Commercial Real Estate: Lobbying to save Chinatown’s heritage

December 28, 2017

By Evan Duggan, Vancouver Sun |

Melody Ma retraces the steps she initially took about two years ago through Vancouver’s Chinatown.

The twenty-something freelance web developer and Chinatown activist remembers seeing a construction pit at Gore and East Hastings on that walk.

“There used to be all of these interesting mom-and-pop Chinese retailers occupying that building,” she told Postmedia on a similar stroll through Chinatown in mid-December. “I was thinking to myself that my childhood has literally become a construction pit,” she said, noting the new building lies just outside the Chinatown plan area boundaries, but nonetheless represents changes elsewhere in the neighbourhood.

Ma now heads the #SaveChinatownYVR organization, a campaign focused on preserving the history of the 130-year-old neighbourhood, while battling against future development they feel eats away at the fabric of the Chinese community. Development company Beedie Living’s embattled and oft-revised mixed-use building at 105 Keefer has become a major focus for Ma’s activism.

Born and raised in Vancouver, Ma found her Chinese roots in the neighbourhood, she said. “It’s a place … where I went to Chinese school every day, where I learned Chinese dancing every weekend. It’s where I found my identity.”

About a year-and-a-half ago she adopted the #SaveChinatownYVR website and joined other like-minded activists. They worried that new, larger developments were displacing Chinese businesses and disrespecting Chinatown’s history.

“Through the activism we’re doing in Chinatown, a lot of the younger generation is rediscovering their roots,” she said.

Beedie Living initially proposed 105 Keefer as a 13-storey mixed-use tower at the corner of Keefer and Columbia streets. After several re-jigs of the project, City Council rejected Beedie’s rezoning application in May. In November, Vancouver’s development-permit board rejected a revised nine-storey version of the building on design grounds.

Located on an empty lot, the project has been a flashpoint for resistance from Chinatown activists, including Ma, who said the building would be too big, imposing over the Chinese war memorial, and wouldn’t include appropriate social housing or commercial businesses.

“This is a gateway site in Chinatown,” she said, standing next to the war memorial. “If you could imagine a 13- or nine-story building overlooking this site, it is going to be pretty massive. It is on a site that is surrounded by these amazing cultural assets,” she said, referring to the Chinese Cultural Centre and Dr. Sun Yat-sen Gardens.

The same day Postmedia met with Ma, Beedie appealed the development-permit board’s ruling, claiming the board lacked such authority and had caused hardship to the company. Beedie Living declined an interview for this story.

There is much about Chinatown that Ma still likes, including the recently renovated and re-opened Mah Society building at 137 E. Pender St.

“It embodies all of the aspects and characteristics of what I think a lot of the community is looking for,” she said. “On the bottom floor … you have Jade Dynasty restaurant, which is a culturally appropriate business. Locals enjoy it, tourists enjoy it, it’s packed on the weekends. On top, you have social housing. … It’s not just limited to Chinese seniors. It’s open to everybody.”

One block south, Ma stops outside the Goldstone restaurant at 139 Keefer Street. “People don’t really know about (places like this) unless you look for them,” she said. “It’s still extremely busy every single day during lunch hour and in the mornings. … Some people even have their own table.”

The remaining few fishmongers and barbecue shops and Chinese Benevolent Society buildings are other examples. “If you look at the slivers between buildings and go upstairs, there’s a lot of people up there,” Ma said.

Jordan Eng, vice-president of the Vancouver Chinatown Business Improvement Association, recalls meeting Ma at a Chinatown legacy business program forum hosted by the City. (That ongoing process is seeking ways to support longstanding Chinatown businesses from disappearing, and is looking to San Francisco’s Chinatown for ideas).

Ma and her peers have been “very effective”, Eng told Postmedia. “They have stirred a lot of interest. Particularly, (among) the younger generation.” On the other hand, he said, “I don’t think the development community has done well in promoting their side.”

The business improvement association maintains a neutral stance on 105 Keefer, Eng said. “It’s such a flashpoint location.”

In 2011, City Council eased height restrictions for new buildings in sections of Chinatown. An early result was a seven-storey mixed-use tower that now stands on the southwest corner of Main and Keefer, and a 17-floor residential tower behind it. A similar building stands on the northwest corner, across Keefer.

At the time, there were 50-per-cent vacancies in Chinatown and much of the local community supported the density changes, Eng said. “Stores were shutting down and we were working toward a revitalization process. And at that time, there were a limited number of young people who saw interest in the process of keeping the heritage alive.”

Eng and Ma are both hopeful that tools will emerge from the legacy business program, and agree that there needs to also be a strategy to attract new vibrant Chinese businesses.

“We need young people like Melody and her second-generation Chinese (peers) to get involved in those organizations to sustain them,” Eng said.

“We have a lot of the young people with a nostalgia of Chinatown and (about) coming down to Chinatown with their grandmother, but that’s a snapshot in time. Many had parents or grandparents who ran grocery stores or other shops in the neighbourhood. That was the best they could do, and they were all sending their kids to universities to be doctors and lawyers so they didn’t have to live that life.”

The challenge, he said, is to find ways for such businesses to survive organically or to attract new, alternative Chinese businesses.

Ma isn’t pleased with the early results of the height and development entitlements. Outside the mid-rise mixed-use tower at 189 Keefer St., Ma points to what she considers a glaring example of free-market retail in new, expensive storefronts: a Starbucks.

“You do get the Starbucks and you do get the dentist that calls Chinatown ‘Crosstown’,” she said. “When these buildings first went through the city process, the commercial units were marketed as small-scale retail frontages with colourful awnings and groceries spilling onto the street. … That didn’t turn into reality.”

More energy must be placed in incentivizing the retention of businesses that were here before the big buildings went up, and to cultivate new businesses with inter-generational prospects, Ma said. “I don’t think that conversation has been had yet.”

Developing in a heritage community shouldn’t be treated like business as usual, she said. “We’re building over heritage buildings, we’re building in heritage areas. We need to think about what the cultural implications are, and it’s more than just the facade.”

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