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British Columbia Changes to Vancouver’s Chinatown welcoming for some, wrenching for others

Angelo Tosi, 84, owner of Tosi & Company, waits on customers in his shop on Thursday. His is the last Italian shop in Vancouver’s Chinatown. His father opened the shop in 1906, but Mr. Tosi has put the place up for sale because he can't afford the city's taxes anymore.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Angelo Tosi is at the counter of the store his father started in 1906 on Main Street in Vancouver's Chinatown, doing what he's done for decades.

He tells his customer this afternoon, Toya Soo, that she should keep her grated parmesan in the freezer. He checks that she doesn't need pasta sauce or canned tomatoes before he rings up her purchases on his ancient adding machine and takes her cash – no cards allowed here.

But Tosi's, which has been preserved, untouched – complete with marble counters and boxes of giant Italian dolls – since Angelo's father died in 1973, is coming to the end of its life.

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The "For Sale" sign went up on the building last week, one more wave in the tide of change that is slowly transforming Chinatown.

"I'd like to stay another five years," 84-year-old Mr. Tosi says. "But the taxes. That's why I'm packing it in."

They've risen from just under $23,000 in 2011 to $61,275 this year, as the value of land has increased because of changes the city made to Chinatown's community plan. His site is now assessed at just over $5-million. His two sons aren't interested in the business, so he won't try to start up anywhere else.

Three large condo buildings sit across the street from Tosi's (legally called Tosi Italian Food Importers), new in the past five years.

And his 110-year-old, two-storey building will almost certainly be demolished, since the city plan now allows for 90-foot buildings along Main. City planners will even consider up to 150 feet if the developer provides some kind of cultural, social or historic amenity to the community.

His is not the only prominent site to go on sale recently. On the next block, three lots, including the Brickhouse (once upon a time, the legendary Puccini's restaurant, when there were more Italians in the neighbourhood), an empty lot and a student hostel.

The three sites, owned by the prominent Bonnis family that owns a lot of property on Granville Street downtown, are assessed at about $8-million altogether.

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Added to that, new developments that are renting for unheard-of prices in an area that still houses hundreds of Chinese seniors and others, some of them in Chinese family association-owned buildings with rents as low as $125 a month.

A new building on Georgia Street, the Albert Block, is inviting people to apply to rent the 40 studios that will open in the fall. The studios, ranging from 362 to 420 square feet, will be rented starting at $1,267 a month, according to the website.

That price exceeds the already generous definition the city had set for "affordable" units under its Rental 100 policy.

In that policy, under which the Albert Block was built, developers who got extra density in exchange for building units guaranteed as long-term rentals, were supposed to rent studios for no more than $1,260 a month on the east side.

Brokers and retail consultants say it's not surprising that change is coming to Chinatown, although they note that it's not happening quite the way some anticipated.

"It's not changing as fast as people think it is," said Boe Iravani, a vice-president at Cushman & Wakefield, who sold the Albert Block site and is trying to lease another large retail space on Keefer.

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Lease rates for older buildings are still some of the cheapest in the city, at $25 a square foot, although newer spaces, such as in the ground floors of the new condo buildings, might go for as much as $45 a square foot. (In comparison, rents on the city's highest-priced commercial street, Robson, are $200 a square foot.)

Phil Boname, whose company Urbanics Consultants Ltd. is working with Edmonton to revive its Chinatown, said Chinatowns are transforming everywhere.

Many of them, like Vancouver's, are changing only very slowly because they border very deteriorated inner-city neighbourhoods.

But, he said, Vancouver's will definitely see a transformation in the coming decades. The development of Northeast False Creek, the demolition of the viaducts, and the arrival of a new St. Paul's Hospital to the south are all going to bring thousands of new residents and employees to neighbourhood's doorstep.

While some may welcome that, it's wrenching for old-timers such as Mr. Tosi and his customers.

Ms. Soo, who only discovered the store was up for sale as she was paying for her pasta and cheese, was dismayed at the news, saying, "Oh, no."

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