Bright Lights: Andrew Yan

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      Planner and researcher, Bing Thom Architects

      Andrew Yan will never forget his first day of planning school at UCLA. During a recent interview at the Georgia Straight office, Yan recalled his first meeting with Paul Ong, a well-known UCLA professor. Yan, who was raised on Vancouver’s East Side, told Ong that he was excited to learn about demographics, economics, statistics, and anything else to do with real estate.

      “He says, ”˜You can start off with ethics,’ ” Yan, 34, said with a smile. “That was a formative moment.”

      He’s grateful that his employer, Bing Thom Architects, has given him a lot of latitude to look at ethical issues in his work as a researcher and planner. Yan said he lives by a simple credo: “You’re not responsible for the world you enter, but you are responsible for the world you leave behind.”

      Yan, who has a keen interest in housing and homelessness, was curious to know if many downtown high-rises constructed during the building boom of the past 20 years had a plethora of empty apartments. To find the answer, Yan completed a detailed study of the number of vacant condo units in downtown Vancouver in 2006 and 2007.

      In his sample of 2,400 condominium units in 13 buildings, he discovered that just 5.5 percent were “empty” if the threshold was using less than 75 kilowatt-hours of electricity per month. According to assessment records and the provincial homeowner-grant program, owners lived in 39 to 48 percent of the dwellings; 52 to 61 percent were occupied by nonowners.

      Yan praised the city for creating high-density housing in the downtown core. However, he emphasized that the lack of affordable two-bedroom units undermines family living. “I think that Vancouver faces a serious question of how do we house both our most vulnerable but also our most promising,” he said. “We haven’t really answered that question yet.”

      For years, he has advised the Carnegie Community Action Project on how to address housing issues on the Downtown Eastside. CCAP spokesperson Wendy Pedersen told the Straight by phone that Yan worked behind the scenes to help her group complete a “democratic mapping process” that identified the best places to eat, shop, and live in the area. “He meets at least once a month, and he coaches me on the phone,” Pedersen said. “We just talk about city policies, and how to move city planning [staff] to help the Downtown Eastside be a safe, affordable, healthy, low-income neighbourhood.”

      Yan’s great-grandfather came to Canada in the early part of the 20th century. From 1923 to 1947, there was a virtual ban on Chinese immigration to Canada, separating his great-grandfather from his family for decades. Yan’s father moved to Canada in the 1960s to look after him.

      On Friday nights, Yan and his father, a former restaurant owner and postal worker, would stroll around the downtown core. This triggered Yan’s lifelong interest in urban planning. In 2003 and 2004, Yan worked on 9/11 neighbourhood-recovery efforts in New York City’s Chinatown. He also volunteers with the New York–based Museum of Chinese in America.

      A museum official once asked him to submit a story and a picture. “The photo I gave them was me being three years old with my great-grandfather: one sojourner to another,” Yan said. “He went to the forest of British Columbia. I went to the urban canyons of the United States. It was a really neat bookend to everything.”