Squeezing Strathcona: Chinatown development and endangered neighbourhoods

Houses, high-rises, and Hendrix: the changing faces of Chinatown and Strathcona. This is the war for the Eastern Core.

Spot the redevelopment: can you tell the old from the new in Chinatown?

Street life, it's the only life I know

I'm walking with a local artist through the neighbourhood, and that neighbourhood is changing. Strathcona and Chinatown are surrounded by encroaching high-rise developments from without and gentrification from within.

Chinatown's streets are bustling. Though it's not chain-store shopping like you find on Robson, it's a community in motion. Downtown and Coal Harbour only wish for this sort of round-the-clock foot traffic.

However, those conducting local business on Main and Keefer will soon have to do so in the shadows. The southwest corner will be home to a 17-story condo building. Westbank is calling it Ni Hao: that's pretty cheeky. However, they're not quite cheeky enough to announce the development with a street-facing sign. Westbank advertises to the alley instead.

Ni Hao Bldg: 188 Keefer

As you can see, the Ni Hao looks like every other condo development you see along False Creek. The Ni Hao will be two storeys shorter than its neighbour: the southwest corner will be home to a 10-storey condo building, built by Solterra (the folks who bought the Waldorf).

The result is quite literally shady: no afternoon sun on this stretch of Main Street. That kinda hurts, considering how little sunlight we get to begin with.

When you rip out an existing building (plain though it may be) and replace it with a high-rise, high-end condo, you are in effect dictating who will get to live there. In other words, how many locals do you think can afford to move in at Ni Hao? In other-other words, developments like this are tearing chunks out of Chinatown. Eating it alive.

The problem with these new buildings is that their units are the wrong size, my artist guide says. A one-bedroom apartment that costs half a million dollars is useless to anyone other than an investor: too spendy for a single person, too small for a family. 

We walk past another new development that's going up at 219 East Georgia, around the corner from Ni Hao. It'll stand nine floors high and very narrow, almost shy in its presence on the block. Each unit will be bite-sized: the average is around 500 square feet. Basically, they're "convertible 1BRs", studios with semi-separated sleeping areas.

They're not as small as the micro-lofts on West Hastings, but they're definitely part of a trend. 221A has brilliantly skewered the concept, taking the idea of granular property ownership to only a slightly smaller scale and pointing out that the move to smaller spaces has not delivered the promised affordability. Besides, it turns out that these micro-lofts are getting purchased by investors, and not by residents hoping for an affordable slice of the city.

Vancouver is full of crackheads

Forget all the hype about "market forces": new condo buildings are pushed by developers who want to make money, period.

In turn, marketers get paid when there's a new building to market. Construction firms get paid when there's a new tower to build. And, of course, the city gets paid come tax time, as well as with each construction event.

Indeed, why should the City of Vancouver care about affordable housing? The city cashes in on property tax, so why settle for less? Meanwhile, Vancouver profits from developers directly: each fee paid to rezone and break ground is like a hit of crack. Who's an addict now?

True addicts don't really think past tomorrow: they aren't really able to. Similarly, a lack of vision toward holistic development is painting Vancouver into a corner, my guide says. The city is transforming into a suburb of itself: lots of places to live, but less and less to do; and fewer and fewer people to contribute to the city's culture.

This is a citywide version of the overgentrification of New York's Chelsea neighbourhood, where high-rise after high-rise have been sterilizing the avenues over the past several years.

In New York, artists, musicians, and pretty much everyone outside Wall Street makes do because the city is a hub of global industry and culture. It's where the action is. However, my friend notes, "Vancouver is not New York City. There's nothing to justify these high prices. The landscape's not enough."

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