Vancouver’s Future Hinges on the Fight to Save Chinatown

The controversy over a proposed Keefer Street development begs a big question: can we preserve our heritage and keep our neighbourhoods alive?

June 13, 2017

By Matt O'Grady / Photo: Andrew Querner

From her third-floor offices, Carol Lee has the perfect view into Chinatown’s storied past, as well as to the harbingers of its potential future.

Lee’s building, at 127 East Pender, is home to Linacare—a skin care company she co-founded with Dr. Henry Fung in 2003. The heritage property dates to the turn of the 20th century and has been in the Lee family since 1921, when grandfather Ron Bick Lee bought it and later opened an import-export business. In form and function, it’s similar to many of the two- or four-storey buildings on this street—the restaurants, greengrocers and general merchants who form the backbone of historic Chinatown.

“Back when I was growing up, this area was vibrant,” says Lee, surveying the trickle of foot traffic on Pender Street late on a Friday afternoon. “It was a really exciting place; it was a neighbourhood place. I don’t just mean for Chinese people—everybody. If you grew up in Vancouver, you had some sort of recollection of coming here.” In recent decades, however, Chinatown has declined—partly due to changing economic conditions, which have driven many businesses (and shoppers) to other parts of the city, and partly due to the creeping social issues spreading from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

This being Vancouver, where some see decline, others see an opportunity to develop abandoned lots and dilapidated buildings, and inject new blood into Chinatown. In the past few years, the surrounding streets—Main, Union, East Georgia and Keefer—have received an influx of non-traditional businesses and residents looking to capitalize on the area’s central location and relatively cheap rents.

For some Chinatown stalwarts, the change is cause for concern. That is why Lee formed the Vancouver Chinatown Foundation in 2012, which counts as board trustees Bob Lee (Carol’s developer father), Robert H.N. Ho (a renowned Chinese cultural philanthropist) and Brandt Louie (CEO of the H.Y. Louie Co. and London Drugs). Their mission: to purchase and rehabilitate many of Chinatown’s historic properties, reinvigorate its business community, and preserve and enhance the neighbourhood’s unique cultural heritage.

Lee is quite animated about the last two points. “That’s how I ended up with the two restaurants,” she says, chuckling, of the iconic Foo’s Ho Ho and soon-to-open Chinatown Barbecue. The foundation also bought the nearby BMO building in 2016 and plans to open a storytelling centre dedicated to the history of Chinese-Canadian immigrants there later this year. “If you don’t have any Chinese businesses here, any real culture, you have Gastown,” Lee says.

Dreaming of the future, she sees a bustling streetscape full of restaurants and businesses, school kids on field trips at the storytelling centre, old people doing exercises in the park—even an open market down the street, as there was decades ago. What the neighbourhood doesn’t need more of, she says, snapping back to reality, are hipster restaurants or bars. It definitely doesn’t need the 12-storey condo tower proposed for the now-empty parking lot at the corner of Keefer and Columbia.

The development by Beedie Development Group at 105 Keefer/544 Columbia has become a stand-in for the larger debate surrounding the future of Chinatown—and Vancouver at large. At the heart of the matter: how should the city preserve neighbourhoods without letting them ossify?

Placed in just about any other downtown context, the Beedie development would appear to be just what the city needs: a mix of market housing (including 33 two-bedrooms and four three-bedrooms—exceeding the city’s requirement for 25 percent family housing), social housing, and small-scale “shopfront” spaces, three of which open onto the laneway north of Keefer—a form of retail that’s emblematic of Chinatown. And, indeed, the city’s 2011 plan for this part of Chinatown just south of Pender specifically created the conditions for applications like this, with the aim to direct growth to areas with fewer heritage buildings.

“If you don’t have any Chinese businesses here, any real culture, you have Gastown.”

Of course, a lot has changed in six years, including a dramatic upswing in housing prices, growing concerns about affordability, and outrage over the loss of neighbourhood “character”—be it historic Chinatown buildings or modest pre-war homes. In that context, it’s not surprising that public feedback on the Beedie development was intense. By mid-April of this year, the city says it had received more than 4,500 “pieces of feedback.” As city staff wrote in their report to council, the development has “become a symbol of the struggle of the Chinatown community and the city as a whole to define the future for Vancouver’s Chinatown.” (While city staff initially supported the proposal, council decided to refer 105 Keefer to a final public hearing in late May, which drew hundreds of speakers. Council ultimately voted against the proposal on June 13, with Mayor Gregor Robertson citing the vehement opposition by various community groups and a growing sense of anxiety over the pace of change in the neighbourhood.)

While Beedie Group was reluctant to comment in advance of the council vote, one person who wasn’t shy to talk was Bob Rennie, the ubiquitous condo marketer. The offices for Rennie Marketing Systems, as well as his eponymous art gallery, are located just a two-minute walk west of Carol Lee on Pender Street in the Wing Sang building, which dates back to 1889. From his gallery’s rooftop garden, Rennie too has a bird’s-eye view of Chinatown—but what he sees is quite different from Lee.

“You know, I’m one of the biggest stakeholders—saving the oldest building in Chinatown,” said Rennie, with evident pride, a few weeks before the council vote. “We try and stay below the radar, but I’m going to come out and speak on behalf of Beedie. We can’t have an iPhone in our hands and walk yesterday back. We have to admit where things are going and the cost of taxes, property taxes and the cost of running a business.” Rennie argues that the city should provide incentives to developers to save heritage buildings by granting more density to build in the area. For Rennie, that’s key: keep density in Chinatown.

“It’s super-controversial, because everybody wants all of Chinatown to stay ‘yesterday,’” Rennie said. “But we need the people. So incentivize me to save something, but give density that can stay in the area. We can’t just save it to save it: it has to have an economic use.” Rennie has fought NIMBY battles all across the city—most notably over the transformative Woodward’s development in the Downtown Eastside—and recognizes the unique challenges of Chinatown, with its history and cultural significance. Still, he worries that nobody is discussing the necessary balance. “What can we save? What can we have? If certain blocks of Pender are the most significant, you save those,” he said. “You don’t save every Rembrandt—he did some shitty paintings.”

Vancouver’s chief planner, Gil Kelley, is navigating those battling visions. Born in San Francisco but raised in Portland, Kelley was a senior planner in both cities before being appointed to the post in Vancouver last year. He’s seen firsthand the struggles faced by West Coast cities on questions of density and neighbourhood preservation. Vancouver, he says, has arrived at a “moment of inflection.”

“These are some critical years right now, to set the course for the future,” says Kelley as we sit at his City Hall desk, looking at a planning map for Northeast False Creek. “I don’t say that tritely. The run-up in housing prices and housing costs has alarmed everybody—that’s a phenomenon I saw happening in San Francisco, even in Portland to some extent. It does bring a kind of existential moment to the city: Who are we? Who do we want the city to be for in five years, 10 years, 30 years?”

“You don’t save every Rembrandt—he did some shitty paintings.”

Kelley, perhaps more so than his predecessors, is not reflexively of the “density is the answer” school. “In the last year, I think we produced 7,200 or 7,500 housing units,” he notes. “We’re keeping pace with the literal population growth. What we’re not doing is producing enough housing for the missing middle strata.” While Kelley does think it’s part of the planning department’s mandate to preserve both the heritage and character of city neighbourhoods, he doesn’t think that this should exclude inserting new forms of housing, particularly ones that increase affordability for middle-income earners. “I think character neighbourhoods will come to be recognized as not exclusively of one era, but of a sense of vitality and livability for a spectrum of incomes,” he says.

Kelley points to a planning exercise he pioneered in Portland that he’d like to try here: the 20-Minute Neighbourhood. The exercise aims to reframe the discussion around density by asking residents to visualize neighbourhoods where you don’t need a car—where you can walk from your house to a small commercial area, and back, to get most of your daily or weekly needs. Rather than debating abstract concepts like floor-to-space ratios, the approach gets more community buy-in for proposed changes, he says. “Then it becomes a conversation of: Actually, I would like to walk to a grocery store—so if it took 15 or 20 or 30 percent more density in the neighbourhood to provide the basis for that market, so be it.”

According to Kelley, Chinatown is the perfect 20-minute neighbourhood—all that’s missing is the people. Successful Chinatowns across North America have a combination of somewhat restrictive zoning and a “fine-grained rhythm of storefront”—similar to what 105 Keefer was attempting to do, Kelley notes. “But complementing that is a real focus on the social aspects: retention of affordability of housing, and the infusion and preservation—not always from government, but also from foundations and community groups—of cultural attributes.

“I think we can rescue and preserve Chinatown and revitalize it so that it’s not simply a museum,” he says, “but actually a thriving place again. It may not be exclusively Chinese. And that’s okay.”

One of the businesses that speaks to that shift—away from traditional Chinatown businesses and toward a younger, more eclectic clientele—is Bestie. The 25-seat German sausage restaurant opened in June 2013 on East Pender, almost equidistant from Carol Lee’s offices and Bob Rennie’s art gallery. Similarly, 36-year-old co-owner Clinton McDougall finds himself stuck between the two titans’ competing visions for the neighbourhood.

“I think we can rescue and preserve Chinatown and revitalize it so that it’s not simply a museum but actually a thriving place again. It may not be exclusively Chinese. And that’s okay.”

“Change is something that’s happening, and it’s inevitable—but the city and the people in Chinatown need to do their best to encourage development that’s thoughtful,” says McDougall, who served for two years on the Chinatown Historic Area Planning Committee. “I think it’s my duty—not just as a businessperson and somebody who lives here, but as a citizen of Vancouver—to protect that heritage and ensure the culture that exists is allowed to thrive, while acknowledging that it can change, too.” He notes that, from the beginning, surrounding merchants have been very supportive of his self-described “quirky” business (built around the concept of a Berlin street dish called currywurst): “All of our neighbours said, ‘Anything is better than a boarded-up building. Ultimately, more reasons for people to come to Chinatown is better—even if we don’t understand what currywurst is.’”

Andy Yan, director of SFU’s City Program and a senior urban planner at Bing Thom Architects, is supportive of the sort of small-scale retail that Bestie represents. Still, he worries that this influx of “hip” new businesses—and the mix of people they attract—overlooks and, in many ways, subjugates the commercial heritage of Chinatown.

Yan, who grew up in east Vancouver, remembers coming to Chinatown, where his great-grandfather ran a dry-cleaning business, as a child. He describes regular dim-sum outings at Ming’s Restaurant, where the Fortune Sound Club is now, and going to the greengrocers on Keefer to shop with his parents and grandparents.

“Chinatown, along with a few other neighbourhoods, is where any number of families’ futures started,” says Yan, a third-generation Canadian of Chinese descent. “My father’s first job in re-establishing himself in Canada was in the restaurants. For me, it’s really important to recognize the economic function [of Chinatown], beyond this idea of history, shopping and consumption.”

Yan thinks that part of the answer is what he calls “bespoken urbanism”—which echoes what Kelley calls “small-grain development,” with limited heights that respect the existing streetscape. Does he think the Beedie proposal achieved that? Not quite.

“I’m not a fan of the sense of entitlement—that what happened on Main Street, the densities and heights that are happening there, that somehow every site is now entitled to that density,” he says. He calls 105 Keefer “a failure of imagination” that speaks more to the bulk urbanism of Vancouver’s past: “The way that 105 Keefer was proposed was just the removal of constraints—the disregard of what’s around it, the disregard of what made Chinatown such a place to be.”

Carol Lee, like Yan, remembers what made Chinatown that place. As we talk, she reminisces about going to Sunday school at the Chinese Presbyterian Church on Keefer (since demolished) and playing behind the counter of what would become the family grocery store downstairs. For many long-time Vancouver Chinese, the neighbourhood represents more than a collection of buildings—it represents a community, their community, and its hard-fought struggle for acceptance.

“There are not many neighbourhoods like Chinatown. Think about the Chinese-Canadian history—what an important role those early immigrants played in basically building the country,” she says, pointing to a blown-up photo from the 1920s, leaning against her office wall, of her grandfather with Brandt Louie’s grandfather. “Chinatown is the physical legacy of that contribution. It’s got a very different kind of background than most other neighbourhoods. We have to decide: is it worth keeping? I’m not saying that we have to—but I’m saying we should think about it before it’s too late.”

What do you think of the affordability vs. heritage debate? Let us know in the comments below!

 

Get the Newsletter

Own your city with Vancouver’s thrice-weekly scoop on the latest restaurant news, must-shop hotspots and can’t miss events. Rest assured your email is safe with us.