Are Chinatowns still relevant in the 21st century?

Across North America, Chinatowns are struggling to be relevant to not only their modern Chinese community, but also to the community-at-large.

Calgary's Chinatown lives in the shadows of the mega office towers of its central business district. 

In 2012, Vancouver City Council unanimously approved a three-year Chinatown Neighbourhood Plan and Economic Revitalization Strategy. More than a decade in the making, the plan focused on economic revitalization by encouraging new residential development that would attract younger people of all backgrounds, to ensure Chinatown is increasingly relevant to a more multi-cultural Vancouver.

Fast-forward to 2016. A controversial proposal for a new 13-storey condo in Chinatown may or may not get approved after being re-designed for the third time. The building with 127 market condos, 25 affordable seniors’ homes and street level shops would seem to be an ideal revitalization project. However, many people from the Chinatown community feel the building is too high and big for their community (note my Herald column inaccurately reported this project had been approved).

In Calgary, a recent application for a Land Use change to increase the density of a surface parking lot across the street from Sun Life Towers (three 28-storey office towers) to allow for a tower up to 27 stories resulted in an immediate “Save our Chinatown” from some of the Chinatown community. They felt the change in land use would allow buildings that are too high and dense to fit with the traditional image of Chinatown as a rabbit’s warren of small buildings and narrow alleys.

The controversial site is currently a surface parking lot surrounded by large office and residential buildings.  It sits empty on weekends and evenings. 

Wrong Focus?

What was missing from the protesters (both in Calgary and Vancouver) was what the new development would likely bring to their Chinatown. 

They should be asking questions like:

  • Does the design of the proposed buildings have the potential to enhance Chinatown’s retail and restaurant offerings?
  • Does it create lots of small spaces for new restaurants and retail at street level, or perhaps a larger space for a modern Asian-focused grocery and/or fashion store?
  • Will the condo unit sizes and designs attract young professionals and young families to the community - Chinese and non-Chinese?
  • Does the site support a building of this size?
  • Can the towers be set back from the sidewalk to make it pedestrian-friendly?
  • How does the building act as a link to the downtown office core?
  • Could the new development be a catalyst for revitalization?

Examples of older residential buildings that lack the amenities and design qualities to attract young professionals and empty nesters or the commercial spaces for modern retailers.

Generational Differences

Dai and Yang, both in their early 30s, who arrived in Calgary from Mainland China six and three years ago respectively, frequent Chinatown restaurants a couple of times a week, but never shop in Chinatown.  “Everything is for old people,” chuckles Dai. They both would love to see new more modern restaurants, shops and a movie theatre added to Chinatown. 

They also point out when Chinatowns were created 100+ years ago, China was a poor country and the people immigrating to Canada were poor, couldn’t speak any English and had no education.  They needed a Chinatown in every city to survive in the new world.

Today, Chinese immigrants are middle-class, professionals, speak English and have a global sensibility. They can easily buy a house and fit into any Calgary community.

They acknowledge Calgary’s Chinatown should continue to serve the needs of the Calgary’s elderly Chinese community (currently 60% of Calgary’s Chinatown population is over 65 years of age), but it also should be an attractive urban living community for young, educated Chinese and non Chinese also.

In fact, in our conversation, the idea of Calgary’s Chinatown evolving into more of an Asiatown appealed to them, as there is much overlap with Japan and Korea.  Dia and Yang suggested, “if Chinatown wants to appeal to young Asian professional it will need to attract international Asian retailers like Meters/bonwe, Uniqlo, E.Land, Muji, Suning, Huawei and restaurants like 85Cafe Yoshinoya and HaiDi Lao Hot Pot.”

  Modern Asian stores like Meters/bonwe attract young shoppers who in turn create street vitality in the evenings and weekends. 

Modern Asian stores like Meters/bonwe attract young shoppers who in turn create street vitality in the evenings and weekends. 

  Calgary's Chinatown lacks any modern Asian fashion stores.

Calgary's Chinatown lacks any modern Asian fashion stores.

   Huawei’s retail arm had 35,000 of its own stores around the world at the end of May, up 116 per cent year on year. It has 11,000 stores in mainland China, 6500 stores across the rest of Asia, 6200 in Europe and 1500 in South America. This compares with   Apple  ’s 484 retail outlets in fewer than 20 countries.

Huawei’s retail arm had 35,000 of its own stores around the world at the end of May, up 116 per cent year on year. It has 11,000 stores in mainland China, 6500 stores across the rest of Asia, 6200 in Europe and 1500 in South America. This compares with Apple’s 484 retail outlets in fewer than 20 countries.

  Cafe85 is an example of the new Asian culture that should be the focus for creating vibrant multi-generational chinatown communities.

Cafe85 is an example of the new Asian culture that should be the focus for creating vibrant multi-generational chinatown communities.

Perfect Site

The controversial site is currently a surface parking lot in the middle of the block from Centre St to 1st Street, from 2nd to 3rd Avenues SW; this means there is no loss of “mom and pop” shops.  Rather, the development has the potential to add much needed modern retail and restaurant space that Dai and Yang suggest on the lower floors, with residential above.

The site is already surrounded by residential buildings 15-storeys high to the east and west and office towers 28-storeys to the north, so the addition of three towers in the 20 to 27-storey range is not without precedent.   The site would also support a +15 bridge to Sun Life Plaza, meaning that anyone living there could walk to work downtown without a car, coat or umbrella!

It would be a perfect “live, work, play” block for young professionals and empty nesters – Chinese and non-Chinese.

Many blame the lack of parking in Chinatown for its decline yet there are over 600 heated underground parking spots just a block away that are available in the evening and weekend. 

Catch 22

Calgary’s Chinatown can’t attract modern retailers and restaurants until it has larger, modern buildings for them to locate in, as well as a younger population who will support them.  At the same time, Chinatown can’t attract young professionals (Chinese and otherwise) until it has modern condos (with amenities), as well as modern restaurants and retail.

Ironic

Calgary’s Hon Family has owned the site for decades. So it isn’t as if an outsider has come into the community looking to make a quick buck.  The Hon Family, long time homebuilders in Calgary, has only recently entered the high-rise development business with the handsome twin Guardian condos in Victoria Park, next to Stampede Park.  The high-rise division is being managed by the millennial generation of Hons, i.e. the exact demographic who should be the target market for their new Chinatown development.

Dragon City Mall in Calgary's chinatown is a ghost town every time I visit.  The streets of Chinatown are devoid of people other than at lunchtime on weekdays and dim sum time on weekends.

chinatown, calgary

Chinese Decentralization

Harry Hiller, Professor of Sociology at the University of Calgary thinks Chinatowns in cities across North America are losing their role as residential, retail and restaurant centers as the Chinese population decentralizes to multiple suburban locations.

However he thinks there might still be a role for Chinatowns as a central gathering place for family and community celebrations. He points out to the increasing popularity of the Vancouver’s Spring Festival Parade in celebration of the Lunar New Year that attracts 100,000 spectators.

Similarly, John Gilchrist, CBC Calgary Eyeopener restaurant reviewer thinks, “Over the past couple of decades, as Calgary grew, new Chinese restaurants opened in many suburbs, drawing attention away from the classic Chinatown restaurants. But since the flood of 2013, Chinatown has seen an influx of new owners, many of whom brought investment and new culinary ideas from China. So Chinatown looks fresher and has more to offer these days.”

Last Word

Calgary’s Chinatown is definitely not going to survive as a seniors’ ghetto.

Now is the perfect time to begin reinventing our Chinatown into a 21st century Asiatown that will add a new dimension to our downtown and reflect the new global world we all share.

The unintended consequences of City Council’s delay of their decision on the land-use amendment until December 2016, to allow for more community engagement could be to further divide Calgary’s already fragmented Chinatown community.  What is needed is decisive decision making by Council, landowners and businessmen that will allow Chinatown to evolve into a thriving 21st century urban village.

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Sunnyside's containR site ideal for affordable housing

Everyday Tourist looks at Calgary's efforts to provide affordable living options in one of its most expensive City Centre communities. 

Our City Councillors continue to talk about the need for more affordable housing but nothing seems to happen. The latest rant came from Councillor Woolley who was invited by CBC News to write a New Year’s message to Calgarians as part of its “Calgary at a Crossroads” series of guest editorials. Woolley’s, piece “Why we need to work our asses off,” focused on the City’s need for more affordable housing.  He stated that over the past two years, the City of Calgary had not put a single new subsidized home on the market, adding “On Council, we commission dreamy reports that are long on process but short on action.”

Okay the, its time for Woolley and his colleagues to start walking the talk.  I challenge Council and Administration to design and approve a residential development for the unique city-owned containR site in Sunnyside at the corner of 2nd Ave and 9th Street SW by the end of 2016.  It is my understanding the site has been earmarked for a mix of affordable and market housing for years.  I also understand the immediate neighbours and community are more or less on side, subject to seeing actual design plans.  So why has nothing happened?

I also challenge Council and Administration to make this Calgary’s first large-scale sea-container building, knowing Sunnyside Councillor Farrell has suggested in the past that container construction has many advantages for affordable housing. Surely it can’t be that difficult to make this happen.

containR site is used for a variety of art events.

Container Construction 101

There are many benefits to container construction for residential development. The biggest being it is very cost effective. It is cost-effective because 80% of the on-site activities are moved indoors, meaning optimization of materials and labour, reduction of theft and fewer lost hours due to inclement weather.  As well, because it is metal, it is non-combustible, making it safer.  Also it doesn’t warp or shrink and has the capacity for superior sound-insulation between units, making container buildings quieter.  They can also be constructed to heights of 12 storeys, making them ideal for affordable housing projects on larger sites.

And when it comes to infill development, neighbours and communities will love the fact that on-site, container-based construction happens 30 to 50% faster than conventional construction, meaning a significant decrease in the inconvenience of road and/or sidewalk closures and noise. Container construction is also environmentally-friendly given the repurposing of surplus shipping containers.

Backstory: Calgary, as one of North America’s largest inland ports, has a surplus of sea containers.   Yes, literally thousands of sea containers arrive in Calgary every month via rail or truck from China and other countries full of everything from electronics to furniture. With nothing to send back many become surplus. 

From a design perspective, container buildings don’t have to look significantly different than current new multi-family residential buildings, both in their exterior or interiors.  From the street, they can have a funky, colourful, industrial urban look or they can be clad with vinyl siding to fit with neighbouring suburban homes.

In a nutshell, container condos are “cheaper, faster and better” than conventional wood or concrete multi-family residential construction. This makes them very attractive for affordable housing construction.

Ladacor is a Calgary company that is becoming a leader in container construction. 

Economic Diversity

Calgary-based Ladacor has developed an “Advanced Modular System,” a proprietary modular construction method that allows for high quality container construction, which meets if not exceeds all Canadian Safety Approval standards. Ladacor is on the leading edge of container construction in North America, having already built the largest container hotel in Canada.  A local demonstration container project could be just what Calgary needs to create more jobs and become North America’s leading contain construction headquarters.  What’s holding us back?

containR site would add much needed density and diversity to the nearby Kensington Village

containR site is ideal for an affordable housing project with a Safeway just a block away, as well as an LRT station, meaning owning a car is optional. 

Last Word

It is almost too good to be true that Sunnyside’s temporary containR park (with several containers already on site) is the perfect location for Calgary’s first affordable housing project in a few years and our first container building. 

My plea to Council, Administration and Sunnyside community - please fast-track the design and approval of the “Sunnyside Container Village” as model affordable development by the end of 2016, with people moving in by early 2018.  Let’s be “short on process and get those asses working.” 

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Why NIMBYs speak louder than YIMBYs?

In October 2015, I wrote about the NIMBYs vs YIMBYs as it related to the Kensington Legion site redevelopment in West Hillhurst.  This February, Jim Brown interviewed me on his CBC Radio show The 180 about my thoughts and experience on the ever-increasing amount of community engagement cities require before approving new development projects in established communities.

Kensington Legion site redevelopment is now underway with the construction of the Legion/Office Building.  

During The 180 I talked about how it seems people who feel negatively about a new project in their neighbourhood are much more passionate and motivated to speak out than those who think it is a good idea.  I then made an off the cuff remark “that if anyone is aware of research that documents that human’s negative feelings are stronger than positive ones’ I love to hear from them.” 

To my surprise I got 10 responses from listeners with suggestions of books and research papers to read and a TED Talks to check out, all relating to how humans process negative and positive impacts on their lives. 

I thought it would be interesting to share my research, given the NIMBYs recently delayed approval of a controversial Land Use change in Chinatown to allow for more community consultation.   

Link: War Over Future of Calgary's Chinatown, Globe & Mail, April 28, 2016

“GSIN Syndrome”

Alison Ledgerwood’s (University of California at Davis, social psychologist) TED Talk “Getting stuck in the negative” gave the best explanation of how humans innately focus more on the negative than the positive.

In a series of very simple experiments Ledgerwood cleverly documents that once humans see something as negative their opinion stays negative, even after they are given some positive new or information.

On the other hand, people who think of something as positive initially can change their thinking and become negative when presented with some negative news.

She even documents humans process negative new faster than positive news. 

Ledgerwood’s take away message is “our view of the world has a fundamental tendency to tilt towards the negative. It is easy to go from something being good to it being bad, but much harder to go from bad to good.”

While Ledgerwood doesn’t coin the term, I think it might be useful to call this the GSIN (getting stuck in the negative) Syndrome.

Link: Ted Talk: Getting stuck in the negative!

Link: 8-storey Hillhurst condo project irks community members, CBC, May 28, 2014

  Ezra condo is now under construction in Calgary's Hillhurst community   after more than two years of community engagement and redesigns. 

Ezra condo is now under construction in Calgary's Hillhurst community after more than two years of community engagement and redesigns. 

Losses trump gains

Several of the people who responded pointed out that what I was talking about was “loss aversion.” An existing psychological term the refers to the fact humans feel impacted more negatively by the loss of something than they feel impacted positively by an equal gain. 

Link: Angry Harvest Hills homeowners vow to fight golf course redevelopment, GlobalNews, Nov 5, 2016

  Proposed parks and open space for the Harvest Hills Golf Course redevelopment will give residents more not less public space.   Link: Harvest Hills Golf Course redevelopment  

Proposed parks and open space for the Harvest Hills Golf Course redevelopment will give residents more not less public space. Link: Harvest Hills Golf Course redevelopment 

Eureka Moment

So what we have happening when we get a few people, who are adamant that a new development in their neighbourhood is bad, is not necessarily NIMBYism (not in my backyard) but really “loss aversion.” It makes sense. The negative lobbyist are always those who are going to lose something tangible – a park, green space, golf course, quiet street, parking in front of their house, sunlight and/or privacy. 

On the other had, those who are positive about the new development see the future gains in much more abstract terms – maybe increase transit, school enrollment, park improvements, cafés and shops.  They are not as likely to be as passionate.

What Ledgerwood’s research shows is that if enough negative information is presented to those who were at first positive or perhaps even sitting on the fence they have the potential to become negative. 

This is exactly what happens with major projects in established community over and over again. Those who think negatively will come out to meeting after meeting vehemently opposed; send emails to politicians and media and demand that changes be made to fit their exact view of what is acceptable. 

They will rant to their neighbours and anyone who will listen to them about all the negatives, in hope of converting them to the negative side. The longer the engagement goes on the more passionate, frustrated and larger then negative lobby becomes.

Ledgerwood’s work demonstrates those who feel negatively about a new development in their neighbourhood will rarely change their mind no matter how much positive information they are given. This means no amount of community engagement will change their thinking from negative to positive. In fact the unintended consequence of an extended collaboration process could be to create more negativity? 

Link: University Heights residents lose fight over high-density project. CBC, July 30, 2013

Last Word

Perhaps it is time we accept there is no perfect project and that some people will get “stuck in the negative” and no amount of public engagement is going to change that.

An edited version of this blog was published in the Calgary Herald, Saturday May 21, 2016 titled "Some people will always dwell on the gloom." 

If you like this blog, you will like these links:

Kensington Legion: NIMBYs vs YIMBYs

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Calgary's Chinatown Postcards

Chinatowns are fun places to flaneur in any city. Recently, I found myself near Calgary's Chinatown on a sunny spring afternoon with some time to wander so thought I'd check it out. 

I am sad to report it was like a ghost town - no street vitality, shops were empty (many vacant) and many of the building were looking very tired.  For example The Opulence Centre, with HSBC as its anchor, should be an embarrassment for both the bank and the building owner. 

Calgary's Chinatown lacks the hustle and bustle, clutter and chatter that is commonly associated with a healthy chinatown.  

Below are photos of Calgary's Chinatown - the good, the bad and the ugly!

Racy dolls found in Dragon City Mall shop window.

Flickering spring sun on Chinatown's Golden Happiness Plaza and Bakery. 

Archway to Chinese Seniors Centre provides a wonderful vista of the Centre Street Bridge and its iconic lions. 

Chinatown's bilingual culture. 

Chinatown's street vitality includes cars parked on the sidewalk, while street parking spots sit empty and only seniors on the sidewalks.  

One of Chinatown's many lions, with office tower looming in the background. It looks angry!

This fun dragon cut-out that can be found on the railing of Chinatown shop is just one of the many urban surprises. 

Another dragon adorns the entrance to the indoor Dragon City Mall. 

Another fun urban surprise. 

Next to the Bow River, this fish wall is yet another surprise.  

Dragon City Mall has been empty every time in have visited for over a decade. 

Who knew Calgary's Chinatown has a street art alley? 

A Chinatown alley waiting for a couple of murals? 

Super Hero Window in Dragon City Mall.

Colourful Chinatown retail display. 

   Chinese chess or xiangqi is basically a board game fought between two armies each with sixteen pieces. This one was found in a window in upper floor of Dragon City Mall. 

Chinese chess or xiangqi is basically a board game fought between two armies each with sixteen pieces. This one was found in a window in upper floor of Dragon City Mall. 

Chinese Cultural Centre with downtown office towers looming in the background

Last Word 

It would be a shame to lose Calgary's Chinatown as it has been part of our downtown for over 100 years and has the potential to add so much charm and character next to our central business district.  

It should also be a vibrant fun urban playground, not only for those living in Chinatown but all of Calgary's City Centre residents. 

Learn more about Calgary's Chinatown: Link to Calgary's Chinatown History 

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