A lasting reminder of Vancouver’s now-defunct Japantown in the area now known as the Downtown Eastside could soon be revitalized.
Vancouver Japanese Language School and Japanese Hall, a not-for-profit organization, has submitted a rezoning application to provide their heritage building with a minor floor area expansion, while also performing renovations that enhance uses.
The 1928-built building at 475 Alexander Street — the northwest corner of the intersection of Alexander Street and Jackson Avenue — is located one block north from Oppenheimer Park.
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It was designed by Sharp and Thompson Architects, which is also responsible for the design of UBC’s Point Grey campus and the Burrard Street Bridge.
This hall was the only building in Japantown not seized from the Japanese Canadian community during their World War II internment. The school was first founded in 1906 in an earlier wood-framed building, becoming the largest of the 50 schools operating before the war.
After internment, leaders in the community fought for the preservation of the building, and successfully prevented its sale. They restored their community’s ownership over the building in 1952, and reopened the hall and school the following year.
According to the application designed by Birmingham & Wood Architects Planners, the organization is looking to increase its floor area by 631 sq. ft. through the addition of mezzanine space in the auditorium of the 2000-constructed, five-storey building expansion.
The proposed added floor area alongside other renovations will allow for a reorganization of the interior space for a wide range of diverse community and institutional uses.
There will eventually be an interpretive centre program where children can visit to learn about Japanese internment, with a digital interactive feature wall central to this experience. The new mezzanine will be used as breakout space for classes visiting the interpretive program.
A new co-working office business on the second level will occupy an area that is currently underutilized, providing a new revenue stream to support the Japanese Hall’s cultural and education programs, including its regular community events, and Judo and Kyu-do classes.
“This renovation/revitalization is vital to the survival of the non-profit Japanese Hall organization, as it will bring flexibility and usability to the existing spaces, providing the revenue necessary for the organization to continue,” reads the application.
In November 2019, the federal government declared the Japanese Hall a National Historic Site, joining three other such sites in Metro Vancouver, including Stanley Park, Lions Gate Bridge, and Steveston’s Gulf of Georgia Cannery.
“The Vancouver Japanese Language School and Japanese Hall is a living symbol of a piece of national history that no Canadian should forget,” said Jenny Kwan, MP for Vancouver East, at the time.
“Designating the hall honours the resilience of the Japanese Canadian community and the school’s unrelenting commitment to service, culture and heritage.”