Planning Exercise (v): Chinatown lives


For several years Chinatown has been struggling. The arrival of big-box asian-food supermarkets in the suburbs, and the shift of Asian families to suburban living, has resulted in a  number of vacancies along Somerset Street. The construction of the Chinatown Royal Arch is the first step in rejuvenating the area. The second step is the construction, in 2011, of new streetscaping from Preston up the hill to Booth. This will include new, wider brick sidewalks, lots more trees and plantings, new ped-scale lighting, benches and other street furniture. This has made a major improvement to Preston; similar but unique streetscaping should boost Chinatown’s somewhat dowdy image. The merchants also need to respond by retooling themselves to suit the new market reality.

There is currently a vacant lot at the corner of Somerset and Booth. The vacancy was created by the usual Dalhousie-ward urban renewal agent: fire. Below are pictures of the previous buildings on the site. One was originally a movie theatre, the Rex or Rexy theatre. The horizontal trim line around the first floor sheltered a row of light bulbs in that old style show-time vernacular.  The Rexy showed Italian movies at least some of the time. It was shut down at the beginning of the Second World War; according to my source this was due to it being an outlet for fascist propaganda.

Note: the pictures above are photos I took from the Architect’s handout. Their pictures are perfect; my photos of them are … lacking (ahem). My photos include some bits of the adjacent photos, just pretend they aren’t there, as they aren’t on the street in the real world either.

The theatre and grocery are gone; today it is a vacant lot:

The picture that opened this post is a rendition of the building from the Somerset side. As the building is still evolving, it probably won’t look exactly as shown. Here is the Booth Street frontage and the back of the building:

The lot has 100′ of Somerset frontage, 70 feet on Booth. It will have up to 3 commercial spaces on the Somerset side (2100 sq ft total); and 39 residential units above. The units are studios, one bedroom, one bedroom plus den (probably usable as a second bedroom), and two bedroom units. The views to the north, south, and west are remarkable as this lot is very elevated. The proponent plans for 12 underground parking spaces and 11 surface spaces. They are working on designing a first-class bicycle storage room.

The proposed six storey height is one floor above the current zoning and the project will have to go for rezoning or “minor variances”. Other issues facing the proposal are access off Booth Street and the width of the ramp into the garage off Somerset Street.

The building is in a modern style. The window shapes and bay window elements are designed to evoke the traditional neighborhood vernacular. The architects are considering red trim around the bay windows and balcony side walls as an acknowledgement to the Chinatown location. There are no obvious Asian elements, such as roof tiles or decorative panels. These Asian references are common in other cities, and were successfully incorporated in the exterior of the Chu Sing building at the corner of Cambridge and Somerset.

While no one is asking for a gallimaufry of oriental elements, some may be appropriate. Please use the comments section to say whether you think Chinatown references have a place on a modern building. And what would those references be?

6 thoughts on “Planning Exercise (v): Chinatown lives

  1. I think Chinatown references are best left to the discretion of the builder. It is always nice to see developers acknowledge the context they work in appropriately, but I think it makes more sense to incorporate the vernacular of neighbouring buildings. Chinatown may not be the primary anchor for the area forever. When you consider that the area was once more French and a bit Italian, it shows that neighbourhoods evolve.

  2. Thanks for posting these, Eric.

    Actually, it does appear to have an oriental symbolic element–it appears to be clad in white, the colour of death in oriental mythology. For some ideas on interesting Chinatown elements, check out my post on Montreal’s Chinatown.

    Great to see development going in here, but it looks like a flat, uninviting, ugly wall along Somerset. The balconies look more like openings for snipers than anything that would bring enjoyment to or of the streetscape. There is no allowance for the inevitable store signs that will plaster over the window, as Chinatown stores often do–why not design the signs into the plans?

    And a garage entrance on Somerset? Are they kidding?

    I’ll save the rest of my comments for the next meeting.

  3. As much as I love the arch, it really is an attempt to solidify the nature of an ever changing neighborhood (and to buy Chinese votes). Shanghai restaurant is the oldest Chinese place on the Hill, and it opened in the late 60s. What was there before? Portuguese and Irish? The Vietnamese have moved in around Booth. I don’t call it Chinatown. I call it Multi-ethnic town, because the nature of the neighborhood does change every 10 years. The arrival of the T&T shows that the Chinese community in Ottawa is now mature enough to leave the old hood, and head to the suburbs.
    So, for the new building at Sommerset and Booth, I would vote for no oriental decor.

  4. The building is still in an early stage of design. The exterior colour has not been determined: most likely light brick with red trim; or red brick with light trim. The walls of the recessed balconies and a wall beside the Booth-street main entrance are to be bright red, as will the trim on the bay window units.
    That the neighborhood changes is true. It has only been Chinatown for the last 25 years. I recall when the Yangtze was an Italian restaurant; the Pizza Pizza place was the the most expensive Italian resto in town — La Roma, now on Preston — where the waiters wore tuxedos. Another upscale Italian resto was at the corner of Bayswater where an office building now stands. (I once — only once — made the mistake of going there with the youngest kid in arms. Not welcome.) The VietNam Palace restuarant was houses, then it became Billy’s (as in Billy Goat, after the Hill) a sort of fore-runner to Umi and Raw Sugar, it featured folk singers on a platform above the front doors that could be accessed only a ladder (wouldn’t the health and safety people have a lot to say about that!).
    We can let a neighborhood evolve, or we can try to establish a character and promote that. Currently, we promote the Chinatown image for Somerset and the Little Italy image for Preston, and the Arts district for Hintonburg. It’s all about branding.
    For decades the Dalhousie neighborhood was a ‘hood were immigrants came, established themselves, and moved on out to the suburban lifestyle they aspired to. I still recall the then-head of the SWCHC speaking to our Association and saying that there was no point trying to make certain improvements because this neighborhood was only a stopping off point, her job was to help people get out of here to elsewhere. I think now there are many more people, with or without long term roots, who view this place as their desired, long-term place of residence. As such, they want to see improvements, and the supply of cheapo/slummy/substandard housing is shrinking as the neighborhood undergoes another round of gentrification.
    As a society, we no longer view neighborhoods as throw-away places, which is good. But the whole nature of bureaucracies (and too many community groups) is to fight change, which is bad. I wanna see good change. That’s why I write this blog, to push change a little bit in the right direction.

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