Tower concept raises Chinatown’s ire

Saturday, May 30th, 2009

John Mackie

Fred Mah, president of the Chinatown Society Heritage Buildings Association, doesn’t think residential towers will improve business or solve social problems. Photograph by: Steve Bosch, Vancouver Sun

300 West Hastings — building on left. Photograph by: Steve Bosch, Vancouver Sun

21 East Pender — parking lot with ‘for lease’ sign. Photograph by: Steve Bosch, Vancouver Sun

8 East Pender — low building on right. Photograph by: Steve Bosch, Vancouver Sun

105 Keefer – garage at Keefer and Columbia. Photograph by: Steve Bosch, Vancouver Sun

Cam Watt is spending $9 million converting a 1908 building in Chinatown into Vancouver‘s snazziest boutique hotel, the Keefer. When it opens in September, its four 2,400-square-foot suites will rent for “north of a thousand bucks per night.”

So imagine his surprise when he found out that the city of Vancouver had recently floated the concept of building a 30-storey condo tower next door at Keefer and Columbia, right in the middle of the historic neighbourhood.

“I think it’s a terrible idea,” said Watt, whose building is five storeys.

“I’m doing a rooftop deck with a swimming pool and it’s becoming a little boutique hotel. The idea of a 30-storey building beside me . . . the whole thing would be in a shadow. I think that my little building is such a nice statement at the entrance of Chinatown, to have it covered up by some big tower would be a shame.”

Watt isn’t alone in his concerns. As part of its recently released Historic Area Height Review, the city proposed an additional three “special sites” that could possibly take 300-foot towers: on the Chinese Cultural Centre site at 8 East Pender, in the parking lot of the old BC Electric building at 21 West Pender and beside Victory Square at 300 West Hastings.

Many long-time Chinatown backers are aghast.

“That’s the core of Chinatown, the historical area,” says architect Joe Wai, who was part of a protest movement in the 1960s that saved Chinatown from being demolished for a freeway.

“There’s the French Quarter in New Orleans, the old city in Quebec — think about putting a highrise in the middle of those. Good grief, Charlie Brown.”

Real estate tycoon Bob Rennie is spending upwards of $10 million restoring Chinatown’s oldest building at 51 East Pender into his offices, a museum and an art gallery. He can’t believe the city would even consider building a tower on the Chinese Cultural Centre site, which is beside Chinatown‘s biggest tourist attraction, the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden.

Sun Yat-Sen Gardens is a park,” he said. “I don’t see the city, who also owns Stanley Park, looking at putting a row of townhouses around the seawall.”

Oddly, the city owns the land where Sun Yat-Sen Garden is located, but didn’t talk to Garden officials about the tower idea before it went public.

“No one spoke to the Garden about this, and I don’t know that anyone spoke to the Chinese Cultural Centre about this,” said Doug Halverson, president of the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Garden Society. “It just suddenly appeared on these maps at a public meeting.”

Halverson said a tower at Pender and Carrall would destroy the serenity of the garden.

“The principle of a Chinese garden is that the walls provide separation from the noisy city,” he said.

“That separation from the city would involve having the city loom up 300 feet immediately outside the walls, so it’s not difficult for us to say we do not want a tower on the Chinese Cultural Centre site. Because if we lose a quarter of our sky — and by the way, there’s a second tower on Columbia and Keefer, so maybe we’d lose half the sky — that will so damage the garden that you may as well abandon it.”

To some people the idea of building a skyscraper on the Chinese Cultural Centre site is so ludicrous the city might be using it as a red herring to drum up opposition to any towers in the neighbourhood.

But city planning director Brent Toderian said the four “special sites” were selected because there has been developer interest in towers in the historic neighbourhood. Developer Rob McDonald, for example, has looked at a 40-storey tower at 21 West Pender, although Toderian thinks it may have not been a formal application. He stresses the special sites are just a concept for discussion, not a city or developer plan.

The Historic Area Height Review was initiated by the previous Non-Partisan Association council. The main proponent was Coun. Suzanne Anton, who argues there is a lack of “receiver sites” for heritage density transfer the city has already approved.

Under the now-suspended program, developers received a density bonus to help offset the cost of restoring heritage buildings. Basically, highrise developers would buy the bonus density so they could add a floor or five to their towers.

Anton said there is 1.4 million square feet of unused heritage density transfers, which at 6,000 square feet per floor works out to 230 floors.

“I don’t think we’re going to start putting tall buildings in the middle of Chinatown,” she said.

“The idea is [to find] sites around Chinatown, Gastown or Victory Square, not in the middle of a heritage block but in the vicinity, which could take some of this density.”

Albert Fok thinks some residential towers could be integrated into the neighbourhood.

“Sometimes creating a contrast is better than having one giant block of heritage buildings,” said Fok, president of the Chinatown Business Improvement Area Society.

Fok thinks a good model would be the historic Xintiandi neighbourhood in Shanghai, which has a core of old buildings surrounded by skyscrapers.

“They preserved the buildings, but they injected new ideas into it, putting hip restaurants in there, hip clubs and everything,” Fok says.

Fred Mah isn’t as sold on the merits of towers. Mah is president of the Chinatown Society Heritage Buildings Association, which recently helped to put together a proposal to have Chinatown designated a National Historic Site.

“The people who want to put in towers, their argument is that you’ll get more people living in there,” he notes.

“But building towers doesn’t necessarily mean there’s going to be people shopping in Chinatown. All you have to do is look at what’s happened to the City Gate development [nearby on Main]. There’s about six towers there. Look at Main Street in that section: Nobody is renting there.

“Another example is International Village [on Pender]. There are several towers there, but business [in the mall] is not that great. Some of the stores are empty and so on. People just drive in and drive out.

“To me [the problem is] there are a lot of social problems around Chinatown, and you cannot resolve the social problems just by putting in a tower.”

Joe Wai doesn’t think Vancouver‘s Chinatown should mimic Shanghai, Hong Kong or anywhere else.

“There is character in our Chinatown that is unique anywhere,” he said.

“It is not Chinese entirely, and not western. The situation in history [has resulted] in the kind of unique buildings we have. If we don’t want that, then wipe it out. But up to this point I haven’t really heard too many people who would [want to wipe it out], including the city of Vancouver, and a whole bunch of people who stopped the freeway, [such as] those of us who were young hotheads at the time.”

He laughs.

“Now we’re old hotheads.”

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