5. Chinatown and Gastown

Single Top 10

2005 Top10 Watch List

5. Chinatown and Gastown

The future of Chinatown & Gastown is again uncertain ­but it’s not due to lack of heritage incentives. Property owners and developers are indeed rushing to the trough­ not to rehabilitate, however, but to demolish all but street-facing facades.

The future of Chinatown & Gastown is again uncertain – but it’s not due to lack of heritage incentives. In fact, we congratulated the City on the adoption of generous incentives that included long-awaited tax breaks. Finally, we thought, property owners can finance rehabilitation and re-use.

Well, property owners and developers are indeed rushing to the trough – not to rehabilitate, however, but to demolish all but street-facing facades. In return, of course, they ask for heritage benefits and the arguments for facadism are disturbingly similar: old structures are unstable or deteriorated, require expensive seismic upgrades, have unworkable floor-plans, can’t accommodate parking, etcetera.

This raises disturbing questions: is conservation of a historic district only about facades? What is the purpose of heritage incentives? Does the need for economic revitalization trump conservation?


In Chinatown, this situation is critical, because its buildings have rich historical significance – e.g., the many family and benevolent association structures and buildings such as the former Chinese Times and the Chinese Freemasons.

To date, proposals for the latter two, either approved or pending, retain little beyond the buildings’ shell. This is now our big concern for the Wing Sang building, featured in the 2004 Top Ten list.

Reputedly the oldest structure in Chinatown, the original building (at 51 Pender Street) is a tiny two-storey ‘Victorian Italianate’ dating from 1889. The second floor is unique for its ‘doorway-to nowhere’ through which furniture was winched to bypass narrow stairways. The 1889 building was incorporated into a larger structure built in 1901 by owner Yip Sang and designed by architect Thomas Ennor Julian (best known for Holy Rosary Cathedral). The 3-storey addition, featuring a second-floor row of bay windows, housed Chinatown’s first Chinese doctor and two of its best-known restaurants – the BC Royal and the Yen Lock.

Behind the building was Market Alley, once a thriving retail area of small shops and services. In 1912, Yip Sang built a 6-storey brick building behind to provide a separate floor for each of his families – 3 wives and 23 children. Last fall, HV was encouraged to hear of the building’s purchase by Bob Rennie, who was reported to be planning a full heritage restoration, with offices and an art gallery in the front building and conversion of the alley building to loft condos. Now, however, rumour has it that little but the exterior will remain. If this is the case, an important piece of Chinatown’s history will be lost, and a disturbing precedent set. Chinatown deserves more than facadism!


In Gastown, an iconic streetscape, five pivotal buildings may be compromised. Three related development proposals affect the historic Alhambra Hotel (1886) on Maple Tree Square, and all intervening buildings as far as the former Terminus Hotel – including the ‘Garage’, the Cordage Building and the Grand Hotel. Only the Terminus Hotel’s facade remains after a tragic fire.

The developer is now requesting that the Grand join its neighbour in the facade club, due to structural rot, unworkable layouts, and proposed parking excavation. Equally disturbing is the proposed height and bulk of additions: under the previous zoning (kept on the books to appease Gastown property owners), developers can forego heritage incentives and build to a full height of 75-ft with no set-backs. This allows applicants the leverage to demand bonus height and floor space well in excess of the norm.

The initial proposal would pile 3 floors above the Grand’s current 3 storeys and 2 additional floors on top of the Terminus; the result would overwhelm the existing facades. As well, the bulky additions would be major intrusions in the streetscape, especially as viewed along Water Street from the west.

A related proposal includes 3 additional floors on the ‘Garage’ and (gasp!) a 2-storey glass addition on top of the Alhambra.