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How to harness a changing Chinatown Add to ...

Evidence of the latest wave of change to batter Vancouver’s Chinatown is visible on Main and Keefer, where the old dollar store that sold choice trinkets from China has finally vanished. Its “Going Out Of Business” sale extended well over two years. The recorded hawker’s voice in Chinese and English blaring from outdoor speakers was a familiar aural fixture on the street – a slew of Cantonese bargain hunting tips punctuated by the occasional, heavily accented “Everything must go, eh!”

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Now everything has gone to make room for one of several new residential towers. Westbank’s 17-storey 188 Keefer has displaced the dollar store and is joined by the Foad Raafi-designed Keefer Block across the street and the Inge Roecker-designed Panther development, The Flats on Georgia. Facilitated by 2011’s rezoning of a handful of areas in Chinatown, these and other new projects have joined the likes of the Keefer Bar, Bao Bei and a freshly made-over night market as promising signs of neighbourhood revival.

But the battle to save the nearby 439 Powell St. – the 1891 Ming Sun Building that housed seniors and an artists collective – looms large in local headlines. Activists are fundraising to make necessary repairs and prevent its demolition.

With the arrival of the condos, some say Chinatown’s architectural heritage is at risk.

In an era when Chinese were barred from being architects, buildings designed for Chinatown fused the tastes of Chinese clients with the talents of Anglo-Saxon architects. Thus, many of Chinatown’s buildings exhibit a combination of Southern Chinese-style balconies and façades, laced with Western elements such as Corinthian columns.

The area has survived the affect of racist exclusionary laws, a freeway and the drugs and poverty brought by the concentration of social services in the Downtown Eastside. But will it survive the new influx of condos?

A new project by Taipei born, Vancouver-raised developer Mark Shieh, may well be a model for future development in the area.

“Heritage preservation in Chinatown,” says the 39-year-old developer, whose Take Root Properties was behind the successful River Market at New Westminster Quay, “is not just about the empty shell of the building. It’s about the activities that go on within it.”

“A Chinatown that works,” says Mr. Shieh, “is one that is active. Active as a place where people live, work, and play.”

His concept is to build on Chinatown’s context and meaning. “We’ve learned from River Market that tourists go where locals go,” he says, pointing to an integrated neighbourhood model rather than an “ethnic theme park.”

His vision is for a mid-rise building with a food hall on the ground floor – a Pan-Asian version of Manhattan’s famed Eataly (an emporium of all things edible and Italian) – that would draw in locals and visitors. Above this would be retail, office and studio space, which Mr. Shieh envisions would include a Chinese school, then a selection of “shared” apartments and a rooftop social club.

This new model of neighbourhood development is not only concerned with local revitalization but also with larger issues around affordability. The normal approach to this is usually to make residential units smaller. But Mr. Shieh – who had a prise de conscience when he realized he didn’t want to be part of a design industry that blindly fed consumption – has a different take. “It’s not about owning any more – it’s about access.”

He cites businesses such as Car2Go and Airbnb as models for sharing resources. And for many years, he’s been studying old and new models of shared housing – in both China and the West.

The initial conceptual designs for the building done by Vancouver’s Dialog looked to inter-generational living as a way to beat high real estate prices. Thus, the concept of shared apartments, units that feature separate entrances, bedrooms and bathrooms along with shared kitchen and laundry facilities.

Mr. Shieh hopes design savvy will make Chinatown attractive to a whole new generation of Asian-Canadians, lured by the cultural vibrancy and young enough to no longer feel repelled by the ghettoization of their grandparents’ time. He says the trend away from Chinatown into suburbs such as Richmond peaked in the nineties, and now many young Asian immigrants are attracted to Chinatown for its urbanity, shops and eateries.

Mr. Shieh himself is typical of the new wave of Chinatowners reinventing and reinvigorating the area. He lives with his American artist wife and two-year-old daughter in the Bruce Hayden designed Schoolhouse – a 1940’s school converted into five eco-sensitive residences on East Georgia. He takes his daughter to Mandarin classes weekly – followed by a visit to the Boss bakery for pastries. The bakery, a Hong Kong-inspired café with vaguely Westernized dishes, looks out onto the looming new towers on Keefer.

“It’s not just about preserving Chinese-ness anymore,” he says, noting that many young Japanese and Korean people are part of the area’s growing pan-Asian community, “it’s about, ‘What is the essence of Chinatown to be transferred to future generations?’”

“We want to create something new here.”

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