By Ruth Bayang
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
It’s back to the drawing board for James Wong —the developer and CEO of Vibrant Cities who wants to build a housing project named Jasmine at the Bush Garden site.
It was standing room only on Oct. 22 at Hirabayashi Place as community members packed a public meeting of the International Special Review District (ISRD). Some seniors had to stand outside because there was no room to sit.
This was the third ISRD meeting with Bush Garden on the agenda. Chinatown-International District (CID) Coalition — which strongly opposes the new development — and their supporters wore black T-shirts, while those in support of Jasmine wore white T-shirts to the meeting. Both sides gave passionate testimony, though their comments and concerns were repeated from previous meetings: supporters spoke of needing new housing and the unsafe condition of the current structure; opponents said the design does not fit in with the surrounding neighborhood and had concerns about housing affordability.
It was the first time that some board members seemed to acquiesce that demolition might be the best plan moving forward, including Yuko Kunugi, who said she is “in support of a new building if it can be done right.”
The initial proposal—a 17-story structure which would have retained the old building’s facade with the famous “Bush Garden” lettering—just isn’t enough, said Stephanie Hsie, ISRD board chair.
“Either save the building or save the spatial qualities and celebrate the history of that building … even if you have to use new brick to get the right feeling back,” said Hsie. “Just demolish the whole thing and build something that does fit in with the character of the district … that is the right height, that does fit in [with the neighborhood], that provides the same types of community spaces and spirit,” she added.
Architect Garry Reddick of Otak expressed his frustration “that we haven’t been able to communicate how absolutely terrible this building is… there is no way this building can be saved.”
The firm, DCI Engineers, did a report commissioned by Vibrant Cities that said the Bush Garden building is not stable. Originally built as a one-story building, the second and third floors were added later, at two separate times, and nothing was done to shore up the original foundation.
“I have intimate knowledge … that goes down to every single building element currently there,” said Reddick. “There is nothing, there is no column, there is no joist, no wood members, no footing, no slab… that building could be recreated. But you would start by levelling it, and then replicating it.”
“The goal is to do something good here,” said Wong. “For us, it’s a personal project in wanting to make Chinatown great.”
“It’s already great,” said someone in the audience. To which Hsie chimed in, reminding everybody to remain respectful.
A woman with CID Coalition said, “We want purpose in our community and Bush Garden had a purpose. We don’t want pretty buildings … we want purpose.”
Board member Tanya Woo, whose family owns Louisa Hotel (recently rebuilt with a saved facade), questioned why the same thing couldn’t be done with Bush Garden.
Appearing vexed, Woo said, “I had been under the impression at the last meeting in May that the intention was to stabilize the west facade [of Bush Garden].”
She added that it wasn’t until she received the latest packet that she saw the proposal to take down the entire facade, which she said is essentially demolishing the building.
“Why can’t it be mortared?” Woo asked.
Hsie told Wong to provide more documentation.
“If you were given the task of saving the building … whatever it costs … what can be done?
Everything you’ve given to us has been from the perspective of ‘we’re going to tear it down, these are the reasons why.’”
Wong asked for direction on how to re-design the space, in particular the ground floor.
He said his intention was to dedicate the space to retail, for immigrants who want to own their own businesses.
Responding to requests of “what can you do to include the community,” Wong asked, “Do you want 75 percent retail, 25 percent public space?”
Hsie suggested that Wong look at other projects that have gone through.
Referencing Koda Condos, Hsie said, “People can cross from one street into the building onto the other street. How can you make a building that opens its ground floor and welcomes people?”
Hsie said Bush Garden is “one of those projects that will take a gesture of some sort to honor the history that’s been here.”
She added that it’s not about motifs, but how the building is being used by the community, and she urged Vibrant Cities to do more community outreach.
Wong said he has reached out to the community— noting letters of support from 63 business owners and more than 300 residents—and he said he will continue to engage community members to get their feedback.