In a public meeting next week, Vancouver City Council will consider a motion to direct city staff to develop various new strategies to help support Chinatown and its struggling businesses and arts organizations.
The motion, pushed forward by NPA councillor Sarah Kirby-Yung and Green Party councillor Pete Fry, acknowledges Chinatown has been particularly hit hard by both COVID-19 and the spillover of the worsening conditions in the Downtown Eastside.
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As of late summer, the vacancy rate in Chinatown increased by about 24% compared to before the pandemic, reaching a vacancy rate of 17% — considerably higher than the citywide average of 10%.
“In addition to economic challenges, a reduction in foot traffic related to the pandemic as well as the increased impacts of social disorder has led to a troubling perception of Chinatown as an unsafe and unkempt neighbourhood, hindering economic survival and recovery in the community,” reads the motion.
“These businesses are what make Chinatown; their character and customs which take place at these culturally relevant small businesses and arts organizations constitute the unique qualities of Chinatown that are considered to be intangible, living cultural heritage that will soon be lost forever.”
The motion requests city staff to “reduce barriers to visiting Chinatown” by reconsidering curbside parking meter rates as part of an upcoming report on citywide meter rate changes for 2021, with the “goal of ensuring they are as competitive as possible while still meeting traffic management goals for turnover and mode share.”
As well, city staff will work with EasyPark on a potential incentive program for the Chinatown Plaza Parkade for visitors who patronize local Chinatown businesses, given that the parking is currently well under-utilized.
Other transportation-related directions include clean safe bus stops, the consideration of the installation of free secure indoor bicycle and e-bike racks, and increasing the budget for street, alley, and sidewalk cleaning and sanitation.
Additionally, as the retail and indoor public spaces within the lower levels of the Chinatown Plaza Parkade are under-utilized, city staff will work with local community groups to prepare an expedited strategy of tenanting and activating the space.
This motion is Kirby-Yung and Fry’s direct response to a letter sent to city council last month from the Vancouver Chinatown Legacy Stewardship Group (VCLSG) that called for a number of quick actions to support businesses. This includes their requests to reduce curbside street parking rates and eliminate fees for the Chinatown Plaza Parkade over a six-month period, increase the frequency of the cleaning and sanitation of streets and sidewalks, and activating vacant spaces for legacy businesses and social enterprises.
“Both councillors we spoke with were supportive of reducing street parking rates in Chinatown, but flagged as important to balance space for parking and the City’s green agenda. They said they would like to move this proposal forward, pending additional info from staff,” Michael Tan, a co-chair of the VCLSG, told Daily Hive Urbanized late last month.
“Chinatown merchants continue to struggle, and most at risk of closing, are the mom and pop stores along with the cultural heritage businesses. If action is not taken immediately, there will be more stores closing, joining the list of Goldstone, Empress Travel, Chinese Art Craft, and more. The intangible cultural heritage of this community is at stake.”
Tan also highlighted that the struggles of Chinatown businesses are compounded by their inability to access the federal government’s COVID-19 assistance programs.
Many businesses in the district do not qualify for the wage subsidy, given that they are family-operated small businesses without staff other than themselves. As well, some businesses have been unable to benefit from rental subsidies, because the landlord either unilaterally decided not to apply for the program or did not qualify.
As requested by the VCLSG, Kirby-Yung and Fry also moved a separate motion that called on the federal government to create a targeted COVID-19 funding program for Chinatown to support local businesses and arts organizations.