Posts Tagged ‘Vancouver’
Update on the Ming Sun Building – low-income housing in Vancouver’s boomtown architecture threatenedWednesday, January 15th, 2014
Orange Cars Powell, 1973, Photo reprinted by kind permission of Equinox Gallery and Fred Herzog. (Contact the gallery if you’re interested in purchasing one of this edition of 20.)
The Ming Sun Building is still standing. So far. Please see the previous post on the building, written in December when its survival seemed even more precarious.
The Restore 439 Powell group posted the above photo today. Thanks to eminent Vancouver photographer Fred Herzog and Andy Sylvester of Equinox Gallery for allowing us to republish it. Fred’s support of this conservation effort has been valuable and most welcome. We were glad to have him visit the site in late December.
The Ming Sun building at 439 Powell Street, one of the 20 oldest buildings in Vancouver, still remains under a demolition order by the City of Vancouver despite being deemed structurally sound by more than one set of structural engineers. One of these engineers actually told me that it’s much more structurally sound than many functioning buildings in the city. One of the reasons it’s in such good shape is that it was meticulously maintained over the years by its various owners. The Ming Sun Benevolent Society has a perfect record regarding inspections and in fact exceeded the City’s requirements decade after decade, including installing sprinklers inside when it was not required to go to the expense of doing so. All of this maintenance was methodically documented, so anything you read in the media about it being ill-kept or derelict is absolutely, patently false. It is very disturbing to hear staff and a councillor continue to spread this misinformation, when they’ve been shown ample evidence to the contrary. This building was a clean, well-lighted place, to lift a phrase from Hemingway, and it provided excellent housing for low-income seniors. Even the appliances were all new.
The situation with the Ming Sun Building, as explained in the previous post, was triggered when the building immediately to the east was hastily demolished by the City after it suddenly (perhaps not so mysteriously) developed structural problems. Subsequent to that demolition, the City arbitrarily deemed the Ming Sun building at 439 Powell to be unsafe as well. Here are only a few of the questions we have about this situation: If as more than one set of structural engineers has confirmed the Ming Sun building is structurally sound, why did the City hastily deem it a hazard and evict all its elderly tenants? Why not bring in engineers to look at it before evicting? Having evicted the elderly, why did the City not find those tenants replacement housing, leaving an organization to attempt to re-house them all in under 10 hours before nightfall? Then, having disallowed the Ming Sun Benevolent Society and its tenants from entering, thus leaving the building open to vandalism, why did the City not secure the building? Not surprisingly, extensive looting of items like copper electrical wire and other recyclable metals ensued, causing major damage to the interior. This was then followed by suspiciously expert sabotage of the sprinkler system during which someone turned the building’s water back on at the main, smashed key sprinkler heads and then left all the pieces on the floor (indicating this wasn’t looters looking for metal to recycle). The building was then flooded overnight, and while this failed to destroy the building, it caused extra heartbreak and damage. Where was the City while all this was going on? Additionally, why was a police investigation into the vandalism called off? There are too many questions that remain unanswered regarding events at the Ming Sun building. I have omitted many here, particularly regarding high-handed actions on the part of the City and some of its staff. And then there’s the neighbour who owns the lots on either side of the Ming Sun building (including the one where his now-demolished building stood) and who has in the past openly stated he would buy the Ming Sun’s lot too. There are other even more concerning facts and questions which I’ll leave for now, but the story cries out for a TV drama.
When the above picture was taken in 1973 by renowned Vancouver photographer Fred Herzog, the Ming Sun Benevolent Society building was light blue and bore a sign saying “Bak-Mei Kung-Fu Association” above one of its two shopfronts. But its history goes back much further, to 1891, and includes a long history in the Japanese community. Many “firsts” in the Vancouver’s Japanese community occurred there, and then enjoyed a similar role in the Chinese community under the Ming Sun Benevolent Society. The building thus acts as a lens for viewing a large chunk of the city’s history. Take a look at the website that our Restore 439 Powell Street group has built for ample evidence of this.
To sum up, the Ming Sun Building was needlessly deemed uninhabitable, the tenants were needlessly evicted, damage was needlessly allowed to happen, and a huge amount of work was needlessly inflicted on the many of us trying to rectify the situation.
The City of Vancouver must pay restitution for everything that happened under its orders and on its watch. It needs to foot the bill for getting the building up and running, just the way it was when City Hall set all of this needless destruction in motion.
I will post more updates soon. If you have any spare cash, please make a small (or large) donation to our fund, which helps pay for security and other immediate repairs/building protection until we can get the situation sorted out.
I’ll end with an item from the UN Habitat Declaration on Human Settlements, as part of values affirmed by the international coalition of municipalities:
“We shall promote the conservation, rehabilitation and maintenance of buildings, monuments, open spaces, landscapes and settlement patterns of historical, cultural, architectural, natural, religious or spiritual value.”
Other interesting stories on this building that may be of interest:
• Detailed account of the demolition fiasco from the 439 website
• A letter on the important, early Japanese history of the building in historic Nihonmachi or Japantown, by a well known activist in Vancouver’s Japanese-Canadian community.
• Omni TV aired a history of the Ming Sun Benevolent Society, mentioning its role in funding the overthrow of the Qing, the last imperial dynasty in China, and helping Dr Sun Yat-sen in Vancouver.
• Two very interesting articles in the South China Morning Post, a Hong Kong daily with an enormous readership:
Outrage at demolition order for Chinese elders’ Vancouver home – Distraught Chinese tenants of Vancouver benevolent home claim property developer is behind council’s action to evict them
Volunteer watchmen guard the legacy of Vancouver’s threatened Ming Sun Society
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.
The first demolition on the Powell Street block in question. This photo taken in August.
Great video shot on Hallowe’en, October 31, 2013. Over 1000 dolphins swim alongside a BC Ferries vessel on its way to Vancouver through Georgia Strait.
CBC report confirms they’re Pacific white-sided dolphins which usually congregate farther out to sea. Some have suggested that dwindling food supplies have driven them nearer to shore. I saw a pod of about 200 from a ferry in 2011.
Ferry captain is a joker. “Ladies and gentlemen, there’s quite the dolphin show off the starboard side. Tickets can be purchased from the chief steward’s office.”
Vancouver artist Ken Lum took the opportunity of a Pecha Kucha appearance to talk about the his city, its history and its habits, and its demolition and disappearance. Though he said little about his own work, none of the concerns or ethic of his art were missing. His offhanded, throwaway tone only barely conceals outrage. And there’s a surprise ending.
Like me, Ken is one of the few Vancouverites with deep roots here. Of course Ken has now left the city, and we miss him.
How many others will leave now that the city is up for grabs by Big Money, derelict government and careless stupidity?
Ken’s right when he says that the demolition of the Pantages Theatre—the oldest vaudeville theatre in the country, soon to be condos—was an “abomination.”
The following slide got an immediate laugh of recognition from the audience. ”It just shows you how crummy the details are now when you look down at the street…”
In case you think that what follows is an exaggeration, please take a quick look at the recent articles listed below. They are only a small selection from a rising wave of articles on gentrification and the new super-rich. It’s interesting that the New York-based City Limits piece mentions Vancouver first; we are after all a world leader in unaffordability, non-regulation, luxury towers and property speculation. But the Paris article is particularly depressing. I’m not even going to go into the mega-developments inflaming Istanbul.
Financial Times: Priced Out of Paris: Our great, global cities are turning into vast gated citadels where the elite reproduces itself
Financial Times: The Future of the American City
City Limits: Embrace the Worldwide Movement Against Gentrification
CBC: World’s Wealthy Richer Than Ever
I’ve noticed little consideration of what the disappearance of the middle class is going to mean, in a concrete way, for cities, architecture and design.
As most of us are quickly priced out of our former living arrangements by the buying and investment practices of the new global elite—by the lack of regulation that allows these practices and by the real estate development industry that profits from them—most of us have only two choices. We must either migrate out to suburbs or outlying towns, or we can attempt to hang on in the cities, accepting smaller and smaller spaces, higher rents, higher land prices and rising property taxes. (Or move to another city altogether, hoping for a job in a place not subject to global speculation.) Meanwhile the very urban “density” supposedly designed to combat unsustainable urban sprawl now sits largely empty, awaiting infrequent or nonexistent visits from jet-setting owners, and sprawl proceeds apace while big developers make wild fortunes at everyone else’s expense.
It feels increasingly creepy that the “shelter magazines” promoting home decor haven’t really dealt with this yet, except in an accommodating manner. Yes, they’ve always pandered to the very rich, and to those who like to look at the homes of the very rich (myself included), and they will keep doing that. (Though I’m not sure how they’ll deal with the increasing unease about income disparity that is starting to seize all sectors of their readership, at both the top and near-bottom of the income scale.) Meanwhile there is now an entire industry in “decorating in small spaces” publications. Despite being a homewares designer myself, I realized lately that somewhere along the way I stopped buying shelter magazines. Maybe it’s that their disconnection from reality crossed a threshold into a creepy surreality that’s part Brazil, part David Foster Wallace, part generic dystopia. That whole world seems to have its fingers in its ears right now. La la la la I can’t hear you.
As for the design effects, the eradication of the middle class is almost certainly already affecting the design and quality of manufactured items, as well as the form of our architecture and the development of architectural styles, in ways no one seems to talk about. I’d be curious to know if anyone has yet inventoried these formal changes and market patterns. The loss of quality, the loss of design integrity, the cheapness at the low end, the grotesque baroquerie or conspicuous consumption at the top.
The first pattern that comes to mind is architects taking a back seat to developers and marketers in the profit-maximizing climate. The result is what’s known around here as “marketecture.” Increasingly the form of buildings has nothing to do with what city-dwellers or planners would like to see built, or that good architects would envision. Instead it has everything to do with what developers can get away under the limits imposed upon them by building regulations and horse-trading with city halls. The architect of these structures is pure profit maximization in partnership with what’s allowed by building codes. Insert those two parameters into a blender and what comes out at the other end is a generic glass tower. When a think tank of Harvard planners visited Vancouver last year, one of the remarked upon looking at downtown Vancouver from across False Creek “can you have good urbanism without good architecture?”
Pardon this meandering essay, which takes on too many points at once around the issues of income disparity, design, property speculation and a host of related problems. Just thinking aloud.
As for the design magazines and house porn I’m not saying we shouldn’t look at beautiful places, or that it’s wrong to be curious about how others live, nor that we should spend every minute in painful awareness that we’re fiddling while Rome burns, even if we are. It’s just that personally I don’t want to browse through any more photos of tiny, boring, contempo, cream-upholstery-with-dark-wood-veneer, cheaply built 600 sq.ft. condos that cost half a million bucks as if everything is still fine. Why are we willing to live in cramped and indebted conditions when all our surrounding culture and vibrancy is quickly exiting our cities and relocating in the suburban sprawl? While small living is good, environmentally speaking, cramped living must be offset by other cultural benefits and vibrancy. The thing is, the opposite is happening. The current speculative climate is driving those compensations away, leaving us just with unaffordability and urban sterility.
We should be pushing for multiple forms of regulation of the real estate industry, including tax deterrents and other mechanisms, and we should be forcing on governments the understanding that housing, like food, should not be viewed as just another class of asset or investment tool. Housing must be viewed as a human right and should be protected as such.
This will improve not only the affordability of our cities, and thus ensure the vibrant mix of people who live in them, but it will also improve the physical form of our cities, architecture and design. But I think the architecture and design communities can no longer behave as if they operate in a realm separate from an increasingly distorted political economy.
What can we do? Vote in civic elections, and make sure we don’t vote for any candidate or party that takes donations from developments. That’s rule no. 1.
Photo at top via ABC News.