Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson visited Ming Pao’s office yesterday for an interview. He said that the City’s goal is strike a balance between development in Chinatown and preservation of the neighbourhood’s valuable cultural heritage, stressing that the buildings in particular need to be conserved. What is needed is funding support from the provincial and federal governments, and Mayor Robertson stated that City Hall will work with Chinese community groups to fight for funding. He asks the community to speak up with City Hall.
Last year, City Hall passed the Chinese Society Legacy Program, a program valued at $36 million to rehabilitate the 12 society buildings and association buildings in Chinatown. Out of the $36 million budget required for the repairs, the City has committed $3.6 million, and intends for the remainder to be contributed by the provincial and federal levels of government. Robertson states that although he has not yet heard anything from the two levels of government, he is confident that Ottawa will be willing to contribute funds to this cause. He is less optimistic about the provincial government’s stance, but hopes that with next year’s provincial election creeping closer, the BC Liberal Party will have a more enthusiastic response.
Robertson also stated that Trudeau’s government has emphasized economic development and job creation. He believes that these goals can be met with Chinatown development, as rehabilitating the heritage buildings will not only provide job opportunities, but promote local economic growth. Robertson stressed that preserving Chinatown’s heritage buildings can no longer be delayed, and promised that he would work with various Chinatown community groups to lobby the two levels of government for support.
Robertson believes that the Chinese community should be more proactive and be loud and clear about its desires, and place more pressure on the two levels of government.
In July, City Hall passed an amendment to the Single Room Accommodation Bylaw so that any property owner who wanted to convert or renovate an SRO unit to a market rental unit would have to pay a fee of $125,000 per unit to the City. This fee is 8 times of the penalty previously written in the by-law (at $15,000). City Hall stated that amendment of the by-law was to prevent property owners from redeveloping buildings with SRO units, threatening the city’s supply of SROs, especially in the Downtown Eastside.
However, many Chinese association building property owners have expressed disappointment that the by-law is negatively impacting their ability to maintain their heritage buildings. This penalty prevents them from ever converting the association building’s SRO units to market rental units. Some had planned to convert the units so that they could use the increased rental income to repair their buildings, but those plans will not be viable under the new by-law. In response to this, Robertson stated that a number of Chinese seniors also reside in the SROs, and emphasized that ensuring the steady inventory of these SROs is very important. There has already been a huge loss of SRO units since the previous penalty fee was set too low. Robertson also mentioned that the provincial government is the one who distributes welfare payments, which have not been adjusted since 2007, thus restricting the SRO rental level and the association building’s income stream.
On the other hand, a development proposal located beside the Chinese Workers’ Memorial has been the subject of ongoing debate. Under a large amount of public opposition, the developer has retracted their proposal, and is working on making revisions to the plan. Robertson states that the proposal is in a sensitive area, and believes that it will be a very difficult dilemma for the City.
However, most of Chinatown will look the same as it always has, while some other areas need to be developed so that more people will be attracted to move into Chinatown and create a more vibrant neighbourhood, says Robertson. He hopes that the City can strike a balance here, develop with respect to the neighbourhood’s cultural heritage.
On another note, the Vancouver Chinatown Merchants Association Chairman Mr. Chan has noted to Ming Pao that he hopes that after the Georgia Viaduct is removed, a Chinatown “entrance” gate like the one by S.U.C.C.E.S.S. and International Village can be erected on that end of Chinatown, to add another landmark to the area. Robertson agrees with this proposal, and has stated that the new land will be developed into a new community, only one street away from Chinatown, and believes that erecting a new landmark there will attract citizens into Chinatown.