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Vancouver prepares plan to renew ailing Chinatown

Business leader says neighbourhood's troubles not unique, points to new developments

A high number of vacant storefronts in run-down buildings, struggling businesses and a negative public image as unsafe and out of date.

That is a description of Chinatown, as written by a senior city planner, who will present a report to city council Wednesday that details the urgency of turning the historic neighbourhood around.

This is an important moment in the evolution of Chinatown to ensure revitalization continues, renews the cultural and heritage fabric of the neighbourhood and is socially and economically sustainable, wrote Kevin McNaney, the citys assistant director of central area planning.

The report includes an ambitious revitalization strategy that calls for a variety of changes to Chinatown, including:

- The need for old-line retailers and restaurateurs to modernize and broaden their offerings.

- Improving neighbourhood public places, cleanliness and safety to attract locals and visitors, especially evening and weekend customers.

- Increasing the number of younger community members in decision-making roles and planning.

- Renovating heritage buildings.

The report comes a decade after city council approved a plan to help guide policy decisions, priorities, budgets and capital plans in Chinatown.

Since 2002, Chinatown has seen upgrades in public realm projects such as Shanghai Alley, the addition of some new restaurants including the popular Bao Bei on Keefer Street and a merchant-led We speak English campaign to attract customers.

Businesses, however, are still struggling, according to research conducted by economic development planners from San Francisco hired by the city to conduct research, community consultation and provide recommendations to revitalize Chinatown.

The planners surveyed 77 businesses and learned 64 per cent reported a decrease in revenue between 2008 and 2011. They also discovered 43 per cent of businesses operated for more than 15 years and 23 per cent opened their doors less than five years ago.

The majority of customers58 per centare local residents, with an additional 21 per cent from the Lower Mainland while tourists make up about 12 per cent of visits.

Albert Fok, president of the Vancouver Chinatown Business Improvement Area Society, said the downturn in business since 2008 can be attributed to the struggling global economic climate.

Its not something thats unique to Chinatown, Fok said. I think downtown experienced the same thing, and we talk to our Gastown and Strathcona counterparts who say the same thing.

But Fok acknowledged there is a need to attract more people to Chinatown to keep it viable for merchants. That is a concern Fok mentioned to the Courier 10 years ago when interviewed for a feature story on the struggles in Chinatown.

The recent approval of a nine-storey residential tower at Main and Keefer streets and the potential for a 15-storey building on the same corner is good news for the community, he said.

I would say it looks positive, he said. Any community needs a critical mass to support its viability. We have a dwindling residential population and hopefully this will re-inject a crowd. Regardless of income, you need to eat and buy groceries.

Fok believes Chinatown has lost some customers to Richmond and Burnaby, where those cities have seen the emergence of Chinese malls, restaurants and shops.

But, he said, theyre not heritage Chinatowns and we have something that cannot be mimicked.

Its history is significant but its proximity to the East Hastings strip, where drug use and dealing is witnessed daily, has translated to break-ins to businesses and vehicles over the years.

But Fok says there has been a decrease in crime in Chinatown.

Most of it now is perception, he said.

He encouraged people to visit Chinatown, noting the community now offers pedi-cab tours during the summer and is preparing for its annual festival Aug. 11 and 12.

Seeing is believing, he said.

Twitter: @Howellings