The Chinese Canadian Historical Society is hosting a public forum on the implications and benefits of earning the UNESCO World Heritage designation for Chinatown. Dr. Lee Ho Yin, University of Hong Kong, will share his expertise and experience in UNESCO-related heritage conversation and development projects.
Leaving aside the merits or otherwise of the Beedie proposal at 105 Keefer, the two-to-three decision definitely puts the role and authority of the Development Permit Board in question – in both the court of public opinion and perhaps the courts.
The DPB was a creation of the TEAM council back in the early 1970s. It was devised as a way to de-politicize the permit approval process by moving the authority to approve major development projects under existing zoning from a political council to a panel of four (at that time) of senior staff.
The Vancouver Charter allowed a degree of ‘discretion,’ unlike in other municipalities, that introduced a degree of subjectivity in matters of design and even density, in order to encourage architects and developers to consider the context and neighbourliness of their buildings.
The board also had a group of advisers, drawn from the design and development professions, in addition to staff architects, that contributed to the analysis and provided recommendations. Projects eventually had to jump through many hoops: public meetings, advisory boards, review panels, staff analysis, negotiations, revisions, and finally the DP board itself, at which time presentations from the public and the developer could be heard.
The process itself ensured that projects rarely made it to the board unless they had a reasonable chance of success. Suggestions for ‘prior-to’ conditions could then be added, requiring some additional tweaking of the design, but those would be adjudicated by the Director of Planning who could then give final approval.
A few things to note: councillors were not involved. Indeed, they would typically refer those who approached them with complaints, whether developers or neighbours, to the board process without their intercession. It was considered inappropriate for councillors to even be in the room at the time the project was being reviewed, regardless of the degree of controversy.
If a project was so controversial that a political consideration was believed to be appropriate, the board could refer the project to council for their ‘input’ – while the board still retained the decision-making responsibility.
The board only reviewed ‘major’ projects. Applications for small projects, like houses or even small buildings, would be considered by the Director of Planning.
But – and this is critical – all projects had to be legal under the existing zoning. The board could not venture into areas that required a rezoning. Indeed, the application would never even be streamed into the DP process. Likewise, council was responsible for all policy which framed the review process itself. The board could not apply criteria which had not in some way been authorized by council.
So that takes us to 105 Keefer. And as Andy Yan noted, this also takes us into new territory. From The Sun:
Urban planner Andy Yan said the rejection is significant for historic neighbourhoods like Chinatown. Design is no longer the only criterion for the permit board; the context must also be considered.
“In this case, we’re talking about (the development’s) fit in an existing site, which has tremendous historic and architectural juxtapositions,” said Yan, director of The City Program at Simon Fraser University. …
“Yan thinks the rejection will have a broader impact.
“I think it’s saying we’re going to have to change the site-ism that occurs with development in Vancouver — site-ism being defined that developments only pertain to the site. It talks about how we need to begin to consider context towards the social and cultural surroundings of developments. Some may be very straightforward, others are far more complex, as in the case of Chinatown.”
That is a profound expansion of the responsibility of the Development Permit Board. The question is whether it’s even proper for an unelected board to consider ‘the social and cultural surroundings’ – particularly when they become another way to address, argue and fight the most important questions of policy that affect a community and the city. Or further, another way to politically contest those issues which democratically must be the purview of elected representatives. Or further, another way to fight those politicians.
Vancouver’s Chinatown came into being in the 1880s as Chinese migrants fled the region of the Pearl River Delta in the wake of political violence that claimed an estimated one million lives. In Canada, Chinese migrants took on the railway’s most dangerous jobs while earning less than half the salary of their white counterparts. When the railway was completed, the workers, intent on sending remittances home, found jobs in sawmills, coal mines, tanneries and brickyards. But their presence drew an ugly backlash from mainstream society. …
The ‘Oriental city’
Across North America, Chinatowns developed a parallel civic society, providing schools, benevolent associations, libraries and a complex social organisation. Gradually, a self-protective architecture evolved: colourful facades that would satisfy an outsider’s desire for a contained, exotic experience – and an inner world that could meet the everyday needs of Chinese workers segregated into an increasingly crowded space.
It is a little known fact that the brightly painted facades of the oldest Chinatown in the US, in San Francisco, were designed in 1906 by the architect-engineers T Patterson Ross and AW Burgren, who were hired by Chinese merchants to dream up deliberately exoticised architecture.
In American Chinatown: A People’s History of Five Neighbourhoods, journalist Bonnie Tsui documents how the “oriental city of ‘veritable fairy palaces’, was a conscious, east-meets-west attempt by Chinese merchants to change the community’s image … and ensure its continuing survival.” The Chinese merchants wondered if their frontier-style buildings were livened by elaborate flourishes, would mainstream society’s fear of the outsider diminish? Might they even enter the colourful gates, drawn to the exotic world on their doorstep?
By 1910 Vancouver’s Chinatown began to incorporate flying eaves, glazed tiled roofs and other stately decorations. Ironically, the ornamentation which they hoped would convey dignity and social cohesion added to a pervasive misconception: that the Chinese utilised such details because theirs was a community of perpetual aliens, incapable of adapting to a new environment. Ross and Burgren’s architecture became emblematic around the world. …
From Chinatown to Metrotown
In the 1980s, many Chinese immigrants to Vancouver hoped to prosper and leave behind the struggles of Chinatown, but I suspect they believed, and hoped, the enclave would persist. Its sometimes kitschy atmosphere allowed for memory without sentimentality, nostalgia freed from rigid tradition. Its alleyways and buildings are the physical evidence of a discriminatory history, as well as a population that “has always flourished in a community form”, as the journalist Tsui observes.
That is all changing. The Chinese working class and poor communities are being displaced here, powerless against the unified forces of developers backed by city re-zoning and incentivising plans – the price of individual condos in two recent developments is between $1 and $2m.
In Everything Will Be, Julia Kwan’s powerful 2014 documentary on the demolitions and losses in Vancouver’s Chinatown, Bob Rennie, the owner of Vancouver’s largest real estate firm, insists that “the Chinatown that your parents enjoyed here is gone forever”, and says the city must look to the future.
Developers claim they are preserving the neighbourhood, but the fact remains that the heart of the community – meaning its people and their livelihoods – are currently fighting for their existence.
Meanwhile there is now a new Chinese enclave where Vancouver blurs into Burnaby. Where the old Chinatowns were low-rise shopfront streets and alleyways, this new area, with its glass skyscrapers, shopping malls and a plenitude of restaurants specialising in Chinese regional cuisines, reflects a shifting global order. The predominant language is Mandarin.
This area, Metrotown, has a strong resemblance to the urban live-work neighbourhoods built beside rapid transit stations, and near to vibrant green spaces in Shanghai, Hong Kong or Singapore. Architecturally, it resembles an Asian metropolis, rather than an imagined oriental aesthetic. Metrotown carries the tension of a new Chinatown, which is no longer an area with distinct borders, or something that can be contained by exotic gates.
“The developers are coming in and whatever they want to do with Little Saigon, they’re going to do it,” said Nguyen. “They’re buying the land. They’re making plans.”
Though such projects are allowed under existing zoning, Mayor Ed Murray’s upzone would permit even taller buildings in most of the Chinatown International District, including Little Saigon, and would trigger a new program requiring developers to help create affordable housing.
Nguyen isn’t set against the upzone. He says more affordable housing would be welcome. Indeed, some neighborhood advocates are asking the council to boost the requirements, which the city says would generate about 150 income- and rent-restricted units over 10 years.
The proposal’s relatively modest changes in zoning, which would allow buildings one to three stories higher, aren’t expected to directly displace many residents. There are only four housing units in existing Chinatown ID structures on parcels identified by the city as redevelopable. …
The upzones are activating Murray’s Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) program, wherein developers include low-income units in their buildings or pay fees.
The program is supposed to produce 6,000 affordable units over 10 years, mostly for renter households with no more than 60 percent of the regions’s median income. …
Though public-safety problems and municipal neglect may have held the neighborhood back in past years, Little Saigon and the rest of the Chinatown ID sit near downtown with easy access to I-5, commuter trains, light-rail and a streetcar line.
The Asian Plaza property where Tamarind Tree is located will be developed by the Chinn family, which has longtime ties to the Chinatown ID and which plans to have the existing anchor tenant, Viet Wah Supermarket, anchor the new complex, as well.
“The Chinatown International District is still a culturally rich neighborhood, but over the years it has lagged behind … in terms of family income level and employment,” the project’s website says, casting the coming changes as progress.
“As the next generation moves up the economic ladder by becoming doctors, lawyers, and accountants, they are less inclined to live and work in (the) district. What will help is commercial development that modernizes the area and provides employment, income, and vitality that the next generation wants, and yet reflects and honors the cultural identity of each immigrant group.”
Nguyen says Little Saigon’s character won’t survive, however, if the new retail spaces are too large and costly. Many small-business owners in the neighborhood, including Nguyen, already are on tenuous, month-to-month leases, he says.
Another article on our doomed Chinatown by Kerry Gold in the Globe and Mail:
Gentrification isn’t just nibbling at Chinatown’s edges. Thanks to rezoning changes, it’s taking major bites out of the neighbourhood. … Class inversion is happening in cities throughout North America. Urban cores used to be the domain of low-income groups, while the wealthier demographic lived in the suburbs. In recent years, wealthier groups are choosing urban living and pushing low-income groups to the outskirts, or further.
“You have to ask, ‘Where is this coming from? Who are you serving?’” asks Kevin Huang, executive director of the Hua Foundation, a non-profit for young Chinese-Canadians. Mr. Huang is also committed to supporting the people who form the tight-knit Chinatown community, and who are now under threat of displacement. …
“With this rezoning, I think this is a battle for the soul of Chinatown, and what does it mean for us as a city in terms of diversity and inclusion,” Mr. Huang says. …
“We seem to be treating Chinatown as a development site instead of a community,” civic historian John Atkin says.
The old mom-and-pop shops are already hurting, faced with mounting property taxes and aging ownership. The educated next generation doesn’t always want to take over the old business. And those new corporate retailers wouldn’t be able to buy from within the neighbourhood or from small local farms the way current businesses have for a century. The old local economy of Chinatown – a model of sustainability before it became a buzzword – would be destroyed….
Melody Ma, a self-professed “policy wonk,” grew up attending dance classes in Chinatown. Both Ms. Ma and Mr. Huang see the city’s failure to prioritize people, with their histories and traditions and lives, as the problem. Other cities have adopted culture as an integral part of their urban planning, including New Westminster and Montreal, so they’ve asked Vancouver City to consider doing the same. …
“That means developers will have to make sure they consider the needs of the community prior to even talking to city hall – that we’re recognizing the culture and history and the aspirations of the people who live there,” she says.
It’s more than the buildings. Unless the culture is preserved, the place becomes commodified and soulless, she says. To thwart displacement, the city offers up bigger building potential in exchange for a few units of social housing. But what good is social housing if a community is wiped out? …
Small businesses such as Mr. Mah’s face deeper challenges if the city doesn’t craft policies to protect them. …
But pressure on the community will only intensify because the area is in the crosshairs of future densification. A couple of blocks away, the viaducts will come down and the new St. Paul’s Hospital will transform the historic area into a hub of high-tech medical care.
Ms. Ma says “it was a mountain to climb” just getting council to agree to consider culture as a priority.
“We have to ask ourselves, ‘How do we place a culture or community first – rather than just follow finance?’”
I am a loss to understand what is wanted for Chinatown – or what is even possible.
Should it be a goal to “prioritize people, with their histories and traditions and lives,” if it means we’re intending to preserve a cultural product that was a consequence of one of the most racist periods in our history. Chinatown was a ghetto in the worst sense of the word.
Is the desire to exclude anything that doesn’t reflect that era?
And even if there was an inherent racism in that assumption of exclusion, how can a zoning code preserve or even encourage businesses no longer wanted, no longer viable?
The forces of time and change mean there is essentially no hope to maintain the cultural moment of Chinatown. Surrounding development forces, the removal of the Viaducts, a new St. Paul’s and changing demographics guarantee that.
Why would we set ourselves up for failure?
Shaping urban form and use is the purpose of zoning and development bylaws. Saving a culture is not. And that’s as true for the gay village on Davie and the Punjabi Village on Main as it is for Chinatown on Main.