February 16, 2019

Wes Regan on Working in Vancouver’s ‘Liminal Space’ of the DTES & Community Economic Development

In a rite of passage, ‘liminal’ refers to the transition point that is neither here nor there; a threshold that can result in multiple interpretations or outcomes, and thus (often) confusion. In this episode, Wes Regan, Social Planner responsible for Community Economic Development and Poverty Reduction Initiatives with the City of Vancouver, aptly uses this word to describe his work space at the downtown Woodward’s Building and, by extension, the city’s current approach to community economic development (CED).

One could say the true liminal space is the Downtown Eastside itself, a threshold between competing realities that the city has worked hard to define, and reconcile, in the almost two decades since the signing of the Vancouver Agreement. As “A Program of Strategic Actions for the Downtown Eastside“, the Vancouver Agreement was formulated to address poverty, substance abuse, homelessness, crime and injustice, all of which have afflicted the DTES for a generation.

Regan has been a part of a number of organizations and initiatives contributing to understanding that uneasy but critical dynamic — between economic development and gentrification,  top-down social programs and self-determination, and civic integration and maintaining the integrity of community culture and the collective lived experience.

From the establishment of the Portland Hotel Society in 1993, to the Woodwards Squat in ’02, to the eventual successes of social enterprises like EMBERS and Potluck Café & Catering, city staff have learned to embrace this ambiguity. It resulted, in Regan’s estimation, in a collapse of the traditional economic development hierarchy of formal, social and informal economies, into a “livelihoods continuum”. The development and implementation of the city’s Healthy City Strategy and new Community Benefits Agreement policy are just two expressions of policy innovation on the new continuum.

In this discussion with host Colin Stein, Regan talks about his almost two decades living and working in and around the DTES, and some of the practical implications of this new approach to CED.


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The former police department HQ at 312 Main St. (at Hastings) is slowly evolving into something unique. This 100,000 sq. ft. 1950’s-era building is owned by the City of Vancouver. Development is led by the VanCity Community Foundation and CoV.


Don Alexander in the Tyee traces the people, groups, money and plans — and especially the contribution of Bob Williams (*).  Some of the resulting community-serving design is based on ideas from the Toronto Social Innovation Centre.

The outcome now taking shape — what is officially called 312 Main: Vancouver’s Social and Economic Innovation Centre — represents something of a compromise between the desires of city hall, which wanted purely a tech incubator, and the social justice driven vision of Bob Williams and his allies at VanCity credit union, where Williams was until very recently a board member, and the Jim Green Foundation, which Williams chairs. . . After extensive consultation with the neighbourhood and with First Nations, a plan and a design were developed by two First Nations architects, Nancy Mackin and Patrick Stewart. On the main floor, there will be a Coast Salish-style longhouse built into the existing structure that nests inside rather than obliterates what was already there.


18,000 sq. ft. of coworking space
55,000 sq. ft. of leased areas
1 commercial kitchen and coffee shop
10,000 sq. ft. of artist studios and maker spaces
5,000 sq. ft. of performance and event space
4 large meeting rooms
200 bike lockers, showers, and changing areas
Everywhere: free Wifi and computer access for community members

Bob Williams:  former city councillor, MLA and cabinet minister in the Dave Barrett government, and a major force at VanCity Credit Union for over 30 years. More HERE.

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