Against displacement, not development: where will Chinatown go from here?

When immigrant communities and businesses are at risk from new redevelopment plans

By Jadine Ngan

When I moved to Toronto two years ago to attend U of T, I used to trek half an hour south of campus to get groceries and baked goods in Chinatown. After filling a basket with vegetables and noodles at Hua Sheng Supermarket, I’d head a few doors north to Ding Dong Pastries & Cafe, where pineapple buns, egg tarts, raisin twists, and more awaited.

Ding Dong used the same plastic trays and tongs as the bakeries in the Chinese-dominated suburb of Vancouver where I grew up, and the pineapple buns tasted so familiar. I’d eat two or three, fingers stinging in the cold, on the way back to my Innis College dorm room.

Visits to Ding Dong were an inexpensive way to soothe the homesickness I felt that first winter in a brand new city. “No matter what you put on the tray,” one Yelp reviewer wrote in 2009, “the bill is never over $4.00.” The last time I went to Ding Dong, that still felt true.

Recently, I was saddened to discover that, despite Ding Dong’s long-standing popularity, the bakery may not have a promising future. In August 2019, BlogTO’s Tanya Mok broke the news that the two buildings at 315–325 Spadina Avenue, where Ding Dong is located, are the subject of a redevelopment proposal, filed on July 25, 2019, on the City of Toronto’s publicly-accessible Application Information Centre.

Most attention for the redevelopment has focused primarily on Ding Dong’s neighbour, a well-loved dim sum institution in a building that dates back to the 1920s. “Chinatown staple Rol San may be closing due to development proposal,” the headline in the Toronto Star’s coverage read.

“People are really rallying around the idea of Rol San specifically,” Mok said in a BlogTO podcast episode, “just because it’s probably the most recognizable business.”

Some community members, like Tonny Louie, who chairs the Chinatown Business Improvement Area, see the redevelopment as an opportunity to welcome new people and investments to Chinatown. But others are raising alarms that it will displace the neighbourhood’s working-class residents, as well as the immigrant-run small businesses it will redevelop.

The proposal, then, is about a lot more than dim sum and pineapple buns. It plays into recent trends of gentrification in Chinatowns across North America, making them increasingly unaffordable for the people who rely upon and love those communities most.

The changes being made

The City of Toronto has yet to issue a decision on the proposed redevelopment, but if the proposal is approved in its original form, the northeast corner of Spadina Avenue and D’Arcy Street will be effectively unrecognizable in a few years.

Apart from Rol San and Ding Dong, 11 other small businesses — among them a jeweller, a gundam store, and an optometrist’s office — currently occupy the two single-storey buildings on that corner. The development application envisions both buildings torn down and replaced with a 13-storey brick and glass tower.

The proposed tower would be designed by Montgomery Sisam Architects, the same firm responsible for U of T’s Myhal Centre and Exam Centre. Plans show that the building’s ground level will retain some space for shops and services, and above, 239 new apartment units, mostly double studios, will enter the rental market.

The proposal has been causing friction from its first announcement. The notice posted about the proposed redevelopment was in English — a language inaccessible to many of the neighbourhood’s residents, who speak Chinese or Vietnamese.

Those residents, among them local seniors and newly arrived immigrants, could have been blindsided by the change in their community if a new community collective didn’t intervene.

In response to the sign’s inaccessibility and the threat posed by the redevelopment, a group of artists working out of Tea Base, a Chinatown community space, came together. Friends of Chinatown Toronto (FOCT) was born. Mok, an organizer for FOCT, expressed that the group really likes its name “because we can say that we’re FOCT. We’re getting fucked, basically.”

In the year since the group was founded, it has become one of the foremost forces demanding that the developers account for the Chinatown community’s interests — and working to ensure that the community is included in decisions about its future.

Several steps down from the notice, FOCT posted a parody notice translating the development’s details into Chinese and advocating for accessibility and affordability. CBC’s Ali Chiasson called the move “an example of conscious outreach” that wasn’t “anti-development,” but rather “pro-communication.”

One notable omission from the original sign — which the parody remedied — was the time and date of the proposal’s first community consultation. On the evening of November 19, 2019, friends and members of the Chinatown community met with the city and developers in a cramped U of T Medical Sciences classroom. FOCT had to initiate a request for translators.

Arthur Pham, the optometrist at Saigon Optical, recalled the first meeting as messy and lacking transparency. Saigon Optical, which is located at 315 Spadina Avenue, is one of the businesses facing displacement as a result of the redevelopment.

He noted that the floor plans at that first meeting did not seem to have allocated sufficient space for all the businesses at the affected addresses. Saigon has been flourishing at its current location for around 30 years, said Pham, who called the prospect of being pushed out “a little bit disheartening.”

Shortly after the meeting, the city posted its first-ever non-English language development sign, in simplified and traditional Chinese. In the months since, FOCT and community groups like the Friends of Kensington Market have continued to participate in consultations through a city-run working group.

However, FOCT’s public updates, which are posted to its social media accounts as well as a TinyLetter newsletter, indicate that the discussions have yet to generate a satisfactory resolution for all parties.

Is this what will benefit the community? Jadine Ngan/The Varsity

Tensions are also coalescing around the issue of affordable housing, which is at the centre of FOCT’s concerns — the group is demanding that 100 per cent of affordable housing will be built if the property is redeveloped.

The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation defines housing as affordable when it costs no more than 30 per cent of a household’s income before tax. Data from the 2016 Canadian Census indicates that the median before-tax income of households on that block ranges from $2,919–$3,275 per month, varying per dissemination area.

According to those figures, affordable housing on the block should then cost no more than $982.25 per month. FOCT’s estimate, which may be based on more recent data, is more generous, at $1,105 per month. Meanwhile, during a working group meeting, the developers estimated that a single-bedroom apartment in the new building could cost around $2,500 a month in rent, depending on the market rate when the building is finished in several years.

The Varsity reached out to Podium Developments, which is leading the redevelopment alongside ReichmannHauer, for more information about the building’s rent estimates. A representative declined to comment.

Bernard Luttmer, the director of Podium Developments, told CityNews that the community’s concerns have been taken into account. Under a conditional commitment, up to 20 per cent of the building could contain affordable housing, he said, but “unfortunately, affordable housing is more expensive to build than it is worth, at the end of the day.” In response, FOCT called this “a callous remark to make when so many people are facing evictions.”

Affordable housing does tend to be a complicated topic in Toronto. The federal and provincial governments defunded Ontario’s social housing in the 1990s, leaving an affordable housing gap that Toronto’s municipal government has struggled to fill. Meanwhile, the definition of affordable housing itself is slippery; NOW Magazine reports that, according to Toronto’s housing advocates, “the term has changed so much that it has become meaningless, vaguely pointing to a level of affordability that is nowhere near accessible for the city’s currently unhoused population.”

Still, FOCT is right: if Chinatown is to remain inhabitable to its current residents, affordable housing is essential. With the level of rent increases commonly associated with gentrification, workers at the many restaurants and small businesses along Spadina Avenue may no longer be able to live in the area; some of the residents who sell homegrown vegetables on the sidewalk or frequent the grocery stores could face eviction from their homes.

Toronto’s Chinatown is what it is — vibrant, bustling, welcoming — because of those people. It cannot survive without them.

Understanding Chinatown’s history

The histories of North America’s Chinatowns are rooted in difficulty: these ethnic enclaves were originally a way for Chinese immigrants to build solidarity in numbers in the face of white supremacy, discriminatory immigration legislation, and racist Yellow Peril rhetoric. “From coast to coast,” a FOCT newsletter put it, “Chinatowns were a site for fostering community and safety.”

According to historian and U of T alum Arlene Chan, new and contested developments like this one have been shaping Toronto’s Chinatowns “right from the very beginning.” Chan was raised in Toronto’s Old Chinatown and witnessed many of these developments herself.

Chinatown began in “fits and starts” in the early 1900s, Chan told The Varsity. There were only 200 Chinese residents in the city at the time. The first hints of a Chinatown began popping up along York Street south of Queen Street, close to where skyscrapers such as the Sheraton Centre Toronto Hotel stand today. That York Street cluster of Chinese businesses and associations was short-lived: urban development soon pushed it along Queen Street, and then up Elizabeth Street, which intersected with Queen Street at the time.

The Elizabeth Street area, which had previously been home to a Jewish immigrant community, was where Toronto’s first real Chinatown managed to take root after 1915. But by the late 1950s and early 1960s, around 60 per cent of this area was demolished to make way for the new city hall and Nathan Phillips Square.

Only one third of Chinatown remained, and the city eyed it for high rises and city properties. “The Chinese community fought back,” Chan said. Her mother, Jean Lumb, founded and led the Save Chinatown Committee in an effort to halt further development of the land where Chinatown stood. By Chan’s account, they were successful for the time being; still, the Chinatown community was eventually pushed to its current location on Spadina Avenue.

The Spadina Avenue community is sometimes referred to as Chinatown West because there’s also Chinatown East at Broadview Avenue and Gerrard Street East. The Broadview and Gerrard Chinese community popped up in the 1970s, when new Chinese arrivals to Canada sought a less expensive alternative to Chinatown West. Chan said that today, Chinatown East’s Chinese businesses are also facing gentrification and replacement by non-Chinese businesses.

That pattern mirrors what’s happening in North America at large: Chinatowns everywhere, from Vancouver, to New York City, to San Francisco, are shrinking in the face of gentrification.

Chan told The Varsity that residents of Toronto’s downtown Chinatown have successfully pushed back against redevelopment in the past. Chinese community members were involved in protesting the extension of the Spadina Expressway, which would have ran through Chinatown West, among other neighbourhoods, and was stopped in 1971. Chinatown residents also protested a new police headquarters that would have demolished homes on Beverley Street and managed to push the development to Dundas Street and Simcoe Street instead.

Today, though, the Chinatown community is not unified on completely halting the 315–325 Spadina Avenue redevelopment. FOCT is “not anti development; we’re just anti-displacement,” Mok explained.

The group is simply asserting the community’s right to remain in the area it calls home, and be involved in decisions about its future. After all, as Chinatown community member Beryl Tsang pointed out at a Tea Base Digital Direct Action meeting in August, “This is actually our third Chinatown that we’re fighting for.”

Visions for the future

As of November, the future of the buildings at 315–325 Spadina Avenue remains unclear. Since the first community consultation took place, the developers have altered their plans, increasing the number of retail units and affordable housing units provided, and decreasing the building’s proposed size. A final community consultation was slated for December 3.

If the development is approved, it “could be a couple of years before anything actually happens,” Pham told The Varsity, so Saigon Optical is “just taking it day by day.” In other words, the business’ owners are aware that they may need to relocate, but have yet to make any concrete plans. Pham hopes that the businesses will be given the opportunity to re-establish themselves at the redeveloped site if possible, but acknowledged that if the rent for retail spaces jumps too high, small businesses may be unable to return to the address.

The ultimate vision of Chinatown’s future revolves around inclusion. Jadine Ngan/The Varsity

Even in the event that small businesses are able to return to the street corner, CBC has highlighted that the redevelopment will be tall enough to cast a shadow on nearby properties. In order for a 13-storey building to be constructed, the city will need to allow for the amendment of a zoning bylaw that currently restricts the property’s building height to 14 metres.

When Chan looks to the future, she hopes that Chinatown will retain its street presence, crowdedness, and bustle. She told The Varsity, “I think a lot of the charm of Chinatown is the fact that it is… four storeys or less, right?”

To Tsang, the ultimate vision of Chinatown’s future revolves around inclusion. “This was a place that was built by us, for us,” Tsang said, adding that she’d like to see Chinatown remain person-centred, accessible, and affordable.

Preserving an inclusive Chinatown is important because of the unique role that the neighbourhood has played and continues to play in the lives of Toronto’s Chinese community. As FOCT advocate Hannia Cheng told CBC, “[When] my parents… first immigrated here, this was like the closest thing they had to home.”

Similarly, when I think about the future of Chinatown, I drift into my memory. My mind leads me back to Ding Dong — back to the clear plastic display cases of egg-washed buns and to the sound of clinking in my hands as I’d count coins in line for the register. The Toronto Chinatown that I know and love is a place where I feel at ease — a sentiment that I suspect is shared by other newcomers to the city with Chinese heritage.

Chinatown has persisted over the years to welcome us today because of the community’s resistance and strength. Looking ahead, I hope that the neighbourhood — whatever shape it might take — retains that spirit, so that some other young Chinese woman looking for her place in the city can someday step into a bakery and think, “Maybe Toronto isn’t so different from what I already know. Maybe I can make this place my home.”