Gabriel Yiu: Relaxing Chinatown building height restrictions could have negative consequences

    1 of 1 2 of 1

      In the name of revitalization, many community association leaders have been pushing Vancouver city hall to relax Chinatown’s building height restrictions. It’s known that some of these leaders and their families own many properties in Chinatown. If the city decides to change the zoning, many of the Chinatown properties would increase in value.

      Nevertheless, from the community’s point of view, would that be beneficial?

      Chinatown property tax will soar

      In the past two decades, I’ve heard a lot of complaints from the owners and small business operators of Chinatown about the high property tax they have to bear. For the small businesses who lease the space, they often have a triple net lease arrangement, meaning that they have to pay the property tax as part of their lease cost.

      Some years ago, I visited B.C. Assessment to learn about the situation. According to the official explanation, property assessment is based on the transaction value and value estimation of the property.

      The officials told me that although they sympathized with the difficulties of Chinatown merchants and understood that many of the properties collect low rents and the merchants’ business was slow, such difficulties had little effect on their property assessment. It’s because some of the properties were sold at high prices. Even though there are only a few transactions, that’s enough to affect the property assessment of Chinatown.

      Since property tax is calculated according to the assessed value of the property, if the property assessment goes up, the property tax goes up also.

      Once the city relaxes the building height limitation, even if there are no immediate transactions, the assessed property value of buildings in Chinatown would still go up. As a result, so will property tax.

      The appreciation of property value sounds like good news, but it really depends on you standpoint. If you’re a property owner who is going to sell or re-develop your property, this would bring you quick and impressive profits.

      But for those who are not planning to sell at this time, or those who want to sell but are unable to, or for those who lease the space, this is not good news. It’s because they would have to pay more property tax. Those who would be affected are not only property owners, but their tenants, as well. The impact of this affects both small business operators and community associations who might have their clubhouses in Chinatown.

      Not going to improve business or safety

      Those who advocate for a relaxation claim that the new measure would bring in more business and improve safety in Chinatown. Would that really be so? My understanding is the City of Vancouver has yet to complete the economic and social impact analysis.

      As well, we’d heard the same reasons when the International Village was built. What’s the result? The residents there have not increased the walking traffic and business in Chinatown. Although the mall has been open for business for quite some time, according to its website, there are still over 40 vacant units.

      In fact, the International Village Mall has diverted some merchants from setting up shop in Chinatown. Its supermarket has taken a lot of business away from the shops in the core of Chinatown.

      Thus, I don’t believe building more towers would solve the problems of Chinatown. On the contrary, I think the height relaxation could jeopardize Chinatown.

      Safety concerns

      One has to consider the negative effects of tall buildings on the streets and back alleys.

      Crimes and unsavory dealings usually occur in a dark environment. The shadow of the new tall buildings would affect the available light on the streets and back alleys, especially during winter and rainy days.

      I still remember there was a time when the back alleys of Chinatown were a mess and no pedestrians would walk there. It was only after a big clean-up campaign that brighter and cleaner alleys appeared there. That helped to reduce crime and improve public safety.

      The new tall buildings would affect not only the back alleys but the front streets too.

      Chinatown would lose its traditional landscape

      I was born and brought up in Hong Kong. I have seen clearly there how long-term societal interests have been sacrificed to short-term development interests.

      All historical districts have restrictions on building and demolishing structures in the area. They also restrict the height of new buildings. It’s because newly added buildings could severely affect the environment and the landscape.

      For example, if you build a glass tower in a neighborhood that was built in the colonial period, or install a tower in a Siheyuan (traditional Chinese house with a courtyard in the middle), the entire environment would be ruined.

      Likewise, when community leaders want to replace the Chinese Cultural Centre with a tall tower, or build a tower beside the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, the landscape of the entire Chinatown would be adversely affected.

      Consider this: would UBC build a residential tower beside its lovely Nitobe Memorial Garden (classical Japanese garden)? It’s unfortunate that in the Chinese community, we have community leaders advocating such ideas.

      The sad fact is, when tall towers are installed in Chinatown, all the surrounding buildings would be dwarfed.

      On revitalizing Chinatown, my view has always been to promote and strengthen its cultural traditions (including historical, architectural, artistic, associational, and business). Such traditions are absent in Chinese shopping centres in Richmond and other places. For tourists and people from outside of the Chinese community, a traditional Chinatown in Vancouver is more attractive than the Chinese malls in Richmond.

      Sadly, if the height limit is relaxed, and towers are installed among two- to three-storey-high buildings, I don’t think we will be able to maintain the traditional landscape of our Vancouver Chinatown.

      Gabriel Yiu is a small businessperson and was the B.C. NDP candidate in Vancouver-Fraserview in the 2009 election.



      Ken Lawson

      Mar 3, 2011 at 4:02pm

      Nonsense why should this be any different than any other part of the city, Yiu

      Sven Crawson

      Mar 3, 2011 at 9:34pm

      Ms. Yiu, I read your article and see a long list of excuses explaining why everything is wrong with Chinatown. So what is your advice for improving things there? Do Nothing? Is that really the best solution? Many of the heritage buildings in Chinatown are decaying and in desperate need of repair, yet you are worried about the "landscape" of that community. What will the landscape look like in another 10 years of Doing Nothing? How about 20 years of Doing Nothing?

      Why are you far more concerned about a few taller buildings (we're talking 15 stories, not Shangri-La style skyscrapers) amongst the heritage buildings, when a much larger problem lives right next door? The drug infested Calcutta-like slum along Hastings that grows and grows each year is a much larger and real problem for Chinatown. That is what is jeopardizing the safety of Chinatown, not a few tall buildings. Using your logic, Yaletown, full of tall buildings, should be a crime magnet, yet it's not.

      Regarding the International Village Mall, who do you think will shop in all those stores if there is no increase in density in the surrounding area? It's already happened to the west, with Espana and to the east with Woodwards. And it's only because of those new developments that retail space in that mall is just starting to gradually become occupied after years of being nearly empty. Are you against those developments, too?

      Not only is your article devoid of ideas, it also assumes the worse should anyone want to do something. Doing Nothing will not preserve the heritage you say is so precious. Doing Nothing will simply assure that what's left of Chinatown's heritage will continue to decay and rot until eventually it has to be ripped down and replaced with something new.

      Concerned Group 2

      Mar 4, 2011 at 10:19am

      Should we preserve district with historical and cultural significance?

      The Victoria Chinatown is designated as a heritage area of the City of Victoria. They’ve strict bylaw to control the height of buildings for Chinatown as well as in other downtown areas. The Victoria’s Chinatown is not only controlled by height, but also controlled by colour schemes, building exterior faí§ade, decorations etc. The purpose is to maintain the heritage characteristic and urban landscape of old Chinatown.

      The Victoria’s Chinatown has been designated as National Historical Sites as well as National Heritage District.

      There’re many reasons for a society to preserve historical and heritage sites from the hands of developers: historical, social, communal and economical.

      Vancouver and Victoria are tourist cities. Tourists are more interested to see a well-preserved Chinatown than modern Asian shopping malls. Rather than developing it into just another residential/business area, Chinatown has rich historical and cultural aspects you can’t find in other parts of the city. This is where the City and Chinatown should work on.

      There’re 4 major Chinatown in BC, the New West and Nanaimo Chinatown were totally destroyed by fire in the last century and Victoria and Vancouver are the only one we’ve left.

      The Chinatown in Calgary provides another example for discussion. For the sake of development, the heritage buildings were demolished and replaced with tall buildings. The old Chinatown was gone and there is not much worth to see there, not to mention as a tourist attraction. It could happen to Vancouver too.

      If you take a look at Europe, from major cities to small towns, rather than replacing their city/town centres with modern glass towers, they preserve their heritage area and landscape and the benefit is obvious.

      In Vancouver, there’re only a few heritage area that worth the effort. For the sake of development interest, should we also bring in tall towers to Gastown and Granville Entertainment District?

      news man

      Mar 4, 2011 at 11:33pm

      Interesting article...

      Many moons ago, I worked at a local newspaper. I clearly remembered Yiu wrote a highly controversial artcle in the mainstream newspapers telling people never to go to Chinatown. I wonder why he never wrote in those medium again.

      Yiu then moved onto Chinese radio talk shows and continues to denounce Chinatown with his own highly-biased opinion. Needless to say, those shows didn't last very long either.

      So where is Yiu's small business located? Certainly not in Chinatown. How often does Yiu go to Chinatown? I'm there almost on a daily basis as my spouse works there. Never have I seen him there on his own free will. Oh he's there alright --- but only when the NDP MLA's get invited to Chinatown's community events with Yiu acting as their waterboy and often comes uninvited.

      And get the fact straight Yiu: International Village is not even part of Chinatown! And there already are towers beside the Chinese Classical Garden; the same towers that prompted the opening of a supermarket which, according to Yiu, has taken the business away from Chinatown. So wouldn't having some new residential buildings in Chinatown help bring the business back to Chinatown?

      And stop confusing the public with the term tower. The new proposal is a mere height increase of 30 ft --- from the current 90ft to 120ft --- or the equivalent of 3 storeys. A 12-storey building in today's term is hardly a "tower"! And that's with plenty of limitations involving re-zoning and only at Chinatown south --- away from the heritage core. No one is tearing down any heritage buildings; in fact, quite the contrary. The community leaders had collectively and prominently said that all the heritage and traditional aspects of Chinatown shall be preserved.

      So between Yiu's antics of dissing Chinatown and this article, what has he really done to advocate for Chinatown --- the origin of his very own ethnic roots. If Yiu has any true merits, why hasn't he won the last provincial election representing Fraserview --- an area so highly populated by voters of Chinese ethnicity.

      Just spare us Yiu from your opportunistic hypocrisy please!

      Concerned Group 2

      Mar 5, 2011 at 1:50pm

      Stop the smear. Here is the newspaper article "news man" mentioned (post in 2 parts)

      Vancouver Sun, Page A11, 03-Aug-2000
      Chinatown must change focus in order to survive
      By Gabriel Yiu

      The decline of Vancouver's Chinatown has little to do with the ``unreasonably high property tax,'' as local merchants claim. After all, the property assessment and tax is merely a reflection of the value of the property and its business environment.

      The main problem is drugs in and around Chinatown. How should we tackle that problem is a debate that has already dragged on for many years.

      Many Chinatown merchants would like to see draconian measures similar to those meted out in Singapore for drug dealers and drug takers. But B.C. health officials and Downtown Eastsiders are of the opinion that the tough measures taken by the U.S. law enforcement agencies have not solved the problem of drugs on the street. They favour a humanitarian approach similar to the one taken by some European countries. They regard the problem of drug addiction as a medical problem.

      Regardless of which approach is taken and even if the drug problem can be miraculously solved, Chinatown will not recover its former glory.

      Chinatown's former importance was due to certain social factors. There were language barriers and cultural hurdles. For many Chinese, Chinatown was where they lived, worked, entertained, shopped and did business. It was the social and cultural hub for most of Vancouver's Chinese.

      Gradually, things have changed. Society has become racially more tolerant. As the atmosphere of antagonism diminishes, many Chinese-Canadians have either moved beyond a need to have a social and cultural hub in Chinatown or moved on to other neighbourhoods.

      I used to be a regular in Chinatown coffee shops, but in the last year or so I have seldom had a cup of coffee there. The reason is not the drugs or a law-and-order issue. There are just many shops nearer by that meet the same needs.

      Residents in Richmond and Coquitlam no longer need to make the long trek to Chinatown to shop.

      The groceries, fish and meat are certainly fresher and cheaper in Chinatown. But not many Chinese like the idea of having to walk several blocks carrying heavy shopping bags. They would rather use a push cart in a supermarket. T&T Supermarket a few blocks away from the centre of Chinatown, for example, has many customers who come from outside of Chinatown because they can park nearby. But the Chinatown store is just one of five that T&T has opened in the past few years, each targeting Chinese customers in a different area.

      Concerned Group 2

      Mar 5, 2011 at 1:55pm

      Part 2 of Yiu's article...

      Many mainstream chain supermarkets now offer live fish in glass tanks to attract the more lucrative ``Chinese trade.''

      With the influx of Chinese immigrants, Asian malls, restaurants and shops mushroomed. In Richmond alone, there are over a dozen Chinese malls. And with the stiff competition, Chinatown's market share inevitably shrinks.

      Whither Chinatown? Chinatown should bill itself as the centre of Chinese cultural activities and a not-to-be-missed tourist spot.

      It is, after all, one of the oldest and best-preserved Chinatowns in the western world. It is home to the largest Chinese community social service agency and numerous Chinese clan associations and community associations. It is historically important.

      These are qualities not to be taken over by other new developments or Chinese malls.

      But the history and culture of Chinatown must be preserved and it must be further developed. Plans to build a theatre at the Chinese Cultural Centre, erect an ancient Chinese pagoda in Sun Yat-sen Garden and a square in Shanghai Alley, the origin of Chinatown, and a proposal to form a Silk Road are all good ideas that would add to the attractions already there, including the world's narrowest commercial building.

      What is missing is an effective promotional campaign and an effort by merchants to cater specifically to tourists.

      The recent Chinatown Festival, organized by nine major Chinese community organizations with the purpose to revive Chinatown businesses and to promote Chinese culture, is a good example. Organizers lined up attractive programs, but few outside the Chinese community knew about it.

      To cater to non-Chinese patrons and tourists, businesses may need to expand their variety of goods. And more importantly, they will need to ensure that staff are able to serve non-Chinese customers. This is not a small hurdle given that there are many non-English speaking workers in Chinatown, who are paid less than $7.15 an hour.

      Chinatown is more attractive to tourists than the Asian malls in Richmond, but its real challenge is not trying to attract non-Chinese patrons: It is for merchants to change their attitude.

      News man

      Mar 6, 2011 at 11:30am

      Glad you dug up the article. Smearing? Let those who have read everything here be the judge. And FYI, all the improvements that Yiu "suggested" in his former article, less the pagoda, had already materialized. Effective campaign? Well, Yiu isn't a part of that, is he? So which group in actual fact is doing the smearing?

      No change = status quote = everything will be exactly the way it currently is. While there is no guarantee that changes made will be better, no change certainly guarantees that things will remain at its presently worst.

      Japantown is the perfect example --- there is nothing left of it resulting from the DTES/DEOD fatal policies. Chinatown should not and will not suffer the same fate.