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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All downtowns must reinvent themselves!

While it is shocking Calgary’s downtown skyscraper “vacancy rate” skyrocketed to 20% at the end of March, (and that it could soon surpass the vacancy record of 22% set in 1983, twice what it was a year ago), we should keep some perspective.

These numbers are not unheard of in major corporate headquarter cities. Back in the ‘70s, New York City was in decline. By the mid ‘70s, New York City came close to bankruptcy and their office vacancy rate hit 20%. In 1993, Toronto’s downtown office vacancy rate hit 20.4% and Vancouver’s rose to 17.4% in 2004. And these may not even be records as data only goes back only to 1990 for those cities.

Today, New York City, Toronto and Vancouver’s downtowns are booming a testament to the fact that all downtowns go through periods of growth, decline and rebirth.

Montreal's St. Catherine Street has once again become a vibrant street with shops and street festival; this was not the case in the '70s when I first visited. 

Heyday and Decline

It might surprise some people to learn that in the early 20th century, Buffalo was one of the world’s leading cities. 

Home to America's first electric streetlights, it also had one of the world's first skyscrapers (Guaranty Building, 1894) and the world's largest office building (Ellicott Square, 1896). It hosted the 1901 Pan-American Exhibition and its beautiful park system was designed by none other than Fredrick Law Olmstead, the designer of New York City’s Central Park.

At the beginning of the 20st century Winnipeg was the fastest growing city on the continent. In 1912, a Chicago Tribune writer called Winnipeg “Chicago of the North” and described it as Canada’s most cosmopolitan and ethnically diverse centre, with most of its population under the age of forty. It was described as Canada’s liveliest city, full of bustle and optimism. In 1911, Winnipeg was Canada’s third largest city; today it is eighth. 

The downtowns of both these cities fell into decline in the middle of the 20th century and while they have not returned to the hustle and bustle of their heydays, both are enjoying a modest renaissance.

Buffalo's waterfront was once thriving industrial and shipping centre, today it is being transformed into a wonderful public spaces for locals and tourists. 

Buffalo's Canalside development development is animated year round. (photo credit: Joe Cascio)

The Forks (where the Red and Assiniboine Rivers meet in Winnipeg) has been transformed into a mixed-use public space with two museums, baseball field, outdoor performance space, winter skating, market and hotel.  

Decline and Rebirth

In the ‘60s, the case could still be made that Montreal was Canada’s business capital. Its downtown was a major office headquarters for Quebec’s natural resource industry as well as a thriving financial industry, including the head offices of the Bank of Montreal, Royal Bank of Canada and insurance giant, Sun Life.

In 1962, when the Place Ville Marie office designed by iconic architects I.M. Pei and Henry N. Cobb opened, it symbolized Montreal’s arrival as world-class city.  This was further reinforced with the hosting of Expo 67, the arrival of Montreal Expos baseball team in 1969, and the 1976 Olympics.

However, the ‘70s brought the threat of separation, which resulted in many corporate headquarters and their executives moving to Toronto. By 1971, Toronto’s population surpassed Montreal’s. The 1976 Montreal Olympics, the most expensive in history, plunged the City into a legacy of debt and decline for decades.

Today, Montreal downtown has reinvented itself as an international tourist destination and a major player in the gaming and music industries.

Old Montreal is one of Canada's best urban tourist attractions. 

Then there was New York City.  In 1975, it was on the brink of bankruptcy.

The gradual economic and social decay set in during the‘60s. The city's subway system was regarded as unsafe due to crime and frequent mechanical breakdowns. Central Park was the site of numerous muggings and rapes; homeless persons and drug dealers occupied boarded-up and abandoned buildings. Times Square became an ugly, seedy place dominated by crime, drugs and prostitution. 

Today, New York City is back as one of the world’s most successful cities, economically and culturally…and Times Square is again one of the world’s most popular urban tourist attractions.

In the '60s and '70s the area around Times Square was a "no go" zone for tourists and locals. (photo credit: Ilana Galed)

Today Times Square is bustling with people of all ages and backgrounds.  It has become a wonderful public space as a result of street closures. 

Calgary’s Future

Perhaps Calgary has already begun to reinvent itself.

The CBRE’s First Quarter 2016 Report states, “Not all commercial real estate in the city has been affected, though. Suburban office space held steady fro,m the last quarter, and the industrial real estate market is still robust because it’s not tied to oil and gas.” 

Indeed, Calgary has become one of North America’s largest Inland Port cities, including two state-of-the art intermodal rail operations.  Calgary is now the distribution headquarters for Western Canada a position once held by Winnipeg. Today, Calgary’s industrial sectors employ more people than the energy sector.  However, this new economic engine won’t help vacant downtown office spaces as it is not downtown- oriented.

Link: Calgary Region: An Inland Port

Calgary Economic Development is working with the real estate community to implement a Head Office/Downtown Office Plan with three action items.

One idea is the repurposing of smaller older office spaces as incubators and innovation hubs to attract millennials and/or entrepreneurs and the creation of incubation and co-sharing space.  A good example of this is in West Hillhurst, where Arlene Dickenson (a successful Calgary entrepreneur, venture capitalist and former start of the TV show Dragon’s Den) has converted an old office building at the corner of Memorial Drive and Kensington Road (once home to an engineering firm) into District Ventures, home to several start-up packaged goods companies.

New and old office buildings in downtown Calgary with multiple floors of vacant office space will be difficult to convert to other uses. 

Another “repurposing” idea would be to convert some older office buildings into residential uses. In the US, programs like “Vacant places into Vibrant spaces,” have been successful but mostly for office to residential conversions of older buildings with smaller floor plates.  They don’t work for offices buildings with floor plates over 7,500 square feet (which is the case for most of Calgary’s empty high rise office space), as it is expensive and difficult to meet residential building codes which are very different from commercial ones, making it difficult to compete with new residential construction.

In an ideal world, Calgary could become a “Global Talent Hub” where skilled workers who have been displaced from the energy and related industries continue to live in Calgary but become a remote workforce for energy projects around the world. Temporary and permanent satellite offices could be established in Calgary with teams of engineers, geologists, accountants, bankers etc. working on projects around the world.

The obvious strategy would be to woo international companies in the finance, insurance, transportation, agriculture, digital media and renewable resources industries to set up a Canadian or North American office in Calgary, maybe even relocate their headquarters here.   With cities like San Francisco, Seattle and Boston facing mega affordable housing crisis for millennial workers, Calgary could become a very attractive place for a satellite office for companies in those cities.

One “off the wall idea” postulated by George Brookman, C.E.O of West Canadian Industries, would be to promote Calgary as an International Centre for Energy Dispute Resolution, similar to the Netherland’s TAMARA (Transportation And Maritime Arbitration Rotterdam-Amsterdam) that offers an extrajudicial platform for conducting professional arbitration for settling disputes. However, this would take years and one wonders could Calgary compete with London and New York who are already leaders in International Arbitration business?  

Last Word

Calgary has reinvented itself before. It evolved from a ranching/agriculture-based economy to an oil and gas one in the middle of the 20th century, which was when our downtown came of age. The downtown core which is an office ghetto today would benefit immensely if incentives could be made to convert a dozen or so office buildings into condos, apartments or hotels to create a better “live, work, play” balance.

Note: An edited version of this blog was published by CBC Crossroads titled “Revitalizing Calgary’s core: Some possibilities for rebirth” on June 17, 2016.

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