Nanaimo businessman Basil Chau is buying up properties along Terminal Avenue, with a vision to build a new Chinatown.
The owner of Man Lee Oriental Foods has been trying to gather investors to buy into a series of shops planned for Terminal Avenue. Chau has already purchased the old Aztec Appliance building and a 50-car parking lot for development and is in negotiations to buy other neighbouring properties. He envisions a bustling extension of downtown Nanaimo’s popular shopping district, where crowds of people can explore a variety of ventures from an acupuncture clinic and Dim Sum restaurant to a chinese grocery and souvenir shops.
“After 5 p.m., it can get so quiet downtown … we want to bring new stores, lots of business and more activity,” he said, from behind the till of his Terminal Park store. “[We’d] like to create a business attraction … where local residents and tourists can spend half a day.”
Chau represents a growing interest to reinvigorate the stretch of Terminal Avenue, between Comox Road and Commercial Street. The area has been dominated by the service industry but has potential to grow into a myriad of boutiques and restaurants, according to downtown business organizations.
Projects like the new Chinatown could be the start of gentrification of the corridor, said Sasha Angus, CEO for the Nanaimo Economic Development Corporation.
But the potential still faces roadblocks, including fear from developers around contamination remediation and concerns around the street scape and walkability of the roadway. The Downtown Nanaimo Business Improvement Association has been trying to help facilitate change by addressing contamination concerns from property owners with a remediation study. The report wrapped up in January and is confidential, but could lead to the province classifying contamination as a common historical problem, said Darren Moss, chairman of the association’s planning and design committee.
The designation would lift the obligation of landowners to search for contamination beyond their property, reducing environmental study costs. Moss said its good news that there is new energy in the development community for taking on Terminal Avenue at the same time the ministry is considering the city’s application.
“You start to get the Downtown Nanaimo Business Improvement Association push and market interest and it [provides] nice winds early on and its easier to keep people moving,” Moss said. “The next step will probably involve discussion around city scape … to try and come up with a road cross section that allows for a retail environment.”
Redevelopment along Terminal Avenue has reportedly been slow to arrive because of contamination concerns and challenges with parking and pedestrian walkways.
The area, once known as Terminal Trench, used to be the dumping grounds for coal mines and residential garbage and there were reportedly concerns business owners would bear the brunt of expense remediation costs. Last year, the association received more than $217,000 from the B.C. government to look into just how deep contamination runs in the corridor and whether the province could change the designation to reduce the onus on landowners to do major environmental studies. There ultimate goal is to facilitate development, said Moss.
Its a mission supported by Nanaimo’s economic corporation, which sees a new Chinatown – and initiatives like it – as the start to gentrification in the corridor. The area, considered the gateway to Nanaimo, has potential to attract locals and tourists with more unique shops and restaurants, Angus said.
And with 70,000 tourists potentially arriving with the construction of a conference centre hotel, a Chinatown “is an option we should play close attention to,” he said.
“As development occurs there could be changes to that part of downtown to make it more walkable and create more economic activity,” Angus said. “I think there are opportunities to … diversify the businesses down there.”