Six-storey social housing development could replace one of Vancouver’s oldest buildings

More than century old Ming Sun structure has ties to both the Japanese and Chinese communities

A more than century-old building on Powell Street located opposite Oppenheimer Park, which has associations with Vancouver's Japanese and Chinese communities, could be knocked down to make way for a six-storey mixed-use building.

Boni-Maddison Architects has submitted a development application on behalf of the property owner, the Ming Sun Benevolent Society, for a low-rise building that would feature 55 social housing units operated by S.U.C.C.E.S.S., as well as two retail spaces at grade level.

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The applicant has preliminary approval from BC Housing for both financing and funding for the project.

“The goal is to maximize the number of units to meet the needs of the community in an efficient and cost-effective manner,” the application, which goes before the Development Permit Board on Nov. 26, states. “We are not proposing to rezone and will be meeting the City of Vancouver and BC Housing sustainability and energy requirements.”

All units would be micro-units — 50 would be about 262 square feet in size, while the remaining five units would be accessible and slightly larger — between 287 and 319 square feet. A laundry room would be on each floor. The commercial spaces at street level would measure 606 and 893 square feet.

Rents for the residential units would be based on the Downtown Eastside Local Area Plan. New social housing developments in the Downtown Eastside must have at least one third of the homes renting at shelter/pension rates to meet the minimum zoning bylaw requirement set out in the Downtown Eastside plan. But developments can go beyond this minimum.

History lesson

The 1890s two-storey building is one of the 20 oldest buildings in Vancouver.

The city ordered its demolition at the end of 2013 due to safety concerns. There was, at one point, an effort to conserve it.

It’s currently uninhabitable and structurally compromised, according to the City of Vancouver and the applicant. The development proposal does not retain any elements of the existing structure.

The building isn’t on the city’s Heritage Register, but it was identified as a key priority site to be included in the Heritage Register upgrade that was submitted to the city last fall.

A Statement of Significance (SOS) about the property describes the building as a "unique example of a timber-frame and masonry commercial structure built in the boom years following the Great Fire of 1886."

 

Members of the Vancouver Japanese United Church in front of the Powell Street property in 1941. Phot
Members of the Vancouver Japanese United Church in front of the Powell Street property in 1941. Arikado-37 Japanese Canadian National Museum

 

Caleb Goodmurphy was the building’s original owner and builder. When it was being built in 1890, it was described in the Vancouver Daily World as "An Elegant Family Hotel — A New Brick Hotel — Handsome Private Residences."

The Uchida family — a prominent Japanese-Canadian family — bought it in 1906 and owned it until 1942. The family includes the first Japanese women to immigrate to Canada, the first Nisei girl born in Vancouver, the first female graduate from UBC and an Order of Canada recipient. Chiyoschichi Uchida was one of the first labour contractors to the Hastings Saw Mill, which was known for its willingness to hire Japanese men, according to the SOS, which also notes that Dr. Matasaburo Uchida operated a medical practice out of the building between 1928 and 1942, while Wakabayashi Tofu works was located at the rear.

In the early 1940s, the Secretary of State of Canada, as well as Jimmy Jung and Jung Ming, are listed as owners. Yoo Koo Low is listed as the owner in 1971. It's now owned by the Ming Sun Benevolent Society. The SOS notes the society "originates as a clan organization for the Wong families from Hoiping County in Guangdong province in China and has had a long association with Powell Street since the 1920s."

Historic names for the property include Russ House (Russhouse Hotel), the Uchida Building and the Ming Sung Benevolent Society Building.

Heritage advocates consider it important for more than its historic structure — crucial factors include its association with the original builder, the Japanese community and Japantown, the fact rooms were rented on an ongoing basis over many decades, and its association with the Chinese-Canadian community.

The Heritage Vancouver Society considers the potential loss of the almost 130-year-old building significant, even in its current state.

Aside from the brickwork being removed, it still has its original form as an early 1890s structure/hotel, a form that has fast disappeared from the streets of Vancouver, according to the organization.

The development application is being considered under Downtown Eastside/Oppenheimer District zoning.

Notification about the application was sent to more than 150 area property owners and more than 500 Downtown Eastside interest groups. Individuals can still submit feedback in advance of the DPB meeting and/or address board members in person at the Nov. 26 meeting.

 

Royal visit on the 400 block of Powell Street in 1939. Photo courtesy Japanese Canadian National Mus
Royal visit on the 400 block of Powell Street in 1939. Nishihata-01 Japanese Canadian National Museum

 

439-441 Powell Street in 1907. Photo courtesy Library and Archives Canada
439-441 Powell Street in 1907. Photo courtesy Library and Archives Canada

 

noconnor@vancourier.com

@naoibh

 

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