Thursday, January 20, 2011

Form and Character in Chinatown and the Downtown Eastside.

A report is going to Council today supporting what some might call modest increases in building heights in Chinatown and the DTES. The issue of building height in this area has been under consideration ever since a few developers proposed a few very tall towers in the area about four years ago.

I became involved in this discussion in late 2007 when I became a director of the Building Community Society (BCS), that included Mike Harcourt, Ray Spaxman, Larry Beasley, Michael Clague, Gerry Zipursky, Joe Wai and others. From the onset, I was opposed to the taller buildings, and found myself in an unusual alliance with DTES activists who also opposed taller buildings, albeit for different reasons than me. My major concern was that they would dilute the unique heritage character of the area.

Now, three years later, there is a proposal from City staff, as directed by Council, to increase building heights in a much more modest way. Some increases are quite nominal, but in some instances, Council is going to consider allowing buildings to increase to 150 feet, equal to a 16 or 17 storey building. I remain opposed to this, along with DTES activists (many of whom do not want to see any condominiums in the area). But now Mike Harcourt, as Chair of BCS has written a very public letter to Mayor and Council urging them to not approve the additional heights in the absence of a comprehensive local area plan for the area. I agree with this position.

Furthermore, 30 UBC and SFU professors have written a letter arguing that Council should not approve the additional heights since it will lead to a loss of affordable housing, due to gentrification.

Robert Matas has a short story on the Council Report supporting building height increases in the DTES, and the professors' response in this morning's Globe & Mail.

As Matas notes, the issue is whether the proposal to allow towers will directly result in the demolition of low income SRO's. I don't think it will. Many of these hotels are now owned by the Province and non-profits. Moreover, Council has a variety of measures at its disposal to ensure that the privately owned facilities are properly maintained and not demolished ...unless new replacement housing is built.

One city councillor stated on the CBC news this morning that this modest proposal is simply to contribute to the revitalization of Chinatown. However, Chinatown is already starting to be revitalized. I realize that some longstanding Chinese merchants and others may not like the changes that new developments like Ginger and V6A are bringing. However, the reality is that the old Chinatown will never come's now in Richmond.

But there is no doubt in my mind that the character of the area is starting to change....for the better, as evidenced by the new restaurants, and some new condominium buildings offering ownership and rental housing, and this revitalization will slowly continue...slowly... and yes it is slowly. Chinatown now has the potential to become a special character area in the city, with a very diverse mix of businesses and households. Some may call this gentrification, but I would argue it is only gentrification if the low income households are forced to move out.

The city can ensure that this will not happen. But first it needs to listen to Harcourt, Spaxman and the Building Community Society, and yes, to the university professors, and reject today's proposal for additional heights. Because, while are reasons may vary, one thing is clear. The proposals for higher buildings in the DTES and Chinatown are misguided.


Jake Tobin Garrett said...

Good article. The DTES really does have a different feel architecturally from the rest of the city and it would be a shame to see that overshadowed or destroyed by thoughtless development (not to mention the need to be cautious because of the sensitive economic situation of the people residing there).

Also, FYI, the link to the Globe and Mail article appears to be broken.

Jamie Lee Hamilton said...

Thank You Michael for writing this. I agree with you completely and I note though that you are careful not to name the Councillor which I think you should. I think there is tip-toeing around this issue but there shouldn't be. There needs to be discussion on whether certain Councillors from a cultural background are pushing taller buildings in the area and justifying it by claiming it will re-vitalize Chinatown which as you correctly point out is already happening.

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