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This article by Wanyee Li in Metro News gets to the nub of a vital issue for one of the oldest, most historical and most loved parts of Vancouver. Vancouver’s Chinatown is not only one of the most continually occupied parts of the city, it is a district with great vibrant history, wondrous diversity, and a bunch of folks that quite frankly are responsible for the shape and structure of the city we experience today. And Vancouver’s Chinatown is the largest most contiguous Chinatown in North America. So why are we not treating this area as unique and as a special example of a historic area? Why are we in a hurry to accept pronounced and profound development that may erase Chinatown for future generations? 

It was the families and merchants in Chinatown that singlehandedly stopped the expansion of the freeway in the 1960’s from bisecting Vancouver’s downtown and decimating the existing housing  for new and improved “replacement” CMHC (Canadan Mortage and Housing Corporation) housing. In the short video below Bessie Lee describes how Chinatown residents  wanted to make the city “livable”, despite the calls for urban renewal from the City Council and the City Planner. And the word “livability” is one that has become a watchword for Vancouver’s past, current and future planning endeavours.

There is an  Open House on proposed changes to the Chinatown plan scheduled for this Saturday between 10:00 a.m and 2:00 p.m. at the Chinese Cultural  Centre Auditorium at 50 Pender Street. But here’s the troubling part-the boards prepared by the City   and even the background suggest that there is something “wrong” with the community in the first place. The intent of this increase in size and height is to “update” the Chinatown Economic Revitalization Action plan as a “three year review”.  Under the guise of a “lack of density limit leads to buildings with low ceiling height and compromised livability” the City is suggesting massive sizes and densities completely out of scale with the neighbourhood.

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So where did things go wrong? For some reason, despite the historic and important cultural nature of the shops, services, community centre and the Sun Yet-Sen Garden (rated as a top city garden by National Geographic) there are proposed changes to the Chinatown plan to allow for building heights of 150 feet (15 storeys) and frontages up to 200 feet.  This is completely out of character with the existing scale and texture of the small, varying frontages and  facades of the street, and recalls the concrete whitewashing of the community proposed by the freeway expansion a half century ago. The sizes being proposed are sizes developers are happy to work  with. They don’t necessarily make for good infill structures that blend harmoniously in to a well established and existent landscape.

Urban planner and Director of the Simon Fraser University City Program Andy Yan notes that such massive building scale and size “doesn’t match the existing texture of the neighbourhood, which is made up of small independent stores and low-storey buildings. Given the pre-existing grain of the neighbourhood, I don’t think it’s appropriate to bring a development that is modelled [after] areas of surplus industrial brown fields. It’s invasive to an established neighbourhood like Chinatown.”

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As reported in Metro News “city councillor Raymond Louie is quick to point out staff have the difficult task of coming up with a plan that meet both council’s demands as well as economic realities. Dividing land assemblies to less than 200 feet would not be cost effective…[Staff] are trying to balance off all the other aspects of what council has asked for – additional social housing, preservation of heritage, making sure that these buildings are built to the highest environmental standards, and making sure that these buildings are ready to hook up into our district energy systems. Louie says fears about big block stores displacing small businesses are unfounded because the new rules, if accepted, would limit retail storefronts to 50 feet. It’s one of many examples of the city is listening to public input.”

I would suggest that a fifty foot retail frontage is still a pretty vast space and not in keeping with the existing cultural fabric. But why are we trying to shoe horn development blocks in one of the most culturally sensitive parts of the city? Why does this area, which contains the fabric of a very early part of Vancouver be required to meet all the city and developer’s demands? As Andy Yan notes, Chinatown comprises just one per cent of the city’s fabric. Let’s treat it as the special unique gem it is.

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