Ever since she moved to B.C. from Hong Kong in 1997, Liza Lau has had a fondness for Chinatown. So when the opportunity arose in 2011 to buy a presale condominium that’ll be finished later this year, she and her husband jumped at it.
“We had been keeping our eye on Chinatown for years,” says Lau, who bought a one-bedroom place in the Flats on Georgia, one of several new developments in the historic area. “I love the project and I love the location. It’s so easy to bike downtown, and the SkyTrain is right there. You’re close to downtown, but you don’t have to pay the price of a downtown apartment.
“There’s so much happening in Chinatown, with restaurants and grocery stores and new shops,” she adds. “The area is going to be transformed.”
Transformed indeed. With places like the Keefer Bar, Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie, the Rennie Collection art gallery, the East of Main Café, and the soon-to-be launched revamped Night Market, Chinatown is becoming ever more hip and happening. Crucially, though, it’s also firmly holding on to its roots. Here’s a neighbourhood that mixes old and new, East and West. Its increasing desirability as a destination has led to new residential buildings moving in. But there’s also a strong, shared vision and desire to respect what’s come before.
Even the ’hood’s most recent additions, the new condos, are attempting to pay tribute to that heritage. “I like that it’s not a bunch of glass towers,” says Brian Roche, president of Panther Constructors, the company behind the Flats on Georgia (219 East Georgia Street), over coffee at the Caffè Brixton right across the street. “There’s a little bit of everything here. The Flats has a modern and clean look, while at the same time we wanted to pay homage to the history of the area.”
Think window shutters that evoke Asian storefronts and a façade incorporating hues of yellow, which is an auspicious colour in Chinese culture.
The Flats is being constructed on a tiny lot, one that was used as a surface-level parking lot since 1954 and that’s just seven-and-a-half metres wide. It’s a trend that will likely pick up momentum in Chinatown, given that the area doesn’t have many large, unused pieces of property. The 28-unit, nine-storey building includes a commercial space on the ground floor, which will be home to a framing shop and art gallery.
The smallest unit at the Flats is 500 square feet, and one-bedroom homes were all priced under $400,000. Suites have Juliet balconies, floor-to-ceiling windows, and high ceilings. The place is also bike-friendly, with each unit coming with its own bike locker and area to clean and repair two-wheelers. “A lot of people who [will] live here don’t have or want cars, with more using Zipcars or Car2Go,” Roche says, noting that Panther is working with EMBERS (Eastside Movement for Business and Economic Renewal Society) to provide construction-job training to people who’ve graduated from addiction-recovery programs. “You can walk everywhere here. You can walk downtown, you can walk to the False Creek seawall, and it’s so close to transit.”
Residents will also be able to walk to the revitalized Chinatown Night Market. Every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evening from May 17 to September 8, Keefer Street between Main and Columbia will come alive with programming that mixes old and new.
“When I opened Bao Bei, I was so excited to be on the same street as the Night Market because of the vitality and activity it brought to the neighbourhood,” says Tannis Ling in an interview at the restaurant she started three years ago. “I thought it was great, with the lights and the smells and the sounds. But I thought the content of the market could be more relevant to the neighbourhood.”
Ling and program director Ken Tsui have brought back all of the food vendors from the past but also added to the mix Ping-Pong tournaments, mahjong lessons, outdoor movie screenings, variety shows, live music, storytelling, and even a dumpling cook-off.
“It’s staying intrinsically Chinese, but it’s about mixing a time-honoured tradition with new flavours,” Ling says. “It’s a hybrid, combining a very old idea with very new ideas. It really is a reflection of what’s going on in Chinatown.”
The old and new mesh at Solterra Group of Companies’ Keefer Block (189 Keefer Street), a residential project that’s just getting started.
“When you walk around the area, it has such an eclectic feel. It’s not a cookie-cutter neighbourhood,” says Laura Rizzo, Solterra’s vice-president of marketing. “When we designed the exterior, one of the things that was discussed was how Chinatown’s architecture had a lot of tall, narrow buildings….We’re using different coloured bricks to create that sense of tall, linear design. Although new, the building still had to have some sort of symbolism or tie back to the area’s history.
“The Keefer is for people who want a quality, modern unit and then be able to step out your front door and feel that your neighbourhood has a richness and a story to it,” she adds.
Being so close to downtown does mean confined spaces, however. Suites at the Keefer Block, which range from the mid $200,000s to high $500,000s, range from about 450 square feet to around 1,000. That’s where functionality of interiors comes in. At the presentation centre on Seymour Street, sales associate Elaine Murray points to high ceilings, a washer and dryer that’s all in one, and tracking cupboards that go right up to the ceiling as features that maximize space. Then there’s the option of upgrading to an Italian-designed murphy bed that looks like something out of a movie: by day it’s a book shelf; by night it’s a bed, after you pull a lever and the library wall rotates 180 degrees. The bed then folds down and locks into place and even has side tables that pop out. (It goes for $8,000.)
The building also features a grassy rooftop deck that will have an outdoor movie theatre, barbecues, a fire pit, and a community garden.
The sense of community in Chinatown appealed to Westbank, the company behind yet another condominium development called 188 Keefer.
“It’s that eclectic mix Chinatown has,” says Alexa Paukkunen, 188 Keefer’s director of sales and marketing. “Everything isn’t brand-new and shiny. It’s got the culture and the history, and it’s got a mix of funky, new boutique shops. We’re combining all the things that make Chinatown great—using classic brick and building public art into the façade—to pay homage to history.
“It really is a neighbourhood,” she adds, “and that really appeals to home buyers across the board.”
Two floors out of 188 Keefer’s 17 will be dedicated to social housing for seniors, in collaboration with S.U.C.C.E.S.S., a social-services agency. The project is offering a five-percent-deposit program, as opposed to the more typical 15 to 20 percent that’s required as a down payment. (Unit prices are still being determined.)
The building will also have a retail component, most likely a restaurant. “The idea is to add to the current retail mix so home buyers can support local merchants,” Paukkunen says. “It will add new vibrancy to the area and will fit in with the fabric of the neighbourhood.”