Cancelled urban farm project bred bad relations in Chinatown

Post by Mike Klassen in


The rooftop of 211 East Georgia in Chinatown ain't the DTES – and won't house a garden

A cover story in the Vancouver Courier a few weeks back by respected writer Sandra Thomas announced a new "rooftop farm" that would make its home atop 211 East Georgia street. The project was reputedly the brainchild of a number of Downtown Eastside groups such as United We Can and B.O.B. (aka Building Opportunities with Business). It would take the top floor of a parkade owned by two local business people and grow food and create "green jobs" for the neighbourhood.

Some of our readers may remember the involvement of the same folks in the Hawks Avenue garden, where a former parking lot with garden boxes resulted in a $132,000 tax break for the notorious Sahota landlords. While we think gardening in the urban core is great, we'd think it would be even better if it involved more private investment and less public generosity.

And apparently that's what the garden atop 211 East Georgia was meant to be, that is until actual creators of the projects were pushed out of the limelight. In today's Vancouver Sun on page A13, Thomas' story made a rare re-appearance in the pages of the city's biggest daily. Unfortunately for the Sun, what they reported is no longer accurate. The urban farm atop this building has been deep-sixed by the property owners – and the finger of blame points at the folks who appeared to make publicity for themselves their first priority.

The rooftop garden atop 211 East Georgia is located smack in the heart of Vancouver's Chinatown, not the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood. The real brain trust behind the project was David Wong, an architect and community guy. His colleague in the Chinatown endeavour was none other than Andy Yan, who served on the Vancouver City Planning Commission with me a while back, and is a professional planner working locally and in the USA.

If there is something that can be said of them both it is that they are extremely proud of their connection to the Chinatown neighbourhood. Wong says that he worked hard to bring all the stakeholders in Chinatown on board. Getting that buy-in was no mean feat. It took him a year and a half, and he didn't get paid a dime for it.

Wong may have worked for free, but DTES non-profits know that there is money in creating "green jobs" thanks to the zeal of Vancouver's Mayor on that front. The City of Vancouver had already committed $100,000 through its Greenest City Neighbourhood Grants fund, one of GCAT's so-called "quick start" ideas. It might be nice when the City gives away $100K in tax dollars that they make sure that details like lease agreements are in place first.

"These are very sensitive negotiations, working with the merchants in Chinatown," says Wong. "You have to understand the dynamics here, and that it is a very old neighbourhood. The relationship between Chinatown and the DTES is a difficult one to say the least. To me I saw an opportunity to help build bridges, but it's not going to happen at least for now. These guys didn't understand the background and have basically botched this opportunity to have the city's first rooftop urban farm. As you can imagine, after working on this for 18 months I'm disappointed."

"David put his heart and soul into this," says Andy Yan. "David's worked very, very hard with this one building to show how existing buildings can be greener. It's fine with new buildings that are built to LEED standards, but let's prove how we can affordably make old structures more sustainable. This garden project could have been created better relations in the long term between DTES and Chinatown – it could have been good city-making. I see it as a missed opportunity."

Wong has been working closely with Chinatown merchants, who have been increasingly frustrated by higher property taxes and declining foot traffic. Many see that Chinatown needs some fresh new developments, but heritage advocates have cautioned against attempts to increase the densities in the neighbourhood.

His work around 211 East Georgia resulted in The Tyee online magazine finding 2200 sq. ft of lease space, Arsenal Pulp Press getting 2000 sq. feet, Architecture for Humanity and other progressive organizations getting office space. Getting Chinatown to welcome these new faces required delicate deliberations by Wong on the neighbourhood's behalf. Yan says that David was doing great work by building community.

"Let's face it. There has to be a much more open dialogue between these groups [in Chinatown & the DTES]," says Andy. "While David worked hard, the heavy-lifting is all ahead of us. You can't create policy through PR. It's easy to keep people apart. It takes a lot more work to bring them together."

Not only did the Vancouver Sun run the story today with the expectation the garden would come to life on Saturday, the groups' websites promoted it as well (dubbing it SOLEfood 2), that is until this afternoon when it was all cancelled.

"They went ahead with no lease in place, no permissions from the owner," says Wong. "The Chinese media have been watching this take shape and holding off talking about it until we were ready. There are several folks in Chinatown that are very bent out of shape right now. This has become a step backward."

Adds David, "Our original intent was to crown the building with a true community farm that the Chinese seniors living in the garrison-like buildings nearby to come out and meet others. And most importantly allow them to nurture relationships with their neighbours from the Downtown Eastside."

"I'm happy to say that we're moving forward, and I'm working with my old friend and respected Chinatown figure Fred Mah," says Wong. "We won't be dissuaded by this setback, and we're looking to create a farm space atop another building, the Chinatown Parkade. Our negotiations with the City are ongoing and will hopefully be successful."

UPDATE: Vancouver Sun's Jeff Lee confirms the friction between the DTES and Chinatown angle, as well he discovers that the "Greenest City" fund was actually half the amount reported by the City ($50,000, not $100K). This story gets curiouser...

- post by Mike


This is so sad. David Wong has done amazing work bridging communities and why BOB would want to be involved with United We Can concerns me. Shirley Chan is CEO of BOB and a gifted Leader. With her and David Wong working collaboratively they can produce magic for Chinatown & the DTES. I'm just so saddened by this. United We Can needs to be sent packing. They jumped into bed with the worst slumlords in this City and this demonstrates that they only care about themselves and their sole mission is to turn desperate people into scavengers.

Well, well...well.... as it turns out... United We CANT, BLOB and SoReFood have been caught red handed in stealing other peoples work!

Hey, why don't this surprise me a bit?

The word in Chinatown is that United We Can and BOB are now blaming the Owner of the building for being greedy for their want of a $120,000 damage deposit! and that it is the owner who killed the project!

When in retreat... blame others! Maybe if UWC and BOB weren't so publicity seeking, this could have all worked out.

Its funny that BOB and UWC are both run by has-been bureaucrats and career non-profit sorts who have no clue of how the real business world operates.

Chinatown is part of the Downtown Eastside. As is Gastown, Stratcona, Oppenheimer, Victory Square, the Industrial Area, the Hastings Corridor and Thorton Park. Together they all make up the Downtown Eastside.

I would dis-agree that Chinatown and Strathcona are part of the Downtown Eastside. They are unique cultural communities which were established close to 70 years before the Downtown Eastside was announced as a community. Seems to me that Chinatown and Strathcona each have a cultural identity comnpletely separate from the Downtown Eastside.

Here's the truth:

TPTB will "allow" Chinatown to have all of the downside of being part of the Downtown Eastside (increasingly higher taxes, drug addicts constantly roaming around), without being allowed to have any of the benefits (see article above).

Community building, Vancouver style.

to "Neighbourhood Watch"

You may wish to define what constitutes "downtown eastside"... what's in and what's not. Go ahead and split hairs. It's the same argument we often hear about our U.S. neighbours saying that "we're all 'Americans'...that Canada is in North America, so we're also Americans"

It'd be nice if you'd appreciate the fact that some in Chinatown just don't want outsiders telling them what is good for them. I doubt our neighbours at Main and Hastings would appreciate folks from Yaletown telling them what's good for them.

Some of us just want to do something instead of just talking about it.

An article in today's Vancouver Sun (May 8, 2010) talks about Chinese seniors eating out of garbage containers.

My intention was to rebuild community... to hopefully get the concept of creating opportunities for folks to interact and meet. A roof garden and farm would have been an ideal venue for this.

Creating jobs on the side would have been a big plus, but it was NOT the original goal for me.

I think we can still make it work. We just need open dialogue, integrity and we need to shove personal agendas aside.

We have another building to still try accomplish this goal. Only this time, we'll be much more selective on who we invite onto our team.

Hey! there's a bunch of wood and building material atop the parkade right now(!)

Apparently 'United We Can't' mentioned that they "jumped the gun".

Duhhh.... no friggen kidding!

The owners said this is trespassing and will get them to remove their crap, else face charges!

Obviously 'Building Opportunities with Bullshit' aka "BOB" have no clue about how real business operates. Maybe next time, first get permission and agreement from owners before you grab publicity.

DTES advocates are the only ones who define Strathcona and Chinatown as part of the DTES. Residents of Strathcona and Chinatown do not. It is their opinion that matters not those who wish to expand their empire in order to grasp even more taxpayer dollars.

sounds like a poverty pimp defining his turf

Our neighbours at Hastings & Main depend entirely upon folks from Yaletown (and the rest of Vancouver) telling them what's good for them. Left to their own devices they create the open-air asylum/crack house known euphemistically as DTES.

Wow. I did not expect such a strong reaction to what is in fact the city's definition of the neighbourhood:

I think this speaks volumes about the prejudice that many people have about the Downtown Eastside and the divisions that people still want to exacerbate instead of healing.

JamieLee: I didn't say Chinatown or Strathcona weren't unique communities. Of course they are. But that still doesn't mean they're not part of the DTES. The West End is a unique community, but still part of downtown Vancouver.

David Wong: I'm not saying that Chinatown can't make its own decisions for its own community. I think each community within the DTES should have its own strong voice.

It's distressing that still so many people want to keep the 'Downtown Eastside' as a dirty word. Its too bad that the Chinatown and Strathcona community leaders can't see that all these communities are connected and the more they work together they better everyone is (likewise, the anti-poverty activists who label them yuppies instead of finding solutions).

Chinatown is a distinct and unique community with a strong and vibrant history. Its members should be able to make their own decisions. But they also need to recognize their part and role in their neighbourhood instead of just building walls that separate and divide us.

Jeff Lee of the Vancouver Sun followed up with a piece on this in yesterday's paper:

As a result of this article, I've been receiving communications both supporting and slamming my thoughts.

Here's one:
"I think C.Town, Gas town and the DTE are three different entities. While C.Town and Gas town are seen as bonafide enclaves - the DTE is not a viable enclave in the same context as C.Town or G.Town; it is a catchment area for misery. A man made blight intended to save money by concentrating all the needed services in a few square blocks - leaving ... the poor wretches to fend for themselves as easy prey for the unscrupulous on the mean streets.
Officialdom created the 'Frankenstein' monster in the 90's resulting in the creation of many little fiefdoms of make work with tax payer dollars - now officialdom must deal with the fallout. And that is what those in C.Town and G.Town must wrestle with today. "

I agree with this observation. One of our elected officials whispered to me not so long ago, right after I said some other unspoken truths ... "David, you say the things that we often think about, but don't speak out"

I had asked the question, "Why is being Green, so White?"

We must admit that there is systemic 'prejudice' from Chinatown towards DTES. I believe open dialogue and attempts to build community will help towards healing. Not by putting our collective heads in the sand and hoping the problem would go away.

The United We Can folks were not aware of this underlying sensitivity.

Let's all learn from this and open up the lines of communications ... this may be the spark that could initiate some fresh ideas on how to get the two communities to work together.

I'm starting to agree with your opinion of United We Can. Apart from the dubious ethos behind the organization their premises are a blight on Hastings Street. For them to claim to be benefitting the local environment while degrading an entire block of its principal street is ridiculous.

Regarding the Sahota tax break it is more than $132,000 a year as the community farmers, or rather the tax dollars that fund them, will be paying the residual taxes on the site over the next three years. Total benefit to Sahotas about half a million. Another 'community garden' here in Strathcona is now quite blatently being used as a car park.

We were up on top of the roof yesterday with a TV crew.

We were disgusted with the plastic bottles, mcdonald wrappers, coffee cups and other garbage left behind by the disrespectful litterbugs who were trying to build the garden boxes.

On top of this, there are wood screw all over the parkade. We collected 34 of them in one location alone.

didn't anyone tell them that car tires and metal screws are attracted to each other?

Were hearing sour grapes from the interlopers. CBC radio last week had the DTES woman on the air blaming the owner of the building! hey! they jump the gun , take others credit and blame the owner!

Sour grapes make sour whine!

today's Van courier article:

Check out!

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