Community leaders say Montreal Chinatown plan a good first step, but lacks specifics

Montrealers with roots in Chinatown fear there are a number of issues threatening the future of the neighbourhood's chinese culture and historical significance. This, even if the area recently secured heritage status. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

Montreal’s new development blueprint for Chinatown marks a step in the right direction but lacks the concrete measures needed to ensure neighbourhood preservation, community leaders said Sunday.

The response comes after Mayor Valérie Plante outlined a plan last week that laid out key priorities including heritage protection, revitalizing business and pedestrian traffic and boosting affordable housing.

The announcement follows two years of consultations with some 600 stakeholders including local residents, shop owners and advocates.

Jessica Chen, a member of the Montreal Chinatown Working Group and a former Vancouver city planner, said the document unfurled Friday amounts to a road map rather than a detailed policy plan, but represents a solid first step.

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“It sets the direction on what we see Chinatown as,” she said. “It’s more than just a commercial district, it’s about all its rich layers of cultural heritage.”

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Sprucing up the area with green space and a new business association, as the plan lays out, will help breathe new life into a historically ignored area that’s been further undermined by the COVID-19 pandemic, Chen said. But legacy establishments like Wing Noodles — founded as an import-export company in 1897 — and family associations need the support that heritage status bestows, she said.

“They carry the memory that people have about the place.

“When we talk about heritage conservation, it’s more than just the heritage buildings, but also the intangible cultural heritage that has been in place for generations,” Chen said.

“If you look at the condos being built there, I don’t think they have that in mind.”

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She wants to see more resources on top of the city’s planned $2-million investment in commercial and quality-of-life improvements, and says a new working committee between the municipality and the Quebec government must move quickly and transparently.

Developers have scooped up several historic properties in recent years, with a sheaf of hotels and luxury condos now overshadowing the traditional red-and-gold gateway that marks Chinatown’s south entrance.

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Jonathan Cha, a Montreal landscape architect and Chinatown expert, said the new plan is “positive” but short on timelines.

“It remains a document that lacks the specific action to really make it work,” he said, qualifying that that was not the goal. “I think the city of Montreal shows that they are serious about Chinatown.”

Concern over the downtown district’s future hit a new high recently when a developer purchased buildings on one of its most historic blocks — including the Wing building, which has been churning out noodles since 1946. A light-rail system is also planned to pass by Chinatown, further hemming in the neighbourhood.

Cha said Montreal has no specific rules to control development in Chinatown, leading to the proliferation of luxury condos, gentrification and rising rents that threaten the vibrant community life.

His hope is that the entire neighbourhood will be designated under Quebec’s Cultural Heritage Act, with a set of concrete measures established by the working committee by September.

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“That will give a path for all the developers,” he said, while the broader plan has already “set the tone.”

Earlier this month, Plante was among the politicians present at a forum hosted by the Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan Montreal that brought together all three levels of government and community members.

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Those in attendance agreed the COVID-19 pandemic hit Chinatown particularly hard. While businesses have suffered everywhere, the area had to contend with not only a sharp decline in tourism and office worker traffic, but also a wave of anti-Asian racism prompted in part by inflammatory language about COVID-19 deployed by former U.S. president Donald Trump.

A report released in March by several advocacy groups found a disturbing spike in racist incidents against Asian Canadians since the onset of the pandemic, largely in connection with false ideas about coronavirus spread, and underscoring the need for cultural safe spaces.

“We all know Chinatown as a community has been a place to offer a sense of belonging to generations of Montrealers who at felt at times a sense of exclusion,” Chen said.

Many seniors also live in or near the neighbourhood, relying on its cultural services for support and the “option to age in place,” she added.

On Friday, Plante said Chinatown preservation concerns the community as well as the entire city, and that political leaders need to usher in “heritage designation as fast as we can.”

“Sometimes it can take a lot of time,” she told reporters. “There’s a legal process to that, so this is why we want to put it in fast-forward with the government of Quebec. So it’s going to be very strong.”

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Chen agreed, stressing that the current plan is “a step in the right direction — but we’re not there; we just started.”

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