Business leaders in Vancouver’s historic Chinatown move forward with neighbourhood plan
After over a decade of economic revitalization efforts in Chinatown, leaders in the community say they’re looking forward to taking the next steps that they hope will boost business in the historic area.
Henry Tom, the vice-president of the Vancouver Chinatown Merchants’ Association, said city council’s approval of the Chinatown Neighbourhood Plan and Economic Revitalization Strategy earlier this week marked a milestone after years of developing a vision for the area.
“It’s like a 12-year gestation period,” Tom told the Straight by phone.
“It marks a significant milestone, but it’s business as usual, and as we look forward in the economic revitalization plan we have a couple of short-term strategies.”
Among those steps is developing a medium-term marketing plan for small businesses in the area, with the support of the Vancouver Economic Commission.
While revitalization efforts have led to some improvements in the area during the last decade, a high number of vacant storefronts and struggling businesses remain, according to city staff. Between 2008 and 2011, 64 percent of businesses in the area reported a decrease in revenue.
The other aspect of moving forward with the neighbourhood plan is defining residential development in the area.
Tom, who is also the chair of the Vancouver Chinatown Revitalization Committee, noted there’s been a lot of interest from developers in the area since city council approved the Historic Area Height Review last year.
“We know residential development’s going to happen, so what we’re trying also to do is to shape it, and we’re also trying to make sure that some of the Chinatown character remains,” he said.
According to city staff, if all rezoning and development permit applications before the city are approved, it would translate to an increase of over 600 residents in the neighbourhood over the next few years.
That aspect of the neighbourhood plan has some advocates for low-income members in the community concerned. According to the Chinatown plan, 67 percent of the population in the neighbourhood lives in low-income households, compared to 26 percent in the city of Vancouver.
Ivan Drury of the Carnegie Community Action Project (CCAP) submitted five recommendations to city council on Wednesday (July 25), including a call to ensure that low-income tenants not be put at risk of eviction during the renovation of society buildings, and that SRO rooms be replaced before any units are lost. He also urged council to delay the Chinatown economic strategy until the local area planning process for the Downtown Eastside is completed.
“Until they have a way to guarantee that renovations will not equal evictions and to stop landlords from raising rents in hotels and having the rooms lost in the low-income housing stock by upgrading…then it’s irresponsible for them to support renovations and upgrading of the neighbourhood,” Drury argued.
“We think that the responsible thing to do, that would be cautious about having an impact on vulnerable people, would be to not plan any single district in advance of others, and to coordinate all efforts together and take advantage of this really ground-breaking process to try to coordinate the interests of low-income people with business owners.”
Tom said the plan is not intended to displace current low-income residents in the area.
“But certainly we want to have a much more diverse residential population,” he said. “We’re dominated in recent years by almost strictly social housing, and…we’d like to see some market housing introduced.”
Vision Vancouver councillor Tim Stevenson acknowledged the concerns of Downtown Eastside community members before casting his vote in favour of the plan Wednesday (July 25).
“It really is imperative that the Downtown Eastside be reached out to, and incorporated in a way that they’re not fearful of the future… because there aren’t many places for those folks to go, and they just get shunted from place to place and have very little power over their lives or their ability to change it,” he said in council chambers.
“I’m hopeful that with the staff and the Chinese community that we can end up with everyone being excited and revitalizing this area…obviously Chinatown needs a real shot in the arm.”
Mayor Gregor Robertson said there’s “still lots of work to do” to integrate the plans for Chinatown, the Downtown Eastside and surrounding neighbourhoods with the economic revitalization plan.
“We all yearn for yester-year when Chinatown was one of the most vibrant neighbourhoods,” he said in council chambers. “That’s what we want to come back, but in a new way and a way that embraces the strengths of the neighbourhood that do exist today.”
Tom expects the task of filling the empty storefronts in the area will be a gradual process.
“It’s not going to be an overnight thing,” he said. “I would be ecstatic if…in three years, we would get all those empty storefronts filled with sound, small businesses that offer a really good employment base.”
Among the goals outlined in the three-year economic strategy for Chinatown are identifying opportunities to increase seniors housing develompent, creating a strategy for the revitalization of laneways in the neighbourhood, restoring society heritage buildings, providing workshops and outreach to support existing businesses, and implementing a window improvement program for vacant storefronts in the area.