It offers a multi-million dollar view of Vancouver and the North Shore mountains that’s been overlooked for years.
Business leaders in Vancouver’s Chinatown want to see a city-owned mall that’s seen better days – brought to life as a food hub for the neighbourhood.
Chinatown Plaza at 180 Keefer Street consists of a seven-storey parkade and three-storey commercial building, which the local BIA said is sitting virtually empty.
“Right now we have 18 shops within the plaza, and we only have five of them actually occupied,” Vancouver Chinatown BIA president Jordan Eng told Global News.
According to a city of Vancouver brochure, fourteen of the 26 retail and office units listed by BC Assessment at Chinatown Plaza, are available for lease immediately.
Built in the early 1990s before Asian mega malls in Richmond and Burnaby started luring shoppers away from Chinatown, Eng said the space has been dying for more than a decade.
“Nothing has happened here,” he said.
“The store behind me has been vacant for over ten years and there’s no reason that it should be.”
The local BIA wonders what’s driving the city’s Real Estate & Facilities Management team to do so little with land and buildings assessed at $14,703,900 in 2021.
The parkade alone at Keefer and Quebec Streets, where you’ll almost always find a spot, was assessed at $6.1 million.
“Their mandate is to maximize the value of the real estate and income for all of us in Vancouver,” said Eng.
“I can’t see that that’s happening right now.”
“I think it’s a tremendous waste of prime publicly owned real estate through which I think it could be redirected to publicly beneficial real estate,” added SFU City Program director Andy Yan.
Eng’s vision would see Chinatown Plaza transformed into a culinary centre with food stalls, a market, and an Asian cooking school on the parkade’s top level – where diners could sample the students’ culinary creations – with views of the city.
“It’s a way of reimagining what we can do with such a great place,” Eng told Global News.
Eng presented a preliminary proposal on reinventing Chinatown Plaza to the city in May 2020.
The city said it commissioned a study to investigate potential options to improve the commercial mix and opportunities of the Chinatown Plaza, but Eng said the BIA was not given access to the resulting report.
Both he said were created in concert with the community, representing inclusion and innovation.
Food is very important to Chinese culture, and one of the plaza’s newest businesses believes Eng’s idea would be a good start to revitalizing Chinatown.
“Food always attracts people,” said Louwella Malda of The Filipino Noodle Joint.
Malda recently moved to Vancouver from Toronto and opened her small eatery in early April – in the same plaza that’s home to Floata, the largest Chinese restaurant in Canada.
Global News asked the city of Vancouver if it would participate in creating a future culinary centre at Chinatown Plaza. We also requested an interview on how the city can allow publicly-owned prime real estate to sit empty for so many years, and whether a rethink is needed on the way city-owned properties are leased and managed.
The city did not provide a spokesperson to answer questions and instead sent a statement citing COVID-19’s impact.
“Prior to the pandemic, the vacancy rate at the Chinatown Plaza was 6%. Currently, the vacancy rate is 28% of the total leasable area, with the majority of vacancies occurring in the past two years,” read the statement.
“We need to do better for sure,” said Vancouver city councillor Pete Fry.
Fry said the city holds out for market rents in many of these places, recognizing that if they don’t get it they’d have to provide subsidies – and he thinks that principle might have to be reexamined.
“So it’s not just about monetary transaction of real estate, but really how can we make the highest and best use and look at it from a social perspective as well,” Fry told Global News.
Yan said the storefronts at Chinatown Plaza have remained empty “not only for months but for years.
“We need to open up and understand really what is going on in terms of how the city manages and leases its own properties,” said Yan.
Ensuring city-owned assets benefit all Vancouver residents is a top priority, according to the city of Vancouver, which said there are no immediate plans to redevelop Chinatown Plaza – but that making the site a destination for visitors to Chinatown is a goal it “continues to explore”.