“The war over the future of Calgary’s Chinatown”

May, 28, 2016 – Globe and Mail

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All eyes were on Chinatown Calgary this month as the community fought back against plans for a 27-storey development pegged for the largest vacant lot in the community. Chinatown’s existing Area Redevelopment Plan hasn’t been updated in 30 years, but with three more developers drawing up plans for the neighbourhood, it’s now getting some much needed attention.

“Policy documents like this should be reviewed every five years,” says Terry Wong, spokesman for Chinatown’s recently founded Business Revitalization Zone, “so it’s 25 years overdue.”

The development, which Mr. Wong says challenges three zoning regulations for the land, was brought forward by local architect Manu Chugh and has caused uproar among the community’s guardians. 150 businesses, residents and community members protested the application’s progression at City Hall; the proposal has now been referred until December, 2016.

“The developer has asked for the removal of Chinatown’s 15-storey height restriction, they’ve asked for two-thirds commercial usage when the limit is currently 50 per cent and they’ve requested a land-use change to allow them a broader variety of commercial use than the land is currently zoned for,” Mr. Wong says.

“They’ve said there will be no shadowing to impact the ecology of the riverside but what about the ecology of people? What about the seniors living in Chinatown? They want to build less residential but Chinatown businesses need residential. They want a broader definition of commercial use but that could mean nightclubs or addiction clinics. We don’t know.”

For Mr. Wong and other concerned business owners and residents, the unknowns of the proposed development pose too great a risk.

“The applicant has been very vague and very general. They haven’t provided the answers we’re looking for. We’re not concerned with the process; we’re concerned with the intention.”

Residents and business owners in Calgary’s Chinatown are concerned about development plans for the neighbourhood, which they fear will destroy their heritage. (Danny Ng / ChinatownCalgary.com)

Mr. Chugh, the architect, says the intention is “to contribute to the revitalization of Chinatown by developing a significant parcel of land which has been empty for more than 20 years.”

Mr. Chugh says he’s been “a bit surprised” by the scale of the reaction his proposal has caused.

“There’s been a lot of grandstanding,” he says of the community turnout at City Hall. “It’s all emotion and emotions are important but you don’t make planning decisions on that.

“All I keep hearing is ‘Save Chinatown,’ but there’s nothing to save. Chinatown is dying. It needs redevelopment. Just because a new development comes in, it doesn’t destroy the heritage.”

Mr. Chugh says that, while the process has been “difficult,” he believes his development will be the catalyst to change Chinatown’s Area Redevelopment Plan, which will open the doors for other developers, whether the community likes it or not.

“I know there are other developers watching this unfold and waiting to submit their own plans. It gives me a good feeling to know that my project will contribute to the future of the community.”

Councillor Druh Farrell requested a scoping report and an eight-month city-led consultation, which will see the development brought back under consideration in December this year.

“We need to look more closely at the concerns, objectives and opportunities,” she says, “but we’re not prepared to refer this any longer than December. We’re not prepared to freeze development in Chinatown.”

Ms. Farrell believes Chinatown is at risk of two things: “Inappropriate developments, and stagnation, malnutrition.” She’s not prepared to protect the community from the former to the extent that it ends up with the latter.

“There are a lot of empty lots in Chinatown, lots which have been empty for a generation and through multiple economic booms. Those lots are hurting the community. Several development proposals have been withdrawn and we need to understand why development isn’t getting off the ground there.”

188 Keefer St. in Vancouver’s Chinatown has been pointed to as a model for development in Calgary’s Chinatown district. (Westbank Corp.)

The City of Vancouver’s Chinatown has been the subject of a revitalization plan since 2001 because of “a general sense of decline which timed with a the proposed extension of the downtown core,” assistant director of planning Kevin McNaney says.

Mr. McNaney says the projects successes will be measurable in the coming years with the completion of 550 affordable residential units by the end of 2016 and several new businesses taking up residence.

“We’ve seen a number of exciting new restaurants open and be very successful in Chinatown alongside coffee shops, consignment boutiques and even a skateboard store. These new businesses are supporting the older ones and bringing new custom.”

This new custom is giving hope to businesses such as the iconic Foo’s Ho Ho, Canada’s oldest operating Chinese restaurant, which will re-open for business this year under new management. But the project hasn’t been without its critics.

“Yes, there have been concerns over whether these non-Chinese businesses are diluting the culture of Chinatown but you can’t just have dried fish shops and bamboo; communities need diversity. There’s a Starbucks in Chinatown now. Some people don’t like that, but young Chinese Canadians like Starbucks.”

Mr. Wong is unconvinced this is the right direction for Calgary’s Chinatown.

“I was in Vancouver’s Chinatown last month and I saw a whole block of non-Chinese businesses. It’s Chinatown on the outside but not on the inside.”

An interior rendering of 188 Keefer St., Vancouver. (Westbank Corp.)

Ensuring the neighbourhood “feels like Chinatown” remains one of Mr. Wong’s top priorities for Calgary.

“Visible, viable, vital and vibrant. Those are the measures of success. Our culture needs to be visible, businesses need to be viable and there needs to be vitality and vibrancy.”

Young Chinese Calgarians showed their support for the cause by forming a group called I Love YYC Chinatown several weeks ago. It’s been raising awareness of the development online and on social media.

Sylvia Leong, one of the founding members, believes the development application has simply brought to the fore challenges currently being faced by all North American Chinatowns.

“There’s a need to evolve but also a need to maintain links to the past,” says the 33 year-old Chinese Malaysian, who was born and raised in Calgary.

She, like many of her generation and younger, maintains that even though she doesn’t live there, Chinatown is still an important part of her heritage and the heritage of her family.

“My dad lives out in the northeast but he still makes the bus journey into Chinatown twice a week. I also go there often. It’s important to my whole family.”

She doesn’t agree with Mr. Chugh’s assertion that emotion should be left out of planning decisions.

“With every generation, how people identify with their culture changes but it doesn’t make it less viable,” she says. “It’s hard to know where you’re going if you don’t know where you came from.”

And perhaps the same could be said of Chinatown Calgary, as it struggles to define its future without losing sight of its past.

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