Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

AdChoices
Architect Joe Wai, standing outside the newly renovated Wing Sang building, believes density is the key to reviving a downtown area where only about 1,000 people actually live, though he is against high-rise towers as a solution. (LAURA LEYSHON/LAURA LEYSHON for the Globe and)
Architect Joe Wai, standing outside the newly renovated Wing Sang building, believes density is the key to reviving a downtown area where only about 1,000 people actually live, though he is against high-rise towers as a solution. (LAURA LEYSHON/LAURA LEYSHON for the Globe and)

Revitalization

Urban Acupuncture Add to ...

At Bob Rennie's big launch party for Chinatown's oldest building late last month, the well-heeled crowd of 800 took in a combination of conceptual art, historical artifact and a whole lot of champagne.

In one room was a giant sculptural globe depicting armed conflict around the world. On a wall upstairs, there was an 1890s chalkboard on which remained the original chalk markings of Chinese school children.

It was as much a launch party for the long-awaited restoration of the 1889 Wing Sang Building at 51 E. Pender as it was for the large art pieces exhibited throughout the four-storey space - just a syringe's throw from the notorious Downtown Eastside. The art is by Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum, who flew in from London to be on hand for the opening of the building that will house Mr. Rennie's private art collection and his real estate offices.

"I don't want to make it about me," says Mr. Rennie, "but good ideas come from people who are dedicated to the plan rather than just economics."

He is referring, of course, to the fact that his five-year reno cost in the neighbourhood of $20-million.

It is Mr. Rennie's edifice complex, his dream building that represents his legacy as a world-class art collector.

As the marketing force behind so many of the city's major condo projects, he is also regarded as a key player in re-shaping downtown Vancouver. But will he re-shape Chinatown?

His restored building and art collection, the third largest private collection in Canada, is regarded by many as a beacon that will lead the tired, almost forgotten neighbourhood into a vibrant new era. According to that vision, pedestrians will be drawn to its streets, retailers will thrive, and residents will live in up-to-code living spaces over their stores and cycle to work. Chinese heritage will be preserved. Canada's biggest artist community will flourish. Density will more than double. And social housing will keep the area from becoming the enclave of the urban elite and upwardly mobile.

"People don't have to make as big a gesture," Mr. Rennie says. "They can do a storefront poetry reading, anything - do it. Don't just complain that somebody else is doing it."









As to whether Mr. Rennie's building, or the influence of Mr. Rennie himself, will help trigger the turnaround is a matter of speculation. Mostly, advocates for the area adopt the view that it's a start.

Prominent architect and long-time Chinatown advocate Joe Wai believes that the restored building is a boon.

"The overall thing is that it is generally good for restoration and revitalization of Chinatown," says Mr. Wai. "Bob Rennie is of course a very successful and high-profile adviser to developers, and well-known for his sales of condos. So it carries a message more than just the building. It carries the signal to the developers that this area merits looking at it because Bob Rennie is there.

"There are a lot of non-Chinese people and developers looking at Chinatown now."

There is worry, too, however, that Chinatown might lose its distinct flavour.

"It's fantastic that Bob is down here," says Carol Lee, a businesswoman who sits on many boards and has been active in revitalizing the area. Ms. Lee, who obtained her MBA from Harvard, located her skin care company in Chinatown, and she represents the area's new generation of professionals.

"We welcome innovation and people's efforts to help revitalize Chinatown, but we must always be mindful of the kind of future we want and be sensitive to the neighbourhood's cultural heritage."

Nobody is disputing that Chinatown needs a major injection of life, especially by way of density. Many of the old buildings that could offer housing above the retail floors are half empty because landlords can't afford to bring them up to code requirements, such as seismic upgrades. As well, the swell of new Chinese immigrants in the 1980s moved the Chinese base to the suburb of Richmond.

As Mr. Rennie says: "Richmond hijacked Chinatown. We've all been waiting to get old Chinatown back. It's not coming back."

The question is how to create density, especially in a neighbourhood known for its many opposing factions. The big worry is preserving heritage while bringing the place back to life.

Report Typo/Error
Single page

Follow on Twitter: @goldiein604

 

In the know

Most popular videos »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail