Apr. 10, 2016 – Calgary Sun (Video)
A gem, it ain’t.
But compared to the old East Village — and it’s hard to even imagine the addiction and despair of only a decade ago, amid bicycles, brunch and gentrification — and Calgary’s Chinatown looks like the Hope Diamond of future possibilities.
Yes, it’s rough; yes, it’s shabby and a bit sketchy in places, but historic Chinatown still thrives in its own neglected way.
On weekends, the place absolutely bustles with activity and people from all corners of Calgary, all seeking a little culture and culinary adventure, on what essentially amounts to a couple of crumbling blocks near the Centre Street Bridge.
But oh, the possibilities.
Given a chance, some civic incentives and a fair share of capital investment from city hall, and the 106-year-old neighbourhood could be truly amazing, like a smaller version of the city-within-a-city Chinatowns of San Francisco, New York and Chicago, loved by locals and tourists alike.
An oasis of Asian charm, in the middle of corporate Calgary.
It could happen, and a new Chinatown Area Redevelopment Plan (ARP) is even in the works.
But it won’t happen if city council lets the rest of downtown Calgary into Chinatown, a losing culture clash that will start the minute a 27-storey tower is approved for the vacant lot that sits between Second and Third Avenue S.W.
“Every community has its own unique identity and characteristics. We should respect that and let the community strive,” said Grace Su, spokeswoman for the Chinatown Community Stakeholders’ Committee.
Su was one of the protesters at a weekend block party held to support Chinatown and keep the Manu Chugh Architect designed tower from being approved at city council on Monday — something many in the community believe would be the death-knell for the neighbourhood and its mainly residential, small-retail character.
And they’re right, because this is Calgary, and when it comes to big downtown towers, Calgary always seems to screw up.
As with similar proposals in the past, there are promises, so many promises.
The tower, to be built on Chinatown’s largest remaining vacant parcel of land, would be far bigger than anything else in neighbourhood, where the current height limit is a theoretical 15 storeys, though nothing in the area even comes close.
The proposed zoning amendments would increase permitted uses and double current building height restrictions, and in exchange, the developer says there will be a revitalized street where there is now a vacant lot, and the building will even bring life back to the street.
Just like Penny Lane. Just like the Bow Building. Just like so many monolith developments that were allowed, based on the promise of human activity and a great fit with the existing area.
The Bow Building’s podium is a cold, soulless slab, only slightly helped by a giant head statue and the ubiquitous Seattle coffee shop on one corner.
Penny Lane, an eclectic jumble of shops and restaurants in an historic setting on 8 Ave. not unlike Chinatown, is long gone, replaced by a drab street completely devoid of human activity — yet like the Bow, there were bold promises that this would be a vibrant, exciting place.
The same pattern has been repeated over and over in downtown Calgary, and now, in one of the last corners of legitimate culture and human interest, city council is seriously considering repeating the same mistake, based on the same empty promises.
The application is already supported by city administration and the Calgary Planning Commission, though council tabled the application twice in the past four months for further public consultation.
Chinatown has said ‘no’ as loudly as a small community can — and now it remains to be seen if city council will listen, just for once.
Allow one huge tower, and the door opens for more — and before long, Calgary’s eclectic, interesting Chinatown will be swallowed up by the same boring podiums and cold retail fronts that have made much of downtown so depressingly bland.
It’s another disaster of drab in the making.