February 11, 2022

How to kill Kingsway in order to save it – and why we can’t

John Mackie is the Sun’s writer with an historic lens.  He helps us see the shape of the future through the stories of the past – and then writes about the present:

Kingsway is in transition. Several large developments are changing the face of the street …

Heritage Vancouver is worried the rush for redevelopment may displace many of the small stores and restaurants that give Kingsway its character. …

A good example of Kingsway’s charm is the south side of the 1300-block, just west of Knight. …

This is precisely the kind of small business that Heritage Vancouver fears may be lost as Kingsway gentrifies, and old one- or two-storey structures are replaced with larger ones. …

 

It’s actually a classic story.  There hasn’t been in a time in the last half century when we haven’t been bemoaning the loss our ethnic high streets.  Alas, poor Robsonstrasse.

John didn’t raise the tough policy question that goes with the desire to expand heritage protection for businesses that serve immigrant cultures – but here it is:

Should the City give special advantage to a set of small businesses to preserve not just the buildings they’re in but also their ethnicity and their ‘smallness’?

That has sooo many tricky implications, it’s no wonder council, while trying to show the necessary sympathy, have punted it to staff.

Vancouver Coun. Pete Fry … put forward an amendment to a rezoning proposal at 1265 Kingsway that calls for city staff to work with the applicant “to protect and enhance the existing retail street character of Little Saigon and its locally serving independent small business.” …

“There are things we can do as we’re allowing these redevelopments to ensure what we call sort of granularity of streetscape,” said Fry. “So we’re not popping in buildings with giant floor plates for retail, but rather we’re retaining that kind of 25-foot frontage that allows that diversity and variety of retail streetscape, which I believe people cherish and really enjoy …

The premise is that small storefronts create granularity which then allow small businesses more chance of success, particularly if there are no large floor-plate alternatives. Hence, the theory goes, with only narrow frontages, the whole district thrives, takes on the identity of whatever group it serves, and we get a city of authentic neighbourhoods.

Nice idea but seriously flawed.  That’s not how these neighbourhoods actually work.

Here’s ethnic granularity on 33-3400-block Kingsway just east of Joyce Street: low-rise, sidewalk-hugging narrow storefronts with no parking – the dining rooms of the Asian diaspora.  Just the kind of genuine character Pete Fry would like to see protected and enhanced, that Heritage Vancouver would like to prevent being gentrified, and that John Mackie would hate to see lost to big-box chain retail.

 

In other words, exactly the kind of thing on the other side of the street:

 

This Kingsway village thrives because it has an anchor: the full-service large floor-plate grocery story.  Or this one at the other end of the block:

 

These stores are the main reason most people come here to shop, and then maybe grab a bite to eat across the street.   No full-sized grocery, no neighbourhood.   (And yes, that includes you, Commercial Drive, with your Safeway at Broadway.)  And do I need to point out that the large parking lots end up serving more than just the adjacent big box.

What an illusion to think a commercial district can be frozen in time.  There isn’t a post-war example of an immigrant village left intact in Vancouver, though the streets still hang on to their ethnic pasts.  Greeks on Broadway, Italians on Commercial Drive, British ex-pats in Kerrsidale.  So long as immigrants thrive, grow and move around, it can’t be stopped.   Punjabi Village can’t maintain its primacy over Newton, nor Chinatown over Richmond. For that matter, not even the gay bars on Davie could defeat the internet.

Heritage preservation tries to hold on to remnants of a place in time, or at least slow down the aging process.  That’s impossible to do with people, particularly the children of immigrants who will make their own locational decisions.  It’s also futile to try to prevent the added value to property or a profitable business from being appropriated by someone.  If land value goes up, for instance, someone is going to find a way to monetize it, on or off the books – and the City won’t prevent it from happening unless they sterilize the reasons that made it prosper in the first place.

There’s another irony to this story: the City most definitely wants and needs Kingsway to change.

The city is looking to add 72,000 housing units in the next decade, and Kingsway seems likely to be the focus of many new highrise projects. Figures provided by the City of Vancouver show that between 2010 and 2020 3,551 housing units were approved in commercial areas “adjacent to Kingsway.” …

These commercial arteries are one of the easiest places to get more density into existing neighbourhoods, with the amenity, services and transit already there.  Using heritage as a NIMBY mechanism to stop change in its tracks is self-defeating and discredits good heritage policy.  Using urban design to homogenize a business district is just as bad.

In what rational world could we justify preserving the decaying block of low-rise shops within meters of a SkyTrain station?  In this world, say preservationists – because it serves the Filippino community, who in the 1990s moved in large numbers to the megaproject of Collingwood Village across the street.

If the argument is to protect the vulnerable, Collingwood Village or any other development that put the pressure of gentrification on the existing community would never have been built in the first place, and the businesses of today would not have been profitably established.

Then John Mackie might have been able to write about the heritage of decaying industrial sites and stripmalls waiting for the inevitability of change.

 

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Comments

  1. Of course, it is not just Kingsway. It is also happening elsewhere in the city.

    Another example is on Joyce Street, near Joyce/Collingwood Skytrain station, where many developments are moving ahead. There is a proposed tower that will displace a bunch of businesses that serve the local Filipino community. While they may have the option of returning, once the tower is complete, I suspect most won’t be able to afford the new higher rents and their own many options for relocation nearby.

    https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/vancouver-filipino-community-opposes-condo-1.5946942

  2. An honest and realistic take. We love the city for its energy and all the stuff, but the flip side of that is acknowledging that it will all eventually change. Even if you never frequented these Filipino-owned stores, to those who know the neighbourhood, their existence is comforting and familiar.

    It can be helpful to take a longer view. Once upon a time, those Filipino shops replaced other businesses, and there were no doubt commenters at the time who lamented the loss of their little piece of the world and saw these newcomers as a discomforting sign of change. And one day, the new glass towers will themselves be replaced (probably with bigger ones) and some folks will no doubt comment on the loss of these fine examples of early 21st century heritage buildings (“treasures”, they will be called) and the “loss of Kingsway’s soul”. I defy anyone to tell me with a straight face that this won’t happen.

    Take solace in the bigger picture. Everything we know and love about this city, except the mountains, will change over our lifetimes. Our connections to the places we love and the stories we accumulate will all be lost to time. But there will be always be other people’s stories. It shouldn’t be the burden of future residents to enshrine our version of Vancouver 2022 and to keep our stories alive forever. It’s ours to ensure they get to tell theirs in the first place. So…it’s fine.

  3. Of course the problem is wholly created by the zoning decisions of Council.
    If densification was focussed on the block behind the streetfront retail and lower densities retained on the arterial street, perhaps that would lessen redevelopment pressure (and taxes) on those neighbourhood commercial strips?
    BUT, politics takes precedence, and angering the single family home owners won’t get Council members their votes in the next election.

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