Social housing development to replace Ming Sun building

The Development Permit Board approved on Nov. 26 a development application that will see the Ming Sun building on Powell Street — one of the oldest buildings in Vancouver — demolished and replaced with a six-storey mixed-use building with 55 social housing micro-units for seniors.

The 1890s building, located opposite Oppenheimer Park, has associations with Vancouver’s Japanese and Chinese communities.

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About 40 members of the Ming Sun Benevolent Society, the owner of the property, were at the meeting in support of the proposal.

Richard Wong, a volunteer member of the group, was thrilled with the decision.

“It’s a great joy, not only to the Ming Sun Benevolent Society — it is good news for Japantown, the Japanese community and also to the community at large of Vancouver, British Columbia and Canada,” he said.

Wong said the society will work with the Japanese community to determine how the history of the site will be recognized in the new building. He said it’s an opportunity to “show the world the beautiful multicultural harmony spirit of Canada.”

“We hope, if this is successful, we will be a role model or [an] example to the other non-profit organizations in the city, especially in Chinatown and the Downtown Eastside,” he added.

Boni-Maddison Architects is involved in the project. Retail spaces will be included at grade level, while a laundry room will be on each floor. S.U.C.C.E.S.S. will operate the social housing units. The applicant has preliminary approval from BC Housing for both financing and funding for the project.

Fifty units will be about 262 square feet in size, while the remaining five units will be accessible and slightly larger — between 287 and 319 square feet, according to the application.

After several speakers questioned the livability of such small units during the DPB hearing, the applicants said they would work on that issue.

Rents for the residential units will 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.

Several speakers called for 100 per cent of rents to be at shelter/pension rates. They also asked that commercial uses reflect the culture and community and don’t serve to gentrify the neighbourhood. Others, however, argued the neighbourhood needs more of a mix of tenants and a mix of businesses so it becomes a more balanced community rather than including only social housing and social enterprises because the area is becoming “awash” in crime, drug activity and graffiti.

The applicant is still in conversations with BC Housing about the possibility of deepening the level of affordability, while tenants for the commercial space have yet to be determined.

The applicant will have to enter into a housing agreement with the City of Vancouver and an operating agreement with BC Housing.

A look back

The Ming Sun 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.

The development plan doesn’t 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.”

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, were listed as owners. Yoo Koo Low is listed as the owner in 1971, while the Ming Sun Benevolent Society is the current owner. The SOS notes the benevolent 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.

Anthony Norfolk, a member of the Vancouver Heritage Commission, told the DPB he only learned about the development application on Nov. 22, and he was concerned not everyone involved in the 2013 conservation effort was informed about the plans.

Notifications were sent to more than 150 area property owners and more than 500 Downtown Eastside interest groups, but not specifically to everyone involved in the conservation effort.

The Heritage Vancouver Society considers the 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.

The organization submitted a letter to the DPB at the Nov. 26 meeting, which indicated it was “dismayed” about the proposed demolition of “another piece of Vancouver’s architectural and social heritage.”

“We are also very disappointed that although the building was recommended as a Priority Site for the Vancouver Heritage Register Upgrade, it has gone unnoticed by the City and not even referenced within the current development application for the existing structure,” the letter states.

At a minimum, the heritage society had wanted the historic façade retained and reconstructed, calling it a “key mid-block form that is a critical part of the historic Japantown streetscape.”

The organization also wanted:

  • an updated SOS to current National Heritage Standards to be undertaken as part of the terms of development approval
  • a heritage revitalization agreement based on retention in whole or part of the existing structure be investigated, which would offer incentives for the new development that otherwise would not be available
  • the city to immediately process the Priority Sites as identified and submitted in late 2017 for the long-delayed Vancouver Heritage Register Upgrade that is part of the City’s Heritage Action Plan.

Before voting in favour of the application, Jerry Dobrovolny, one of the members of the DPB and the city’s general manager of engineering, said he was frustrated by the lack of heritage preservation in projects coming before the board and he would like to see staff, applicants, heritage organizations and community groups to work through those issues in future applications, but he could not say no to the creation of 55 new social housing units.

One of the conditions for the Ming Sun building’s development permit is that “a commemorative programme referencing the site’s rich built form and cultural history” is provided. The applicant plans to work with the community on this point.

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