The Chinese investors are coming

International interest in the Eastside real-estate market may pose the potential for zombie neighborhoods, already a worry in Vancouver. But trading ideas about the shape of urban life is a rich part of our history.
Crosscut archive image.

Leavenworth: Conscious cultural copycatting and exchange in action.

International interest in the Eastside real-estate market may pose the potential for zombie neighborhoods, already a worry in Vancouver. But trading ideas about the shape of urban life is a rich part of our history.

The Seattle Times reports that affluent Asians, and specifically Chinese nationals, are snapping up properties in the Seattle area. Homes on the Eastside, especially West Bellevue, Clyde Hill, Medina, and the Points communities, seem to be very appealing. The paper's research shows significant growth in such foreign real estate investment since 2007.

I wrote recently suggesting that Bellevue might legitimately look to being the "new Vancouver" in regard to the rise of its Asian population and the desire for Chinese national investment there expressed by Bellevue Mayor Conrad Lee. The Times article suggests that wealthy Chinese are looking for real estate investments and development opportunities on the Eastside, a trend that has also been strong and is much advanced in San Francisco and Vancouver, B.C.

Bellevue and Seattle would no doubt love to have more money flowing in, from whatever source, though Asia seems be a current major growth sector. But foreign buyers can have a downside. The level of Asian investment in the Vancouver real estate market has raised concerns for some Vancouverites about the long-term health of that city, partly because it's resulting in so many absentee-owners.

A Vancouver planner Andy Yan, who teaches at the University of British Columbia, worries that Vancouver is shaping up to be a "resort economy." Is Vancouver the new, high-rise Whistler? According to a story by Douglas Todd of the Vancouver Sun, "Yan has also discovered that 50 to 60 per cent of downtown condos are not inhabited by their owners," and many aren't inhabited at all.

The consequence, Yan worries, is that absentee ownership that may erode the sense of citizenship and civic involvement. Many of the buyers are simply speculators, and one problem with that, besides not enlivening local street life and boosting businesses, is that over time, it can make a city less affordable for those who actually want to live there. Yan says he doesn't want to see Vancouver become what he calls a "zombie city."

If the U.S. and Canada are getting lots of overseas real estate capital flowing in, some American and European architectural style is flowing the other way. An article in the Pacific Standard, "Why is China Stealing Cities, Towns and Buildings?," talks about the trend for developers in China to build communities that are replicas of Western cities. The piece features an interview with artist Phil Thompson who, along with Sebastian Acker, has been documenting the phenomenon. The photographs include a replica of the Austrian town of Hallstatt on the shores of an artificial lake in Guangdong province, and Thames Town, an old English market town built in a suburb of Shanghai.

The appeal of such copycatting for towns and parks doesn't strike me as strange at all. One word: Leavenworth, our state's little bit o' Bavaria up in the Cascades. Or look at all the faux English tudors that line Seattle streets. Or what about the newly refurbished King Street Station tower, a replica of Venice's Campanile de San Marco? Nor is it new in Asia. In 1997, for example, the Japanese built a replica of Shakespeare's Stratford-upon-Avon near Tokyo, and one British scholar I talked with claimed that in some ways it's more authentic than the original.

Many countries other than Western ones have a habit of absorbing and recreating what works elsewhere, for better or worse. Not to mention phenomena like Las Vegas or Disney World that create global fantasy lands with a residential component. Even Disney himself couldn't resist: He had a small apartment built above the firehouse on Main Street USA in Disneyland. At Disney World, Walt wanted to create a theme park of the future that people actually lived in as a kind of real-time urban laboratory. He died before he could make that happen. In any case, it's not just a Chinese thing — much of our urban and suburban development features a kind of theme-park eclecticism.

Seattle, by the way, has made at least two major architectural contributions to the world, both courtesy of architect John Graham, Jr. One is the successful auto-centric mall, the prototype of which was Northgate  (opened 1950), an idea that was copied and exported around the world. The other was popularizing restaurant-observation towers which, since the Space Needle in 1962, have sprouted on skylines all over the world, and have taken off in China. Since 1990, sightseeing towers have been erected in Beijing, Canton, Henan, Macau, Shanghai, Sichuan, Qingdao, Dalian and Tianjin. Having a Space Age trophy tower is apparently de rigueur for the 21st-century urban profile.

After Disney visited Seattle's fair, he predicted they'd be popping up everywhere. And he was right.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.