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