April 13, 2018

The Economist~Chinatown Resisting Developers in "Property Battle"

Even the magazine The Economist is weighing in on the importance of Vancouver’s Chinatown as a historic and very special cultural place deeply rooted in the birth and development of this country.  One of the positive things that has happened with the impetus to build condominiums in Chinatown is the rise of  a new generation of articulate, smart and savvy young professionals that grew up in or coming to Chinatown,  understanding the essence of this place in a very rooted way.
Urbanist Melody Ma is one of those young professionals interviewed by the Economist, and talked about the Chinatown neighbourhood not really changing until after the 2010 Winter Olympics. At that time “the downtown area was forested with new condominiums” and prices have risen by close to 60 per cent in the last three years. While Chinatown was avoided by developers in the past, development applications such as the nine storey luxury apartments proposed for 105 Keefer threaten to undermine Chinatown’s cultural identity.
As the Economist notes “The patch of tarmac at 105 Keefer is not much to look at. But it is in an area rich with cultural associations, residents say. Just to the south is a monument that commemorates Chinese-Canadian builders of the Canadian Pacific Railway and veterans of the second world war. Across the street is the Sun Yat-sen Classical Chinese Garden and the Chinese Cultural Centre Museum. “A lot of people were appalled” because of the condo’s “proximity to sacred sites in the heart of Chinatown”, says Ms Ma. Some residents also fear that it will push up rents.”
“Conservationists hope that the parking lot is where they can halt development, which they say has spoilt the charm of other Vancouver neighbourhoods such as Mount Pleasant. The dispute is part of a debate about the city’s identity, says Andy Yan, an urban planner. Vancouverites, he says, are asking themselves,“Who are we? And what are we building for?” The people who might want to buy the flats that do not yet exist are, of course, not being consulted.” 
Many would argue that the descendants of the Chinese immigrants whose labour built the railway across Canada, and who were the subject of acts of unspeakable racism  have a special interest in maintaining this area. This is also the  largest existing Chinatown in North America. It is a special place, and deserves to be there for future generations.
Ms. Ma is part of the group #SaveChinatownYVR, formed to “halt the high-rise advance” after a 17 storey condo building was built on the edge of Chinatown. This group is reminding others of the  history, cultural importance and identity of this special area, and now international media are telling the story too.

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  1. NIMBY at its finest.
    Let it rot in its current slum conditions or allow sensible densification like Keefer 105, or higher. There is no other option given land prices.
    The pretense we ought to have a living museum at tax payers expense is ridiculous. Modern Chinese immigrants move to Richmond for a reason. Why not listen to them and ask them why ? ( the answer is likely: The old Chinatown is ugly and full of homeless and poor people. Who wants to live there ? We prefer to be close to a train station, airport and shiny new condos with ample shopping, services, retail and restaurants catering to Chinese immigrants)
    Chinatown today is in Richmond NOT where it used to be 100 years ago. Let’s not pretend otherwise please.

    1. “The pretense we ought to have a living museum at tax payers expense is ridiculous.”
      I’m afraid, Thomas, that there will be a very very very large taxpayer expanse to keep Richmond from drowning in the ocean over the next few decades.

        1. Latest estimate by Metro Vancouver to protect the region from sea-level rise this centry: $9billion. But I guess they all watch too much CNN.

    2. Thomas, please take your ignorant take on how the multiple generations of Chinese diaspora in Vancouver perceive Chinatown elsewhere.
      I’ve written extensively on my own personal thoughts about Vancouver’s Chinatown. My journey in supporting the Chinatown residents on opposing the 105 Keefer rezoning has allowed me to peel back so many layers on our Chinatown that must be preserved if we are to not erase a key part of Canada’s history.
      There absolutely are options other than “densify and gentrify”. The memorial square can be extended. It could be affordable social housing for hundreds of people. We just need to find the political will to make it happen. The answer is not to build more luxury condos in Chinatown, further destroying a significant community there.

      1. The ONLY way to pay for thousands of affordable units is to build tens of thousands market condos ie FAR HIGHER DENSITY.
        I’d say: zone the entire area 20 or even better, 50+ stories, claw back CACs by the hundreds of millions and use that cash to build affordable housing, group homes, mental facilities and subsidized rental housing. IT IS THE ONLY WAY.
        Keep a few blocks here and there for heritage purposes, like Hamilton Street did (ie Chinese Garden and a block or two of Chinatwon themed Pender)
        The W building is a good example. or the Butterfly (where I was involved in at the early stages of the steering committee, btw) If we build 20-50 more Ws or Butterflies in “Chinatown” the area will be attractive again. Not like the junk that there is today.
        Public money is limited, and as such you have to attract private capital.
        Chasing away projects like Keefer 105 was a stupid stupid move as any sensible developer will shy away or will need guarantees or property tax relaxations.
        With the viaducts coming down we will see some significant cash in-flux at the edges in the 2020s. Hastings and a block south or north is a slum. The lack of mental facilities and group homes is indeed a disgrace for a rich society like BC. The WHOLE AREA needs a community plan that is grounded in 21st century reality, not 1900 contemplating of yesteryear. Keep a few worthwhile buildings or a block here or there. Or an indigenous museum or one for Chinese heritage. Bulldoze the rest and build brand new, HIGH (20+) !

        1. Different Justin here. Surely there’s a happy middle ground between “stuck in a Disneyfied time limbo” and “completely demolished for more overpriced condos?”

    3. Chinatowns current land prices reflect anticipation of increased density. If it is made clear to all that there is NO increased density possible the land price will reflect the existing buildings rent potential after restoration .

    4. Thomas; you seem to be confusing the idea of a “historic Chinatown” which many cities maintain because they are valuable as a living museum and neighborhood of cultural significance, with “where modern day immigrants from a particular country tend to live”. An awareness of the distinctions between those two is important as they serve different purposes.

      1. As I said .. a museum for a block or 2 is fine as a shopping, evening outing or tourist destination. The rest has to be re-developed as it is so ugly.

        1. Most of it is ugly, cheap, decrepit and worthy of a bulldozer. That is why modern Chinese immigrants, or even their guests, don’t buy there or even shop there in sufficient numbers. To attract customers and buyers you need a nice environment. A few facades or Chinatown themed buildings or a block or two could remain and/or renovated. The rest has to come down. That will take 50 years. Viaduct removal will spark revitalization, 3-7 buildings per year, so it will be many decades for the whole area to rejuvenate.
          NIMBY rejection does not help the area.

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  3. I think the biggest fallacy is that gentrification is what’s costing Chinatown it’s character/vitality. Generally, it’s not. It’s age and demographics. Chinatown’s decline is all about user base declining, rather than being a takeover by other demographics.
    Chinatown still has lots of seniors housing, and is generally getting more (in Strathcona). The somewhat captive Cantonese speaking market, however is generally aging out though, and their children and grandchildren aren’t as connected to the area as much as their grandparents were. You can’t force that connection. Melody Ma admits that as much. She said that she, herself didn’t use to feel a particularly strong connection to Chinatown, but had to cultivate it.
    My landlords for instance grew up in Strathcona, but don’t particularly want to live there. They’re still connected to the neighbourhood, but don’t spend as significant amounts of time and money there. Their parents, are in their 80s/90s aren’t as visible in the neighbourhood either.
    The reasons for Chinatown to be as defined as it once had been, simply aren’t as present in today’s society. If you’re going to fill in that space and user base, then it’s going to cost society in some way or another.
    I think it’s ridiculous that piece of land that has been vacant for almost 40 years remains vacant because it’s being used to prop up the identity of a neighbourhood. While yes, I agree social housing should be built, we’re talking about expropriating land which has been zoned for use under a city plan. The current owners meanwhile will have very reasonable grounds for claiming damages from the city, and this will be much less efficient use of funds that could be used for additional social housing.
    This whole thing says shitshow to me.

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