Vancouver council approves nearly $1M for Chinatown upgrades

Graffiti is pictured on businesses in the Chinatown neighbourhood in Vancouver, British Columbia on Monday, Jan. 17, 2022.  (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
Graffiti is pictured on businesses in the Chinatown neighbourhood in Vancouver, British Columbia on Monday, Jan. 17, 2022. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

Vancouver city council has approved new funding aimed at reviving its historic Chinatown neighbourhood.

"Safety, security and cleanliness," summarized Carol Lee, the chair of the Vancouver Chinatown Foundation, who spoke to council prior to its decision.

"I think the merchants and the businesses of Chinatown can do a lot. But we just need that as the starting point."

The report, which passed unanimously, commits $390,000 for cleanup programs, $210,000 for graffiti removal and prevention, and $110,000 to staff a city office in the neighbourhood for six months.

It stems from a resolution passed in November brought forward by Coun. Sarah Kirby-Yung, who expressed optimism it would address many of the concerns of community members and businesses in recent years.

"I hope it sends the message to Chinatown that help is on the way," she said.

"These are tangible measures that the community has been asking for, including increased sanitation and help with a lot of the day-to-day issues that really make it difficult for those struggling to survive … if we lose Chinatown, we really lose the heart of Vancouver.

In addition, the report provides approximately $1.5 million for similar cleaning and graffiti abatement programs in other neighbourhoods across the city.

The recommended funds are slated to be added to the 2023 draft operating budget, either by reallocating money earmarked for other projects or adding a further 0.2 per cent increase to a proposed five per cent property tax hike.

'Small businesses need our support'

The report says staff will return to council at the end of the year with an update on the progress, outcomes and achievements of the pilot project and details about the next, longer-term steps.

Several speakers, who talked about difficulties the community has had in recent years, echoed the need for updates and reports back on outcomes, along with a request that the city office be located on the ground floor of a building to increase openness with the community.

Many referenced recent comments by the owners of the popular New Town Bakery, who said they were considering shutting down due to a decline in business and increased crime.

"I do hope this creates a path forward to the economic vitality in Chinatown … it's scary," said Lorraine Lowe, executive director of the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden.

"Hopefully, this is a good start, but the small businesses need our support."

Prior to the discussion, council made a proclamation for the Chinese Lunar New Year, with Mayor Ken Sim expressing his support for this weekend's Chinatown parade, the first for the event since 2020.

"There's going to be a lot of us out for that," he said.

Shift in focus

Mayor Ken Sim said the funds would help the area but having an integrated safety approach for Chinatown and the adjacent Downtown Eastside was critical.

"They're definitely connected. They share a border. You can argue it's effectively the same neighbourhood," he said.

"And that's why we reached out to both provincial and federal governments and said very humbly we need a lot of support. Vancouver on its own cannot solve this challenge."

Much of the 2022 election that Sim won was centred around questions of whether the city's approach to crime and safety issues was effective, with many high-profile random attacks happening in the Chinatown area.

The mayor agreed that the historic neighbourhood was "a big part of our campaign."

"A lot of us grew up in Chinatown. And that isn't just people in the Chinese community. You talk to all the councillors, and they have fond memories of Chinatown, what it was before, and what it can be again."

Kirby-Yung said the city's new approach to Chinatown marked a shift from the past five years, which focused in part on trying to secure a UNESCO World Heritage designation.

"There's no point in pursuing a UNESCO designation if you have lost all of the heritage that makes Chinatown, Chinatown," she said.

"I've always felt that that balance was off, and I think what you're seeing from council today is a recognition of that we need to help Chinatown be healthy in the short term so that we can support and save it in the long term."