Good article in the globe about the building and surrounding area.
At Bob Rennie's big launch party for Chinatown's oldest building late last month, the well-heeled crowd of 800 took in a combination of conceptual art, historical artifact and a whole lot of champagne.
In one room was a giant sculptural globe depicting armed conflict around the world. On a wall upstairs, there was an 1890s chalkboard on which remained the original chalk markings of Chinese school children.
It was as much a launch party for the long-awaited restoration of the 1889 Wing Sang Building at 51 E. Pender as it was for the large art pieces exhibited throughout the four-storey space - just a syringe's throw from the notorious Downtown Eastside. The art is by Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum, who flew in from London to be on hand for the opening of the building that will house Mr. Rennie's private art collection and his real estate offices.
"I don't want to make it about me," says Mr. Rennie, "but good ideas come from people who are dedicated to the plan rather than just economics."
He is referring, of course, to the fact that his five-year reno cost in the neighbourhood of $20-million.
It is Mr. Rennie's edifice complex, his dream building that represents his legacy as a world-class art collector.
As the marketing force behind so many of the city's major condo projects, he is also regarded as a key player in re-shaping downtown Vancouver. But will he re-shape Chinatown?
His restored building and art collection, the third largest private collection in Canada, is regarded by many as a beacon that will lead the tired, almost forgotten neighbourhood into a vibrant new era. According to that vision, pedestrians will be drawn to its streets, retailers will thrive, and residents will live in up-to-code living spaces over their stores and cycle to work. Chinese heritage will be preserved. Canada's biggest artist community will flourish. Density will more than double. And social housing will keep the area from becoming the enclave of the urban elite and upwardly mobile.
"People don't have to make as big a gesture," Mr. Rennie says. "They can do a storefront poetry reading, anything - do it. Don't just complain that somebody else is doing it."
As to whether Mr. Rennie's building, or the influence of Mr. Rennie himself, will help trigger the turnaround is a matter of speculation. Mostly, advocates for the area adopt the view that it's a start.
Prominent architect and long-time Chinatown advocate Joe Wai believes that the restored building is a boon.
"The overall thing is that it is generally good for restoration and revitalization of Chinatown," says Mr. Wai. "Bob Rennie is of course a very successful and high-profile adviser to developers, and well-known for his sales of condos. So it carries a message more than just the building. It carries the signal to the developers that this area merits looking at it because Bob Rennie is there.
"There are a lot of non-Chinese people and developers looking at Chinatown now."
There is worry, too, however, that Chinatown might lose its distinct flavour.
"It's fantastic that Bob is down here," says Carol Lee, a businesswoman who sits on many boards and has been active in revitalizing the area. Ms. Lee, who obtained her MBA from Harvard, located her skin care company in Chinatown, and she represents the area's new generation of professionals.
"We welcome innovation and people's efforts to help revitalize Chinatown, but we must always be mindful of the kind of future we want and be sensitive to the neighbourhood's cultural heritage."
Nobody is disputing that Chinatown needs a major injection of life, especially by way of density. Many of the old buildings that could offer housing above the retail floors are half empty because landlords can't afford to bring them up to code requirements, such as seismic upgrades. As well, the swell of new Chinese immigrants in the 1980s moved the Chinese base to the suburb of Richmond.
As Mr. Rennie says: "Richmond hijacked Chinatown. We've all been waiting to get old Chinatown back. It's not coming back."
The question is how to create density, especially in a neighbourhood known for its many opposing factions. The big worry is preserving heritage while bringing the place back to life.
Mr. Wai notes that there are only about 1,000 people living in Chinatown proper.
"There are not enough people living there," he says. "By 6 o'clock the whole place is very quiet and very scary."
Mr. Wai is for density, but he is against oppressive big towers because they don't create vibrancy. Others see higher buildings as the solution.
"If you want Chinatown to work, you have to have people living there, and you can't do that with two-storey buildings," says former city councillor Jim Green, who was a key player in developing the area's massive Woodward's project, comprised of four towers, including 200 units of social housing.
"That's how you pay for the social housing - in height and density."
Realtor and former park commissioner Allan DeGenova is a long-time adviser to the Chinatown Merchants Association. He says the market is ripe for condo development. He points to new nearby high rise developments such as the V6A, which slashed prices by 25 per cent and immediately found eager buyers.
"There is an opportunity to go in and do live-work studios, or save the façades and get the buildings up to seven or eight stories. But the incentive has to come from city hall or we're going to lose [the neighbourhood].
"The market is there. V6A went to market about two weeks ago and sold out about 80 per cent of the product because the price point was very attractive."
Last spring, the planning department consulted the neighbourhood and the surrounding area about options to densify with mid- or high-rise buildings.
A controversial part of that overall review was the question of whether to allow a tower up to 300 feet high at the Chinese Cultural Centre, next to the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Gardens.
But after consultations with residents and business people, the idea of developing any towers was rejected, says Ms. Chen, who will present those findings to council before the 2010 Olympics.
"I think this is going to be a very exciting neighbourhood that is high-density," says Ms. Chen. "You can have density without towers."
Ms. Chen praised the Rennie building for fitting into the vision for a "living community."
But she added that Chinatown is already home to Canada's largest artist community. She is currently helping to develop the Hastings Street Renaissance project between Cambie and Gore, comprised of six long-vacant buildings that will house studios and galleries. Other signs of cultural life are emerging, such as a trendy new Chinese restaurant opening on Keefer Street, aimed at a younger crowd. Next door to Rennie's Wing Sang, will be a new restaurant from the owners of Gastown's popular Salt.
"Some people call it urban acupuncture," she says. "I see a lot of positive things happening."
He might help raise the area's profile, but in development terms, Mr. Rennie's building is still a one-off. Developer Robert Fung, known for his high-quality Gastown heritage developments, tried to redevelop some sites in Chinatown but found the major impediments were city policy and dealing with the building's owners.
"It is a landmark project and it's a great start for Chinatown, but it's not going to be the sole reason for things changing," says Mr. Fung. "There's a bunch of city policy that needs to be resolved and Chinatown itself needs to figure out what it wants to be.
"There are so many fractured opinions about what needs to happen. That's been a big challenge to trying to put together a co-ordinated effort to try to change things."
Mr. DeGenova insists that real change pivots on the city offering incentives such as tax breaks so that business people can economically upgrade their buildings.
"It's a good business model that [Bob Rennie] can write off, and he has his gallery to show his pieces, and it's a showpiece and it's great. But for anybody else to build a Bob Rennie building with those numbers? You can't justify that. When you work it backwards per square foot, that's $900 a square foot, and that will never happen."
Mr. Rennie himself knows that his building is a rarity in any neighbourhood, never mind Chinatown.
"I don't expect people to spend what I spent. I can't afford what I spent.
"Nobody will spend $2-million getting $800 a month in rent. Nobody will do that. These benevolent societies can't do that ... that's why the oldest building in Chinatown is owned by a Caucasian. Everybody wants an economic return. But I think that groups will get together and look for a cultural return."
So is he helping to save Chinatown?
"I don't know, but I think that we brought some balance," responds Mr. Rennie. "I would love to say we are bringing energy. Let's wait and see how it's measured."