A Vancouver city staff report has raised an urgent alarm over the future of 12 heritage buildings in Chinatown.
Each is more than 100 years old and each is owned by a historic Chinatown society. And according to the report, these societies cannot finance their restoration.
“Without a sustainable long-term plan to renew the buildings and their operations, the buildings will soon reach a point where they will be unsafe and uninhabitable and their legacies will be lost forever,” wrote Kevin McNaney, acting general manager of planning and development services. “The loss of Society buildings will negatively impact the social, cultural and economic vitality of Chinatown, its identity and prominence as a National Historic Site.”
On Thursday (December 10), Vancouver city council is scheduled to vote on a staff recommendation to approve in principle the Chinese Society Legacy Program to rehabilitate these buildings.
The motion calls for council to instruct the city manager to work with the Chinatown Society Heritage Building Association to try to secure $36 million. This money could come from strategic partnerships, senior levels of government, philanthropic organizations, and community partnerships.
In addition, staff has recommended that council allocate $3.6 million to the legacy program from future development contributions in the Chinatown area. This would come on top of a $2.5-million city contribution last year for a matching grant program to support critical upgrades.
“I think this report is going to be probably the best and fastest way of getting those buildings rehabilitated,” Coun. Kerry Jang told the Straight by phone. “Everybody has all these ideas, but at the end of the day, societies need cash.”
Chinese immigrants created the societies more than a century ago to support and provide social services to others in their clan. According to McNaney’s report, these organizations own 56 buildings in the Downtown Eastside, including the 12 heritage structures in Chinatown.
Jang belongs to two of the societies. He said that because of these connections, he has declared a conflict of interest and will not be voting on the staff recommendations. He’s hoping that if the motion passes, the federal and provincial government will step up to help save Chinatown’s heritage.
“Of all the cities in North America, we probably have the greatest concentration of clan buildings,” Jang said. “They’re still fairly active.”
According to the report, most of the $36 million in the legacy program—$29 million—would cover the cost of building stabilization and seismic upgrades. Another $6 million would optimize buildings to help generate a positive cash flow.
“I know firsthand how difficult it is to actually raise the money needed,” Jang said.