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Vancouver heritage zoning laws ‘limit Chinatown’s future’

A local architect blames Vancouver’s long and expensive heritage permit process for limiting economic growth in Chinatown. David Wong, an…

By Jamie Williams , in City Feature story , on October 28, 2010

David Wong, a well-known community activist, grew up in Chinatown

A local architect blames Vancouver’s long and expensive heritage permit process for limiting economic growth in Chinatown.

David Wong, an architect and community activist for the past 25 years, said the city’s plan to revitalize Chinatown is floundering because of Chinatown’s strict heritage zoning category.

“You can’t mothball a community,” said Wong. “You have to allow Chinatown to grow in the direction it wants to grow.”

Chinatown has faced serious economic and safety challenges for 12 years.

It was rezoned in 1994 to include two Historic Area District schedules, both of which impose strict regulations and guidelines on developers.

The regulations restrict everything from window placement to wall texture to lighting. A change in density or use requires a public hearing.

Planning maze

The result is a bewildering and lengthy process for new businesses.

Brian McBay, executive director of non-profit art gallery 221A, a studio located on the first floor of an historic Chinatown building, said  he “did not even know where to begin concerning the permit application process,” taking him a 14 months to be “fully legal.”

The Yue Shan Society building, built in 1898, operated as a communications office

“I went back and forth to city hall at least 10 times, waiting, getting new drawings,” McBay said.

Wong has also been trying to expedite the permit process for new businesses but said it hasn’t been easy.

He helped move three new businesses — the online magazine the Tyee, Arsenal Pulp Press and sauce manufacturer Thai Princess — into Chinatown.

These are important additions, he said, because they exemplify new industries that will bring renewed creative energy and youth into the area.

Entrepreneurs targeting Chinatown as a place to set up new businesses is not new.

Sam Bass started what is now one of Canada’s biggest retail stores, London Drugs, in the upstairs offices of Vancouver’s Chinatown in the 1940s.

Robert Lee, owner and president of Prospero Group, a real estate company that currently employs 150 people, also began his career in the heritage area.

Red tape versus heritage

Tanis Knowles Yarnell, a City of Vancouver planner who has worked on Chinatown since 2008 acknowledged that red tape exists. But she said it was there to protect the region’s cultural identity.

“There may be more of a process and more time in terms of what it takes to get something approved,” Yarnell said.

“But at the end of the day you’re partaking in a century-old area that has so much history and depth of character.”

Although Yarnell said the City of Vancouver’s policy concerning the permit process has not “got specific at this point,” it will reassess the strategy by December and implement it within the next one to two years.

“So if there was interest in permit facilitation,” said Yarnell, “we could take some action.”

Mixing the old with the new

Zoning regulations aimed to preserve Chinatown's historic identity make it difficult for developers to move in

Andrew Yan, an urban planner with Bing Tom Architects, wrote his thesis on the revitalization of Vancouver’s Chinatown. He said it is important to mix the new with the old for sustainable development.

Moving micro business into second and third floors of existing buildings is exactly what Chinatown needs, he said.

This would maintain the culturally identity of the area but also force conservative landowners to work with new and creative industries.

“It’s brutally difficult, but if you want a sustainable method of urban revitalization, that’s what you need to do,” said Yan, citing how both the young staff of the Tyee and elder Chinese landlord were skeptical of how the business relationship would work at the outset but came around.

“And the Tyee is a perfect example of this,” said Yan.  “It was a business a transaction.  It wasn’t a request. It’s an offer. When you structure relationships like that, opportunities come up.”