Article from National Post, September 29, 2012
By Brian Hutchinson
Joe Wai remembers when this city’s Chinatown wasn’t synonymous with danger, drugs and filth. When people weren’t warned to steer clear of the place. Back in the 1970s, businesses thrived. Neon signs illuminated even alleyways, and restaurants remained open all night. “The sidewalks were jammed with people,” says Mr. Wai, a prominent Vancouver architect. “Things were never so good. But it didn’t last.”
We all know what happened. Drug users invaded the neighbourhood next door, the Downtown Eastside, and spilled into Chinatown’s streets. When social workers set up shop, some of the best entrepreneurs gave up and left. A once great neighbourhood became identified with Vancouver’s worst.
How far did it descend? Consider the findings of a major report commissioned last year by the City of Vancouver. AECOM Economics, a U.S.-based planning and consulting firm, canvassed residents, visitors and business owners for their impressions and experiences of the area.
“Big safety fear about coming to Chinatown,” was the typical response. “People who are here daily are immune to it now, but for outsiders it is a big deterrent …Visible drug use on the street … Many [companies] refuse to do deliveries to back door/alleyways — goods get stolen, drivers attacked.”
Tackling illegal drug use might seem the most obvious solution. But that’s not always a priority in politically correct Vancouver, the land of “harm reduction,” where addicts are coddled. Locals have learned not to protest the drug culture. “Chinatown business people who have spoken up against the drug users and social services have been perceived as uncaring and unsympathetic,” the AECOM report said.
Like many local business owners and professionals, Mr. Wai, 71, watched in frustration as Chinatown declined. He says it wasn’t all thanks to junkies in the streets. “New development had basically been frozen,” he says, because of rules around what could and could not be built.
The neighbourhood is starting on a comeback, thanks to a decision Vancouver city councillors made last year to raise building height restrictions and boost the population density. It was a controversial move; some who opposed the rule change warned that Chinatown would be overwhelmed by cookie-cutter condo towers and drained of its historical and cultural significance.
Mr. Wai expressed a similar concern himself, saying that a “Great Wall of Chinatown” could rise along one main corridor and divide the community in half. In fact, the new height allowances are modest: Nothing exceeding nine storeys in most of the neighbourhood, and nothing higher than 15 storeys along its busiest street.
Private enterprise is coming back. Chinatown lots that had sat empty for decades are now being filled with smart new condominium towers of appropriate scale and height. A nine-storey, 28-unit condominium is under construction on a lot that’s only 25 feet wide. The land was wasted for nearly 60 years, says Brian Roche, president of Panther Constructors Ltd., the company that took a chance and purchased it.
“We’re the first in Vancouver to build on a lot this narrow since the early 1900s,” says Mr. Roche. “It’s very tight. Every tradesman who has worked on it has complained about how small it is.” But there’s a demand for tiny, tidy living space in Vancouver, where single-family houses are priced beyond the average person’s reach.
Rizalina Bejar purchased a flat inside Mr. Roche’s skinny condo building, mainly because she wanted something “affordable” and conveniently placed. Ms. Bejar was also attracted to the building’s design, which pays homage to Chinatown’s history and character.
“The combination of the past and the future was a big pull for me,” she says. “Chinatown is going through this palpable change, which is exciting, but there’s this strong connection to its past, which I also like.”
A younger, more ethnically diverse crowd is discovering the neighbourhood, according to Vancouver’s assistant director of planning, Kevin McNaney. “People are coming back. It’s becoming a hot area again,” he says. Many of the new arrivals seem to recognize the neighbourhood’s cultural worth, and are keen to help preserve it. Chinatown is still blessed with an abundance of historical buildings — almost 20 have “protected” status — with defining features such as recessed balconies and vertical columns. Some are slowly, carefully, being refurbished.
Perhaps the most unlikely revitalization efforts are taking place in neighbourhood alleys. The city is trying to encourage restaurateurs, shopkeepers and artists to “animate” Chinatown’s lane ways, which only the desperate or foolhardy dared enter. The effort is starting to pay off, says Mr. McNaney. “There are more eyes on the street,” he says “People feel safe where there are more people around.”
For Joe Wai, it’s a bit like the old days, with some modern twists. “I really hope to see Chinatown’s cultural and spiritual identity maintained,” he says. “But let’s be realistic. You can’t keep what was 60 years ago. You have to evolve.”