November 18, 2016 – Vancouver Sun
For sale sign in the 700-block of Vancouver’s Chinatown
Chinatown has traditionally been a low-rise neighbourhood of small stores on 25-foot lots.
But heritage activists fear much of the historic neighbourhood will be demolished if a new city proposal to allow buildings up to 200 feet wide goes through.
“When you’re talking 200-foot frontages, that’s eight lots, that blows out half the block,” said civic historian John Atkin.
“That’s actually greater frontages than what’s allowed in the Downtown South area. Pender Street seems to be respected, but everything outside of Pender seems to be bulldozer bait.”
Chinatown was designated a National Historic District in 2011, but the designation was restricted to Pender, from Carrall to Gore. The remainder of the small neighbourhood (three blocks on Main and Gore, two on Keefer and one on East Georgia) was left open for redevelopment.
The city consulted the community and unveiled an “economic revitalization update” with “improvements to development policies” at open houses on Oct. 22 and 25.
UBC history professor Henry Yu has been heavily involved with the Chinatown revitalization process. He was out of town for the open houses, but was shocked when he learned of the proposal for 200-foot-wide buildings, because it had never come up at any meeting he had attended.
“It comes out of the blue,” said Yu. “In essence, this is the developer sort of formula of how many properties can you put together (for a highrise).”
“I think with the provision of these huge street frontages, we’re really giving permission to developers to just come in, do the lot consolidation and blow out the neighbourhood,” said Atkin, who co-wrote Vancouver’s application to have Chinatown designated a National Historic District.
Yu said he recognizes a lot of details in the updated plan from discussions with city planners, such as a maximum FSR (floor space ratio) and a proposal to add more social housing to new developments.
He also notes the update suggests Chinatown be designated a historic conservation area.
“(But) all this other stuff won’t matter if someone does a 200-foot development, because they can knock down a bunch of buildings,” Yu said.
“They can buy five buildings, wipe them out and just have the business facades look like there was something kind of interesting here before.”
Prominent realtor Bob Rennie owns one of Chinatown’s most historic structures, the 1889 Wing Sang building. He is also leery of 200-foot-wide buildings.
“If you go to 200 feet wide, you’re looking towards mega-developments, and disruption to the fabric,” he said. “To put a mega-development with today’s land costs, it’s going to be expensive condos. That does tear up the fabric of a very sensitive community, speaking as a stakeholder who restored the oldest building (in Chinatown).”
The city seems surprised at the criticism to the new zoning proposals.
“It was no secret, it’s been out in the public,” said Karen Hoese, Vancouver’s acting assistant director of planning for downtown.
Hoese said the proposal is designed “to help manage some of the massing and height of the taller buildings” going into Chinatown, where buildings can go up to 150 feet tall.
“We had two (highrise) rezonings on Main Street,” said Hoese. “Both of those have a site frontage of 125 feet. With 125-foot lots they were just able to sort of achieve around 70-foot separation between the taller elements.
“By allowing a larger site (you can) provide more breathing space between developments, so that you have a better separation that helps the livability on the street. (There’s) more light coming through, and people can see the sky.”
Hoese denied that the 200-foot proposal was inspired by developers.
“I am sorry to disappoint you, but that’s not where it came from,” she said. “It would make a better story, but no. That’s just paranoia.”
Hoese said the city has identified seven potential large development sites south of Pender in Chinatown. But she said the 200-foot proposal is still being worked on and isn’t set in stone, and encourages feedback from the community. (You can email Chinatown@vancouver.ca)
Atkin said under the proposed changes a developer could assemble most of Tosi’s block, tear it down and build a 15-storey tower. The same could happen in the 200-block East Georgia, where there are several small buildings from the early 1900s.
“If you look at East Georgia, on the south side there’s a Chinese society building (at 226), there’s that long, low HY Louie building (at 252), you’ve got the rooming house at the lane on East Georgia (at 218),” said Atkin.
“Potentially, somebody could replace the SROs in a new development, so that could potentially come down, too — nothing is designated.”
Developer Kerry Bonnis paid $10.1 million for four lots in the 700-block of Main a couple of years ago. The lots include the two-storey Brickhouse bar at 930 Main, the three-storey Creekside Residence at 796 Main, and the former Jimi Hendrix shrine at 207 Union, which all date to the early 1900s.
Bonnis has had the site up for sale, but is now leaning toward developing it himself. He said that any new developments in Chinatown should be sensitive to the character of the neighhourhood.
“I think it would be a negative thing to have a massive sort of monolith where they’re not taking their cues from what was done historically there,” he said.
But he said it is hard to incorporate small buildings into new developments.
“It’s not feasible to incorporate the existing buildings (in this development), because it’s quite a small site — four lots and they’re not very deep,” he said. “What we’re planning to do is re-use some of the brick from (the Brickhouse) and re-create some of the architectural elements from (both) buildings.”