A historic building in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside looks set to be torn down, despite being one of the last remnants of what was once Japantown.

The city says the 122-year-old building at 439 Powell St. is structurally unsound, after the neighbouring building underwent emergency demolition when it partially collapsed in July.

But the building's owner, the Ming Sun Benevolent Society, disagrees, saying everything was fine until the city ripped down the building next door, destroying the wall the buildings shared.

David Wong said the demolition weakened the historic structure.

"There was not a single blemish over the history of the building — it was very well maintained," he said.

David Wong

David Wong of the Ming Sun Benevolent Society, the building's owners, says its evacuation has led to break-ins. (CBC)

The building has now been evacuated and its facade stripped ahead of the demolition, but Wong said this has led to multiple break-ins.

Wong said thieves have been stealing copper wire, causing structural damage and making the building unlivable.

"It seems like there's a calculated desire to damage and inflict as much damage as possible," he said.

Vancouver police are investigating the break-ins, but no arrests have been made.

Wong said he is devastated.

"It's a real heartbreak to see that, after all this hard work, all this happens," he said.

Senior's savings stolen

Elderly former tenant Zhen Quang Zhao was allowed into the building to collect her meagre belongings, only to discover her $200 life savings gone.

Another tenant, Jinhan Ko, who is part of the Instant Coffee artists' collective, accuses the city of precipitating a lot of the damage to the building.

"Absolutely we want to save the building and we want to study the further issues and how we can bring it up to code.  We're not against changes," said Ko.

"[The city] acted poorly, they've acted hastily and in my opinion, they've sided with the side of development rather than taking care of the older underprivileged residents and artists."

Tom Chow

Tom Chow, who owns the building next door, supports the demolition and admits he hopes to develop the block. (CBC)

But Tom Chow, who owns Double Happiness Foods — part of the neighbouring building that partially collapsed in July — wants 439 Powell to come down.

Chow was in the process of buying that building in the summer when he called the city to warn them about the collapse, resulting in the emergency demolition.

Chow admits he wants to develop the block to expand his business and another potential collapse is a safety issue.

"The workers' safety, my own safety, my girls' working in the office safety and my operation … it's safety of my building as well," said Chow.

"If that come down, basically hey, no more business. That would be the major concern I have."

The city says demolition is a last resort, but 439 Powell is a serious safety issue and discussions with the owners have not resulted in those issues being addressed. In a statement Friday, the city said it had recently learned that there is now interest in preserving the northern portion of the building.

"If this is true," reads the statement, "the Society must provide a report from a professional engineer prior to December 9 that verifies that this portion of the building does not have any deficiencies and can be retained."


City of Vancouver Statement on the Ming Sun Building / December 6, 2013

Over the past five months, the City of Vancouver has taken repeated steps to ensure the safety of the Ming Sun Building at 437-441 Powell Street. Unfortunately, the owners have refused to provide a plan to make the urgent repairs required. The Ming Sun Benevolent Society themselves informed the City on November 14 that the building is beyond repair and should be demolished.

At present, the City has received reports from two professional engineers, one hired by the Ming Sun building owner and one by the adjacent building owner.  The City also performed its own inspections.  The conclusion from these reports and investigations is that the building needs significant repairs to be reoccupied and some of the elements of the building pose an immediate safety risk to the public. In particular, this includes the brick facade facing west, which could collapse at any time.

After discussions with the building owners, they have not been able to develop a plan to undertake the repairs or to address the public safety risk. They have not applied for any permits to prepare the building for reoccupation.

Additionally, it should be noted that the demolition of the neighbouring building was supervised by a professional engineer hired by the demolition contractor and by the City’s senior building inspector. There is no evidence that this demolition in any way impacted the structural integrity of the neighbouring building.

The first engineering report was received in August. On September 9, 2013, a City safety inspection revealed that the brinks on the front façade posed an immediate safety risk. City officials placed fencing around the building and closed the sidewalk.

On November 5, 2013, a second engineering report revealed that the bricks on the west facing façade were also in danger of collapse without warning.

On November 14, 2013, the Ming Sun Benevolent Society acknowledged that the building at 437-441 Powell Street had been structurally compromised beyond repair and would have to be demolished.

The City supported this decision and on November 15, 2013 ordered the demolition of the building in order to ensure the safety of the public and ensure that the site conditions do not deteriorate any further.

This decision was based on a number of factors including the reports of two professional engineers, City inspections and discussions with the building owners.

In the meantime, the residential tenants have all been rehoused; the commercial tenants have been provided supervised access to acquire their belongings.

In the case of the Instant Coffee artists, the City has provided them with a number of options in other sites to continue their work and they have finally accepted a storage container in which to safely store their equipment. The City’s Cultural Services staff continue to work with them.

Despite months of the Society refusing to make repairs to address the safety issues, and acknowledging that the building could not be repaired and should be demolished, the City has recently learned that there is now interest in preserving the northern portion of the building.

If this is true, the Society must provide a report from a professional engineer prior to December 9 that verifies that this portion of the building does not have any deficiencies and can be retained.

The site is increasingly difficult to secure thus increasing the risk to the public and officials who are being asked to deal with vandalism.

In the event that the owner continues to not comply with our orders, the City is preparing to take action to address the safety issues at the owners cost. A letter outlining these steps has been personally delivered to the directors of the Ming Sun Benevolent Society.