Montreal's plan to save Chinatown must go further to protect intangible heritage, report says

Montreal's plan to save Chinatown must go further to protect intangible heritage, report says

The city of Montreal's plan to protect its Chinatown district's built heritage is a good one, but officials must go further to preserve the historic neighbourhood's intangible heritage and ensure its vitality as a living environment, according to the city's public consultation office.

In January, the Office de consultation publique de Montréal (OCPM) was mandated to hold a consultation on a proposed bylaw, which aimed to modify the city of Montreal's urban plan to protect Chinatown against unbridled development.

The neighbourhood has seen its footprint shrink in Montreal for decades, and many fear that without urgent action, the encroaching city could soon swallow the historic community. More than 700 people took part in the consultations.

The OCPM released its 70-page report Thursday outlining nine recommendations for the revitalization of the neighbourhood.

Submitted by Office de consultation publique de Montréal
Submitted by Office de consultation publique de Montréal

The first is to adopt the city's bylaw, which would expand the sector considered to be of "exceptional heritage value," and reduce the maximum allowable heights and densities of new buildings. The new western boundary of the neighbourhood would be Jeanne-Mance Street instead of de Bleury Street and the eastern boundary would become St-Élisabeth Street, not St-Dominique Street.

The new regulations provide for maximum heights between 25 metres (about six storeys) and 35 metres, and up to 65 metres in the western part of the district. The report recommends the city consider further decreasing this proposed height as many participants in the consultation said they didn't want new construction to top the current buildings in the neighbourhood, which are approximately three to four storeys.

May Chiu, co-ordinator of the Chinatown Roundtable and former member of the Chinatown Working Group, said her group is very happy with the report. She said she was pleased to see the commissioners take into account a large scope of the community's needs while also ensuring the survival of the historical buildings.

"We saw that Chinatown was being destroyed physically and so we thought that once we lost the physical aspects of Chinatown, we wouldn't even have a space around which to assemble and do our activities and foster community life," said Chiu.

"The fact that now, you know, it seems like we're able to have a physical place around which the community can congregate, now we can also put our energies into developing Chinatown from a holistic point of view."

The report also recommends adding specific design criteria for any new construction or renovation to preserve the Chinese visual elements of the neighbourhood.

Submitted by Office de consultation publique de Montréal
Submitted by Office de consultation publique de Montréal

'Not just the buildings'

Further to the city's original plans, the OCPM report says city officials must implement other protective measures in Chinatown in order to preserve its intangible heritage.

The report says this heritage is not sufficiently known or recognized, and it therefore recommends that the city carry out a study of it.

"We really are trying to focus on not just the buildings and the built environment that make Chinatown special, but also the activities inside these buildings," said Jessica Chen, co-founder of the Jia Foundation and a city planning professional.

She said activities and cultural practices, such as lion dances, occur in these old heritage buildings, as well as congregations of Chinatown's family associations.

"Once we know why we are protecting them and how, then you need to start putting resources to really actually promote them," said Chen.

On the subject of the neighbourhood's living environment and economic vitality, the report recommends the city invest in necessary resources in order to protect "the soul of the district."

The report says the city would do well to increase the stock of social and affordable housing, create green spaces in order to counter heat islands in the neighbourhood and promote the development of sport, community and cultural infrastructures.

WATCH | Advocates reflect on Chinatown's unique history: 

The report also recommends that inventory of the district's buildings and their conditions be carried out in order to identify those most at risk and to provide a framework for intervention.

"We are advocating for the type of revitalization that is centred around the existing community, existing heritage assets that are already there," said Chen.

"To me, Chinatown is the type of future neighbourhood that [is] rooted in its past."

The two groups say they're hopeful the city will implement these recommendations and that they'll be followed up with money.

At a news conference Thursday, Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante said she had been anxiously awaiting the report and was looking forward to reading it.