The Space product engages the Strathcona & Chinatown neightbourhood
// Claire McGillivray

“We’re calling on Strathcona & Chinatown to build a sustainable business they can call their own.” Entrepreneurs Josh Leung and Michael Michnik are spearheading a curious business venture to decide on what a now-empty downtown commercial space will be put towards. Their project, This Space, involves continuous involvement from community members in Vancouver’s Strathcona neighbourhood in the form of polling. Input is gaged via a series of online polls and comment forums, asking individuals to vote on what kind of business will take over the space. Options are a restaurant, a retail space, or a local service.

The first step is an intricate process. As per their webpage, “Over the coming months, a series of polls will allow people to vote on the various decisions needed to start a business in This Space. From big decisions such as ‘What type of business?’ to simpler questions like ‘What colour should the walls be?,’ the community will help us decide every aspect of This Space.”

The property is an investment owned by Leung, as stated in a Vancouver Courie interview. It spans a mere 600 square feet and is located at 243 Union St., a key area of the Strathcona neighbourhood. The objectives for This Space are to operate a business that the surrounding community can be proud of, while supporting the local economy by hiring individuals living in the

neighbourhood. They also hope to support local charities and projects by donating part of the profits earned by the business. The project’s core values revolve around a partnership between business and community. The relationship is meant to be mutually beneficial: the community is invited to dictate their needs, and the business prospers by providing the community with a valuable, sought after service. Although this liberal approach to commercial service goes against traditional methods, the vision behind it is clear. Despite the risk involved, the intended benefits to both the community and involved entrepreneurs are quite optimistic.


As with any contemporary pursuit, whether it is of commercial or artistic nature, debate is easily drawn upon. This Space's online forum allows for a productive and efficient place where discussion and critical thinking are both welcomed and encouraged. Naturally, ideas clash and disagreement ensues. Both business partners, Leung and Michnik, are active in their online forum, and are receptive to this healthy discussion.

There is much debate over what genre of business is needed in the Strathcona/Chinatown area. One online commenter, listed as Chris, suggested the space be used for the creation of another Insite, similar to Vancouver's controversial safe-injection site at 47 Cordova St. To this, Leung and Michnik responded by clarifying that This Space is not a government-run or non-profit program, therefore this would not be possible. However, encouragement is given to this idea with the explanation that “there will be a vote near the end of this process asking the community what local charity, program, or facility [they] donate a portion of [their] profits to." The opportunity of support for a project like Insite remains hopeful.

Another forum-contributer listed as Tanya says, “I hope this space doesn’t become another Land or Charlie and Lee (both stores for yuppies) and actually caters to the cash-strapped, artistic, social, and community minded residents by providing something to better our health all around. … Mentally and physically, we can stop the brainwashing and gentrification that is sweeping the neighbourhood.”

Tanya indeed does brings up some interesting points that cannot and should not be ignored. The comedic irony here, however, is that Michnik is actually the owner of the retail boutique Charlie and Lee, as stated in his interview with the Vancouver Courier. Despite such fiery commentary, these online polls are evidently an effective and open-minded process of understanding one another; the online forum allows for those voices that wish to speak to be heard.


In response to a collection of similar comments alluding to gentrification, Leung and Michnik responded, “Try not to go too hipster/yipster on us. This neighbourhood’s losing its specific charm to globally generic nice places.” This response addresses a greater issue of what is important to Strathcona as a neighbourhood. Economic prosperity is a positive notion for businesses in this area, but the costs are often greater and more complex than they appear. The difficulty here is balance: the community must look at the type of successes that popular, corporate companies might bring, in contrast to the charm and integrity of local services and businesses. One is replicable, the other is an endangered species in the world of business.

This directly relates to an even larger concept that affects neighbourhoods like Strathcona all over the world: gentrification. In layman's terms, gentrification occurs when an economically or socially struggling area is “revitalized” into a more upclass area. This often involves upper- or middle- class citizens moving into the area, pushing out (intentionally or not) lower-income families and small businesses.

On the surface, results of gentrification might even appear positive: the neighbourhood is essentially “cleaned up.” However, the greater tragedy here that is often ignored is the increase in economic disparity and the complete loss that the poorer families and individuals face. Gentrification has been a phenomenon pushing against the cultural and social boundaries of lower-income Vancouver areas, most notably the Downtown Eastside.

A lot of negativity can be easily associated with new businesses coming into poorer areas of a city, but it is perfectly apparent that gentrification is not on the agenda of Leung and Michnik. The difference here lies in community involvement. The goal is not to create a “classier” neighbourhood, but to take care of an already vibrant community by addressing specific local needs through direct communication with community members. In this manner, Leung and Michnik are taking a less direct, but more conscientious approach to business. Of course, like any sensible businessmen, profit is still on their minds, but even with respect to that they are prioritizing the community. Future online polls are to dictate which local charity the prospective business will donate a share of its net profits to.


In the past few years, projects that incorporate a similar approach to direct community input and involvement have occurred in a variety of diverse locations around the world. Urban neighbourhoods in New York and a number of major Australian cities such as Melbourne, Sydney, and Perth are a handful of examples. Such neighbourhoods were pinpointed as struggling with high poverty, but possessed an “up-and-coming” quality that attracted creative thinkers much like Leung and Michnik.

The Project for Empty Space was a non-profit New York initiative founded by Meenakshi Thirukode and Jasmine Wah. Their aims were to foster a strong community involvement; however, as a non-profit organization, their focus was on art, not business.

Connections can also be made to the Australian formed Empty Spaces Initiatives. This project received funding from the New South Wales (NSW) government in coordination with the Arts NSW organization and the University of Technology in Sydney. The project's aim was focused on nurturing the community and increasing community involvement by collectively brainstorming ideas for creative uses for empty retail spaces. Successful initiatives involved giving space to visual artists and craftspeople as temporary or permanent galleries for emerging talent.

The artistic aspects of both American and Australian projects are a clear driver in their success; however, it is difficult to measure this with any precision. The positive effects of direct community involvement with art or business have the potential to ripple through a neighbourhood, but these results are far less tangible and substantially more difficult to measure than a typical profit margin. This difficulty could be one of the many curve-balls that Leung and Michnik face in the coming months and years.


Some valuable connections can be made alongside the undeniably engaging debate sparked by Leung and Michnik’s business approach with This Space. The ultimate connection, and what a lot of their success rides on, is still the marriage between business and community involvement. This Space has immense potential to thrive off the input from its neighbours, just as there is great possibility for the Strathcona area to equally benefit from This Space.

Though similar projects have occurred, there is no denying that the businessmen behind This Space have an effective grasp on how to turn heads in their own city. Vancouver has a lot to look forward to in the coming months, particularly if Leung and Michnik hit their target of a February 2012 grand opening. It all depends on the community input, and what type of business is decided upon; this includes what specific permit or renovation requirements may arise, as noted on This Space's website.

Stay tuned to the future prospects of 243 Union St. by going to where Leung and Michnik are constantly updating details on their process, including the current poll standings and updates on upcoming votes to determine each and every aspect of the business.

// Claire McGillivray, Writer
// Illustration by Shannon Elliott

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