Before March 2 2015, please come here to nominate the entire Chinatown as the historic site to be preserved, don’t expect City of Vancouver to save Chinatown when the Council approved more condo to be built in Chinatown at rapid rate to destroy the Chinatown.
Chinese Historic Places Recognition Project
THE HERITAGE BATTLE FOR CHINATOWN
Historic Vancouver neighbourhood is being redeveloped, raising fears it will lose its character.
By JOHN MACKIE, VANCOUVER SUN November 15, 2014
The marketing line for the Keefer Block condo development in Chinatown is “Heritage Meets Modern.”
But just how much heritage will be left after a wave of modern developments washes over the historic district is a matter of debate.
A new proposal for the 700-block of Main Street would demolish the last three buildings from Hogan’s Alley, a once-notorious back lane that was the longtime home of Vancouver’s black community.
Another condo development at 231 Pender would replace a funky, Chinese-themed garage that is listed on Canada’s Register of Historic Places. Angelo Tosi’s family has owned their building at 624 Main since 1930. It may date back to 1895, and looks it — the fixtures and shelving are as old as the hills.
But Tosi is 82, and will probably sell when the price is right. He doesn’t expect his store to survive.
“It’ll be gobbled up by the monstrous buildings,” said Tosi. “And then they’ll take it all, and it’s finished. They won’t keep the heritage on the bottom, they’ll put down whatever they want.”
His fatalistic attitude reflects the changes in Chinatown, which is undergoing a development boom after zoning changes by the City of Vancouver.
The protected “historic” area of Chinatown is now Pender Street, while much of Main, Georgia and Keefer can now be redeveloped, with heights of up to 90 feet (nine storeys). A few sites can go even higher.
Two towers are going up at Keefer and Main — the nine-storey, 81-unit Keefer Block, and the 17-storey, 156-unit 188 Keefer. Up the street at 137 Keefer, a development permit application has just gone in for a new nine-storey “multi-family building.”
None of them has stirred up much controversy. But a recent public meeting about a 12-storey, 137-unit condo to be built on an empty lot at Keefer and Columbia got people riled up.
“There was a lot of angry people that night,” said Henry Yu, a UBC history professor who feels a “vision plan” the Chinatown community worked on with the city for several years is being ignored.
“The vision plan gets passed, (but it has) no teeth,” said Yu. “Actually (there is) no policy, it’s a wish list of ‘Oh, we’d like seniors housing, we’d like to do this, we’d like to do that.’
“Almost immediately, the two (highrise) buildings in the 600-, 700-block Main go up, and they’re just basically Yaletown condos. Not even Yaletown — Yaletown has more character.
“These are straight out of the glass tower (model), no (historic) character, obliterating everything in terms of tying it to the kind of streetscape of Chinatown. You’re going to split the historic two or three blocks of Chinatown with a Main Street corridor of these glass towers.”
Yu says Chinatown has historically been small buildings on 25-foot lots, which makes for a jumble of small stores that gives it a unique look and character. But the new developments are much wider, and just don’t look like Chinatown.
“The two 600-, 700-block buildings have a rain shield that’s an awning, a glass awning that runs the whole block,” said Yu. “That’s the design guideline for the city as a whole, but it was nothing to do with Chinatown, (which is) narrow frontages, changing awnings.
“We said that (to the city planners), we raised it and raised it, but the planners just shoved it down our throat.”
Kevin McNaney is Vancouver’s assistant director of planning. He said the city changed the zoning in parts of Chinatown to help revitalize the neighbourhood, which has been struggling.
“We have been taking a look across Chinatown,” said McNaney. “What we’re finding is that rents are dropping, and vacancies are rising. And that’s a big part of the strategy of adding more people to revitalize Chinatown.
“There are only 900 people currently living in Chinatown, many of them seniors. It’s just not the population base needed to support businesses, so a lot of the businesses are going under. Along Pender Street you see a lot of vacancies right now.
“So at the heart of this plan is to bring more people to revitalize Chinatown, and also use that development to support heritage projects, affordable housing projects and cultural projects.”
Henry Yu disagrees. “The idea that you need density in Chinatown itself, that you need your own captive customer base, is moronic,” he said.
“Where else in the city would you make that argument, that nobody can walk more than two blocks, that no one is going to come in here from somewhere else?
“They will. People go to the International Summer Market in Richmond in an empty gravel field. Ten thousand people at night come from everywhere in the Lower Mainland, because there’s something worth going to.
“The problem isn’t that you need a captive audience that has no other choice but to shop in Chinatown — that’s just stupid, there’s plenty of people in Strathcona. The problem is, is there something worth coming to (in Chinatown)? And that has to do with the character, what the mix is, what kind of commercial.”
Ironically, all the new construction comes just as Chinatown seems to be undergoing a bit of a renaissance. Several new businesses have popped up in old buildings, attracted by the area’s character and cheap rents.
The très-hip El Kartel fashion boutique recently moved into a 6,000 sq. ft space at 104 East Pender that used to house Cathay Importers. It’s on the main floor of the four-storey Chinese Benevolent Association Building, which was built in 1909.
Across the street at 147 East Pender is Livestock, a runner and apparel store that is so cool it doesn’t even have a sign. “We were in Gastown at the corner of Cordova and Abbott, (and) just felt a change was needed,” said store manager Chadley Abalos.
“We found the opportunity in Chinatown, so we decided to move here. We feel it’s one of the new spots that are booming. You see a lot of new businesses — restaurants, clothing stores, furniture. We see the potential in it growing.”
Russell Baker owns Bombast, a chic furniture store at 27 East Pender. But he is not new to the neighbourhood — Bombast has been there for 10 years.
“I think (Chinatown is) one of the most interesting parts of the city,” he said.
“It’s still got some variety, some texture, architecturally, socially, economically. A lot of what’s happened to the downtown peninsula (in recent years) constitutes erasure. This is one of the places that still sort of feels like … it feels more urban than some parts of downtown. I would say downtown is a vertical suburb.
“If you like cities, Chinatown feels like one. That’s why we’re here.”
Baker said he expected Chinatown to happen a lot sooner than it did. Retailers that do well there still tend to be destinations, rather than stores that rely on heavy street traffic. “The buzz is that Chinatown is happening, but it’s really strategic, what’s happening,” he said. “Fortune Sound Club, that’s a niche market that’s destination. That’s the kind of thing that works down here. We’re destination, Bao Bei (restaurant) is destination.”
The new businesses make for an interesting mix with the old ones. The 200 block East Georgia Street is hopping with hipster bars (the Pacific Hotel, Mamie Taylor’s) and art galleries (Access Gallery, 221A, Centre A). But it also retains classic Chinatown shops like the Fresh Egg Mart and Hang Loong Herbal Products.
The question is whether the small businesses will be displaced as the area gentrifies. Real estate values have soared — Soltera paid $6.5 million for the northwest corner of Keefer and Main in 2011, Beedie Holdings paid $16.2 million for two parcels of land at Columbia and Keefer in 2013.
That seems like a lot for a site that’s two blocks from the troubled Downtown Eastside, but Houtan Rafii of the Beedie Group said that’s what land costs in Vancouver.
“It is a significant, substantial amount of money, but compared to most every area in Vancouver, it’s not dissimilar, whether you’re in Gastown, downtown, Concord-Pacific, even on the boundaries of Strathcona or on Hastings close to Clark or Commercial,” said Rafii. “It’s not an obscene amount of money, it’s market.”
Rafii said the Beedie Group met with local groups for a year about its development, and was surprised at the reaction it got at the public meeting, which was held because Beedie is looking to rezone the site to add an additional three storeys.
Yu doesn’t have a problem with the Beedie proposal per se, but feels it’s on a key site in Chinatown, and should be developed accordingly.
“It’s not the building’s fault,” said Yu.
“People are going ‘What’s wrong with this glass tower, it’s working everywhere else, and Chinese people love buying this stuff if it’s UBC.’
“That’s not the point. There’s plenty of room around the city to build glass towers (that are) 40 storeys, 50 storeys, whatever. Why do they need to be in this spot?
“This one is right in the heart (of Chinatown). Across the street is the Sun Yat-sen (garden), the Chinese Cultural Centre. On the same street is the (Chinese workers) monument. Next door is the back alley of Pender.”
Yu said a recent study found there will be a need for 3,300 income-assisted senior housing beds in the Lower Mainland over the next 15 years. He said the Columbia and Keefer site would be perfect for a seniors project.
“There’s a particular kind of resonance to the idea this is a traditional place where a lot of Chinese seniors can retire to,” he said.
“There is a five-year waiting list for the Simon K.Y. Lee Success long-term care home, so there’s huge demand, huge need, this is a place where they want to go. (Building a seniors home) would actually would help revitalize (Chinatown), because seniors bring sons, daughters, grandsons and granddaughters into a community.
“That’s the Chinatown vision plan, that’s what’s in there, that’s what those discussions were about. And yet what we’ve got is 137 luxury condo units for hip youngsters. That’s the Beedie proposal, and that’s what the last two towers (on Main) were. It’s not just insulting, it’s the thwarting of the very promise (of the vision plan).”
Wu would like to see a moratorium on new developments in Chinatown “until design guidelines are actually built to create a zone that respects the (area’s special) character.”
Retired city planner Nathan Edelson agrees. Which is significant, because he worked on the Chinatown vision plan for over a decade.
“My suggestion is that there should be a moratorium on the rezonings, for sure, until they can get an assessment of what the current new development is,” said Edelson. “To what degree are they contributing to, or harming Chinatown, the historic character of Chinatown? And it’s not an obvious answer.”
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