Imminent demolition of 122 year old building in Vancouver’s old Japantown

Demolition of 120 year old Ming Sung Benevolent Society building/SRO/art space

The frantic festival of demolition continues in Vancouver, a city whose demolition rate is double that of Toronto’s. And Toronto is no paragon of heritage either.

The City of Vancouver is attempting to force demolition of the 122 year-old building which belongs to the Ming Sun Benevolent Society. The building, on a significant block of Vancouver’s vanishing old Japantown, functioned as a clean well-run SRO with eight units and a community reading and meeting room, all above an extensive cultural space rented out to an art collective called Instant Coffee. The art collective produced the poster above.

The building was said to be structurally damaged (it wasn’t) when the building next door, for unknown reasons (vandalism? sabotage? maintenance issues?) cracked and then was hastily ordered demolished by the City. By most accounts the City bears¬† responsibility for this situation. Following the demolition next door, the City then condemned the Ming Sun building and barred tenants from entering. These elderly tenants, mostly Chinese Canadian and First Nations, were evicted without warning. They were given no time to collect their belongings. The City took no responsibility for finding replacement housing for them, and some went on to sleep rough. It now appears that the building will be demolished by this Friday. The owner, a Chinese family association, is unable to pay for the demolition and rebuilding and will therefore be forced to sell the lot to the City.

Members and former residents of the Benevolent Society are beyond distraught.

In all of this there is rumoured involvement of a neighbouring landowner, said to have ties to the City, who has had his eye on these lots, but this is not yet confirmed. In any case there have been reports of what appears to be suspicious vandalism of the Ming Sung building since the City closed it off.

Access to the building is currently barred. The Instant Coffee art collective is unfortunately away in Korea working on a project. Its friends in Vancouver would like to help but are unable to enter and clear out all its goods. The City has been arbitrary and unresponsive throughout with all parties. Its uncommunicativeness serves to give the appearance of wanting to bury the story and complete the demolitions as fast as possible before an outcry can be raised. If the belongings of the tenants are destroyed in a demolition – and since tenants can’t get in to retrieve their possessions this seems inevitable – will the City compensate them? And in a city that is the 2nd most unaffordable in the world relative to median income, where will these tenants go?

The City has said, and will no doubt continue to say, that the public doesn’t have all the facts (and given the lack of transparency of the current administration, there’s often some truth to that), that the offending building is a “fire trap” (ie. the municipal version of the “national security” excuse), and in short that the City knows best.

But does it?

This is one of the the twenty oldest buildings in the City and a good example of that era’s boomtown architecture. It offers affordable housing to seniors in the Downtown Eastside. It is an important component of cultural life for the Chinese community.¬† It played a major role in the history of Japantown and the Japanese Canadian community in Vancouver. And it provides valuable affordable art space in a city where that commodity is fast diminishing. Affordable housing, a hedge against homelessness, a sturdy old resilient building made of old growth lumber that would be non-ecological to replace, a piece of architectural heritage for many communities and for the whole city, and affordable studio space for the arts. This building matched every stated objective of the current regime at City Hall. And they’re now mandating its demolition, for no reason. They must make this right.

How is any of this in line with the City’s stated commitment to affordable housing, to protecting the arts from unaffordability, and to heritage values? The city’s new heritage plan was announced only this week. Other cities maintain buildings in far worse shape than this one.

How is any of this demolition part of a Greenest City initiative?

Those of us who live and work down here are closely watching the City of Vancouver, the ruling Vision Vancouver party run by Mike Magee, and City Manager Penny Ballem. This level of hermetic and arbitrary behaviour is undemocratic and just one more example of the poor urban management we’ve been enduring here.

Powell Street demolition

The first demolition on the Powell Street block in question. This photo taken in August.

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