Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 9/1/2011 (2268 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
In 1882, three years before the CPR would drive the "Last Spike" and Louis Riel would lead the Northwest Rebellion, the first frontier town of the Canadian West began to establish itself on the banks of the Red River.
In that year, Sir John A. Macdonald would win re-election, newspapers across the American West would report the scandalous murder of the outlaw Jesse James and in Winnipeg, a shanty town of dirt roads and wooden sidewalks, a building boom would begin.
As the town's population soared to nearly 15,000, at the dusty corner of King and Alexander the new Coronation Block would begin to rise. It would be home to the mayor's office and council chambers while the elegant Victorian city hall was being built down the street.
After the turn of the century, a Chinese immigrant community would establish itself in the neighbourhood and the Coronation Block would become a focal point in the area. For seven decades it would find a place in the collective hearts of Winnipeggers as home to the Shanghai restaurant.
Standing proudly since the end of the fur trade era, the Coronation Block ended its service to our community on Sunday as the Shanghai served its final order of 131C.
Despite the passionate arguments of the historical buildings committee and Heritage Winnipeg, city council recently voted to allow the removal of this important link to our city's past. After nearly six generations as a key part of the historic streetscape, occupying an entire city block, ours will be the last to see it stand. With its pending demolition, we will lose one of the few remaining links to a time when Chinatown was a vibrant and unique cultural district.
Though it is not easy to imagine which other building might meet the criteria of heritage status, if not the Coronation Block, council sadly could not be convinced that it holds enough historic value to warrant preservation.
Their conclusion was that "its long-term economic viability is questionable." Citing decades of neglect, council felt the building is too rundown to warrant redevelopment, even though restoration costs were publicly identified at $2 million -- about a third of the cost of demolition and new construction.
Uniquely, this assessment was done without the benefit of a building-condition report or exploration of viable alternative uses. One suburban councillor quipped in the local media that he didn't need to be an engineer to evaluate the building's condition, claiming he crosses the street when he walks by so bricks don't fall on his head.
It seems conflicting that a restaurant occupying most of the main floor would pass health inspections year after year in a building that is apparently so derelict that pedestrians should fear walking near it. Coupled with the fact that the Shanghai itself looks as it did in 1950, it is curious that the submission of an engineering report would not have been requested to ensure an informed decision on the building's fate could be made.
The proponents behind the demolition request -- the Chinatown Development Corp. -- want to build a seniors residence on the site if the money becomes available.
Today, with only a handful of shops and restaurants remaining in Chinatown, its distinction as a cultural district is tenuous. If revitalization of the area is the goal for the city and this agency, you'd think the preservation of a building that has been the centrepiece of that neighbourhood for as long as it has existed might be an important part of that strategy. As representatives of the Chinese community, it is surprising that the developers would not want to restore such a nostalgic piece of their cultural history in this city.
The success of any Chinatown redevelopment plan will hinge on its ability to resurrect the colourful streetscapes of the past with amenities like shops and restaurants. The pedestrian scale and unique character of the Coronation Block, with residential apartments above five retail units, is precisely the type of mixed-use building that attracts small business, promotes sidewalk activity and restores neighbourhood vibrancy.
Even if designed to mimic a traditional Chinese style, a new suburban-type assisted-living complex with no ability to entice pedestrian interest and exploration will only further degrade the neighbourhood's tenuous hold on its cultural-district status.
Like Schwartz's in Montreal or the Carnegie Deli in New York, the Shanghai was one of those unique places that transcended its status to become a piece of the city's very identity. While we will lament its loss, it is far more distressing to have city council increase its momentum of destruction in our most sensitive neighbourhoods.
Brent Bellamy is senior design architect for Number Ten Architectural Group. Email him at Bbellamy@numberten.com