On July 25th, 2019, developers proposed and submitted a rezoning application to the City of Toronto for 315-325 Spadina Avenue for a 13 storey mixed-use building. The new proposal will be slated to take over established institutions like Rol San Restaurant and the other businesses on the block which include Ding Dong Pastries, and many Medical offices that provide multiple languages. In its place would be a 13 storey mixed housing commercial development with apartment rentals starting at 2500$ a month for a small bachelor apartment.
This development has really become a watershed moment in the neighbourhood - and has posed questions about the future of Chinatown and what will happen once this development moves in - threatening further ideas of ownership and agency often found in Asian diasporic communities that are already losing it. Change is inevitable, however these changes aren’t suiting any of the needs of the community
“We love Chinatown. Let’s make sure this massive new development will contribute to the lives of Chinatown’s residents, families and business owners - not to their displacement. Keep Chinatown affordable and inclusive”
-Friends of Chinatown, 2019
Development and change isn’t new for Chinatown, and reinvention has always been a part of Chinatowns history - reinvented themselves as a means of preservation and anti-displacement. For example, the San Francisco Chinatown was designed in the way we tend to see “Chinatowns” - a mix match of Chinese architectural vernaculars designed by white men as a means to make Chinatown a lot more palatable for the white middle class. This actually worked well, bringing in tourists and customers while boosting the economy in the neighbourhood - making many North American Chinatowns start adapting this same model.
02 SiteToronto, Canada
370 - 374 Spadina AvenueAn empty hole since 2007
Currently in Chinatown, acting as a threshold (and a black hole) between Chinatown and Kensington Market, 340-346 Spadina Avenue are three parcle lots that have been left empty since 2007. But because it’s too small for any major development, it’s been this way ever since. Most likely, developers probably rather wait for the properties beside the site to sell their land, so that they can sweep up the block and build a bigger development like the 315 Spadina proposal.
03 The Chinatown BIA x Friends of Chinatown Toronto
First, the Chinatown Business Improvement Area organization, who are a collective of property and commercial owners that carry out improvements and promote economic development within the Chinatown area in partnership with the city of Toronto. They also represent this much older generation of residents and members of the Chinatown community - being around my parents age.
On the flip side, we have another group named Friends of Chinatown Toronto or “FOCT” that is a grassroots group comprised of artists, architects, writers, journalists, business owners, residents, and community activists fighting for community-controlled affordable housing, economic justice, and racial justice in Toronto’s Downtown Chinatown - Often representing this younger generation of Chinatown community members like myself.
However, like many of these different generational groups, they tend to not see eye to eye - often disagreeing on many things. On one hand you have the Chinatown BIA who are advocating for “new blood” and want to have outsider influence and businesses come in to invest in Chinatown. On the other hand, you have Friends of Chinatown that is really against a lot of this bobbafication, and are advocating keeping Chinatown affordable, and wants to promote methods of community control and power.
With all these differences in ideas and methods, there is one commonality between the two groups, and it’s understanding the importance of legacy in Chinatown. The idea that regardless of how both parties feel, there is this common mission of trying to find a way to take care of the next generation - and keeping Chinatown for them in their own ways.
And so what are these models of development that can benefit both parties and advocate for this legacy of Chinatown? By having the BIA and FOCT work together, who represent two dominant populations in the neighbourhood, there are opportunities to bring in more partnerships from their pools, and to have multiple methods of occupancies in the site. Establishing a community land trust can be a model to push this.
04 A Chinatown Community Land Trust
In December of 2020, Friends of Chinatown in collaboration with students from the University of Toronto Planning Department collaborated to develop a written report about Chinatown’s history, patterns of gentrification, and displacement in the neighbourhood, and discussed the feasibility and support for a Chinatown Community Land Trust. Their goals are centered around providing affordable housing, and really being able to take the land off the market and away from developers - keeping the site for the community and their future generations rather than giving the power away to developers.
A community land trust can act as an ownership model that works well for both parties and for the project by investing in community players and stakeholders already within their circles - the more players in the project, the stronger the land trust.
When approaching the design and systems, it was crucial to think about this hyper flexibility and utilization to maximize the densities of economies to allow for multiple programs to overlap and work on top of eachother for all these players, but to also consider that the building could change for future generations and have a life of its own to fit their needs. It has to be designed considering the ultimate fact that Chinatown will change, and so will its population - knowing how much Chinatown has changed so much already in the past 20 years, who knows what it will look like when my Nephew is older and can use this site.
The building uses CLT post and beam construction
The building is divided into a two by four grid with each “unit” being 4x4m
The building is organized into three components;
1 Thicc Boy (Core / Poché)
2 Medium Size 30 (Closet System)
3 Skinny (Furniture Deployment)
1 Thicc Boy
2 Medium Size 30
The building is four stories tall.
The main commercial spaces exist on the ground floor.
The residential units exist on the upper three floors.
The building has these two main conditions - tucked (being closed) and untucked (being open).
The ground floor facade can open up during business hours, and act as an awning, and then closed whenever the ground floor stores are no longer in operation.
The facade on the upper level act as a double skin system that can open up during the summer months and allow fresh air in, and could also be closed up during the wintertime to still access the balconies.
Ground Floor Plan
Residential Units Plans
Commercial Space as Living RoomA ground floor commercial space can operate in its normal hours, however after hours, the space can become a living room - using the store counter as the place to bless the pig on new years and to have family parties in while casually maybe running the store a little later since people keep passing by anyways.
Safeway Tour Casino Drop Off / Pick UpThe outdoor space can be used as temporary outdoor space for events, and patio space for restaurants, but could also be a partnership with a tour bus company Safeways Tours, that often works out of Chinatown, to act as a drop off and pick up site to bring people to and from Niagara Falls to the casinos. Potentially, they can visit the Chiantown BIA proposed museum while waiting for the bus and use their bathrooms, and buy some cigs at the convenience store.
Copyright Secret Kumon from HomeThe casino goers can drop off their kids at a daycare that one of the tenants fashions out of their apartment - where they could rearrange their bedrooms to become a day care where they teach math in Vietnamese. The apartments could also be tucked or moved around in order to lease out as office spaces for friends while they’re at work and not at home.
Anti Gentrification Pro Veggie Granny Garden The larger balcony would become a rooftop garden extension to the Tea Base Co-Op Anti-Gentrification Garden in the Chinatown Center Mall, and could provide veggies for the tenants, but also for the mutual aid fridges located on site. The garden can be shared with the street corner granny vendors who can extend their shared lot in Chinatown into this garden, and also teach the tenants and kids how to garden and to try cool herbs.
Steamy Hot Bath House for Lovers and Gossip
Underneath the building are the communal baths. With smaller wet rooms in the residential units, the baths become a shared resource but also an economic resource as well. During the day when most are away from home, the baths could be open to the public for a fee to be used, When the tenants come back home, the baths are then only available for residents in the building.
New Ho Queen Rave Night ClubThe ground floor can also operate throughout the night. When businesses owners are done for the day, the space can be tucked away, and host more night events like the Night Market, and become a drag bar for the queer asian collective New Ho Queen - except maybe on Fridays only because of how the tenants upstairs might be over hearing Crystal Waters 100% Pure Love on repeat.
The project was really my response to trying to understand how these different generations and groups could come together to take on the next generation and was a personal process for me to try to understand how my nephew is going to learn about his Vietnamese and Taiwanese heritage. Chinatowns in North America for a lot of Asian folks are spaces that mean a lot and are hubs we always seek out - seeing your language and people who look like you, where you can practice your mother tongue, and eating the food that you really miss that smell like home, is a huge part of the Asian diaspora experience. I know eventually, these existing shops and hubs will close and disappear once the parents retire, but I guess it’s really trying to figure out what comes next, and finding methods of giving power to existing communities, and finally root themselves in these neighbourhoods through ownership and care.
Hopefully, the land trust can be passed on to these generations. Like the title, the community land trust acts as the seed - by planting the seed, the building becomes the fruit. Through creating relationships and trust with existing partners and residents of Chinatown, the fruit can then be shared.