtown in a way that maintains the small is beautiful business metaphor, with locations opening all over the city. We do not have to grow here, to grow. And we don’t have to leave either.

There is almost no incentive to register a building as historically significant. We have to do something to change this. Whether it’s in the form of sticks or carrots. We cannot rely on individuals or property owners to “do the right thing”, much as in the case of residential development. We need to send a strong community message, that we want to preserve our history, as relatively young as it is. We must rely on civic leadership, rather than building owners to protect this vision.

One of the biggest pieces of this discussion, that I feel has been overshadowed with our conversations, is that this is a small piece of a larger puzzle, in the form of the DTES Plan. The I-4 designation is not only a positive thing to the neighbourhood of Railtown, it’s a necessary thing to the bigger picture plan of how the city wants and needs to develop the vulnerable and valuable spaces contained in the DTES.

In the last city council meeting I attended, Councillor Reimer mentioned that we would be well served to collaborate with other cities facing the same development issues to strengthen our approaches. The city of Toronto in recent weeks has been taking action to preserve a community by designating it as a community benefit, and designating a part of the building as a Municipal Capital Facility, allowing tax easement for a portion of the building.

But in an exciting addendum to this municipal classification, Toronto councillors are calling for a new property tax class at the provincial level that would share the responsibility for these culturally significant spaces. Given that we are currently in a provincial election cycle, maybe there’s some room to consider this kind of cooperation between our levels of government.

After the acceptance of this integral step forward, I hope that the dialogue continues, and moves towards more legislation around commercial leasing practices and rights. Great strides have been made residentially in Vancouver, that tenants are not so vulnerable to landlords. It’s time to take a look at the relationship between property owners and the businesses that are increasingly beholden to them, to create a more equitable playing field, that fans the little flames of entrepreneurship that make this city, our city great.

I’d like to end by saying thank you to the city planners I’ve had the opportunity to speak with, for being open to conversation. For being willing to work through this. I truly and sincerely believe that their vision was created to protect this awesome little area. For all of us, now and in the future.

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