Gabriel Yiu article

Relaxing Chinatown building height restrictions could have negative consequences

By Gabriel Yiu, March 3, 2011
Originally published in the Georgia Straight

In the name of revitalization, many community association leaders have been pushing Vancouver city hall to relax Chinatown’s building height restrictions. It’s known that some of these leaders and their families own many properties in Chinatown. If the city decides to change the zoning, many of the Chinatown properties would increase in value.

Nevertheless, from the community’s point of view, would that be beneficial?

Chinatown property tax will soar

In the past two decades, I’ve heard a lot of complaints from the owners and small business operators of Chinatown about the high property tax they have to bear. For the small businesses who lease the space, they often have a triple net lease arrangement, meaning that they have to pay the property tax as part of their lease cost.

Some years ago, I visited B.C. Assessment to learn about the situation. According to the official explanation, property assessment is based on the transaction value and value estimation of the property.

The officials told me that although they sympathized with the difficulties of Chinatown merchants and understood that many of the properties collect low rents and the merchants’ business was slow, such difficulties had little effect on their property assessment. It’s because some of the properties were sold at high prices. Even though there are only a few transactions, that’s enough to affect the property assessment of Chinatown.

Since property tax is calculated according to the assessed value of the property, if the property assessment goes up, the property tax goes up also.

Once the city relaxes the building height limitation, even if there are no immediate transactions, the assessed property value of buildings in Chinatown would still go up. As a result, so will property tax.

The appreciation of property value sounds like good news, but it really depends on you standpoint. If you’re a property owner who is going to sell or re-develop your property, this would bring you quick and impressive profits.

But for those who are not planning to sell at this time, or those who want to sell but are unable to, or for those who lease the space, this is not good news. It’s because they would have to pay more property tax. Those who would be affected are not only property owners, but their tenants, as well. The impact of this affects both small business operators and community associations who might have their clubhouses in Chinatown.

Not going to improve business or safety

Those who advocate for a relaxation claim that the new measure would bring in more business and improve safety in Chinatown. Would that really be so? My understanding is the City of Vancouver has yet to complete the economic and social impact analysis.

As well, we’d heard the same reasons when the International Village was built. What’s the result? The residents there have not increased the walking traffic and business in Chinatown. Although the mall has been open for business for quite some time, according to its website, there are still over 40 vacant units.

In fact, the International Village Mall has diverted some merchants from setting up shop in Chinatown. Its supermarket has taken a lot of business away from the shops in the core of Chinatown.

Thus, I don’t believe building more towers would solve the problems of Chinatown. On the contrary, I think the height relaxation could jeopardize Chinatown.

Safety concerns

One has to consider the negative effects of tall buildings on the streets and back alleys.

Crimes and unsavory dealings usually occur in a dark environment. The shadow of the new tall buildings would affect the available light on the streets and back alleys, especially during winter and rainy days.

I still remember there was a time when the back alleys of Chinatown were a mess and no pedestrians would walk there. It was only after a big clean-up campaign that brighter and cleaner alleys appeared there. That helped to reduce crime and improve public safety.

The new tall buildings would affect not only the back alleys but the front streets too.

Chinatown would lose its traditional landscape

I was born and brought up in Hong Kong. I have seen clearly there how long-term societal interests have been sacrificed to short-term development interests.

All historical districts have restrictions on building and demolishing structures in the area. They also restrict the height of new buildings. It’s because newly added buildings could severely affect the environment and the landscape.

For example, if you build a glass tower in a neighborhood that was built in the colonial period, or install a tower in a Siheyuan (traditional Chinese house with a courtyard in the middle), the entire environment would be ruined.

Likewise, when community leaders want to replace the Chinese Cultural Centre with a tall tower, or build a tower beside the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, the landscape of the entire Chinatown would be adversely affected.

Consider this: would UBC build a residential tower beside its lovely Nitobe Memorial Garden (classical Japanese garden)? It’s unfortunate that in the Chinese community, we have community leaders advocating such ideas.

The sad fact is, when tall towers are installed in Chinatown, all the surrounding buildings would be dwarfed.

On revitalizing Chinatown, my view has always been to promote and strengthen its cultural traditions (including historical, architectural, artistic, associational, and business). Such traditions are absent in Chinese shopping centres in Richmond and other places. For tourists and people from outside of the Chinese community, a traditional Chinatown in Vancouver is more attractive than the Chinese malls in Richmond.

Sadly, if the height limit is relaxed, and towers are installed among two- to three-storey-high buildings, I don’t think we will be able to maintain the traditional landscape of our Vancouver Chinatown.

Gabriel Yiu is a small businessperson and was the B.C. NDP candidate in Vancouver-Fraserview in the 2009 election.