Canadians redevelop Jewish area in Shanghai

It began with a tourist visit to a Shanghai synagogue. Five years later, a Canadian artist and his partners are on the verge of a $1-billion (U.S.) project to preserve and develop the historic Jewish district of Old Shanghai.

The site is one of the most coveted in China’s biggest city, close to the famed colonial Bund and a planned cruise ship terminal, and potentially lucrative for retail and tourism revenue. The story of how it fell into the hands of an inexperienced team from Toronto has surprised even the developers.

It is also an object lesson in the risks of urban development in China. The Shanghai project has been delayed by a shifting political landscape, rising costs, and the growing complexity of relocating 15,000 area residents at a time when protests against other developments across China have led to greater sensitivity to the rights of residents.

Crucial meetings with officials in Shanghai next month could give the final approval to the project, with the first phase aimed for completion by the time of Shanghai’s World Expo in 2010.

Ian Leventhal, a Toronto commercial artist who is best known for redesigning 150 outlets of the Second Cup coffee chain, had no experience in the development business when he and his consortium persuaded Shanghai to let them guide a massive project to restore the neighbourhood where Jews found refuge from the Nazis.

“We were neophytes and dilettantes,” he said in an interview. “Sometimes I can’t believe how it unfolded. I’m as surprised as you are. Maybe it was luck. But we had the right message at the right time, and we said it with true feeling.”

The project had its roots in 2001, when Mr. Leventhal took an ordinary tourist trip to China. One day in Shanghai, he got into a taxi with the address of the Ohel Moishe synagogue scrawled onto a piece of paper. At the historic synagogue, he met an elderly Chinese man who related his personal memories of the 25,000 Jews who had found shelter in the neighbourhood in the 1930s and 1940s.

The stories captured his emotions, and Mr. Leventhal decided to organize a collection of paintings and sculptures by Canadian artists as a gift to Shanghai. He wasn’t sure how the donation would be received, but he was surprised to find, on a visit a few months later, that the city had built a special hall behind the synagogue to display the artworks.

At a banquet in honour of the event, Shanghai officials asked if Mr. Leventhal’s group would be interested in helping preserve Jewish culture in the city. They suggested another site, but Mr. Leventhal argued that the best site was around the synagogue, in the district where most of the Jews had lived. At the time, the neighbourhood was slated to be razed for a massive high-rise development.

“They knew that I had never developed a thing in my life – they knew that I was an artist,” Mr. Leventhal said. “But that didn’t matter. They were interested in our ideas. I felt that the Jewish story in Shanghai had to be told. It was such an underdeveloped feel-good story, a silver lining to a horrible era in history.”

Mr. Leventhal formed a partnership with Toronto designer Tom Rado, and together they made 17 trips to Shanghai to promote their vision, known as the Living Bridge project.

Their plan includes the redevelopment of 300,000 square metres of floor space in a seven-block neighbourhood around the synagogue, preserving and restoring all the historic buildings, restoring a former Yiddish theatre, adding a Jewish museum and a hotel and office complex, demolishing the postwar buildings, developing restaurants and shops along with residential space, and building a walkway through the entire project so that tourists can stroll through it.

The consortium expanded in 2002 to include Paul Haviland, a veteran Canadian businessman in China who heads Asia Project Consultants Ltd. He became project manager for the development. The consortium also included a well-connected Shanghai law firm and a local marketing guru, providing much-needed expertise on China’s complex political relationships. Toronto architect Clifford Korman was hired to develop a master plan for the site.

This year, the final pieces of the puzzle fell into place when up to $2-billion in financing was offered by a major U.S. firm, Marathon Asset Management, and an Israeli development firm.

“It’s going to be a true restoration – brick by brick and stain by stain,” Mr. Haviland said. “This district is a national treasure. Your eyes sparkle when you see how you can bring it back to how it was. It’s project heaven.”

He points to a historic building where Jews had their passports processed when they first arrived in Shanghai. The building will be restored. “There’s a story behind every building here,” he says.

Many of the streets are filled with narrow Victorian brick row-houses, reminiscent of the Kensington neighbourhood in Toronto, another district where Jewish immigrants once lived.

The Living Bridge consortium has signed a series of agreements with the Shanghai government since 2002, but the development was slowed by a dramatic rise in land costs, legal and political complexities, and greater awareness of the need for proper compensation when residents are relocated.

Mr. Haviland estimates that the consortium will have to spend around $400-million to relocate and compensate the 15,000 residents, some of whom have lived for decades in the former Jewish neighbourhood. Average relocation costs in major Chinese cities have soared by 30 to 50 per cent in the past five years, he says.

Not all of the Chinese residents are happy with the project. “I don’t want to move, I don’t want to move,” an elderly man named Mr. Fu muttered repeatedly as he heard people discussing the project on his street.

But most seem willing to move to modern buildings if they are compensated fairly. Most are now living in squalor. Up to 10 families are crowded into each house, with steep rickety staircases and a shortage of running water.

“This project is good news,” said Ku Ningshing, an 80-year-old retired teacher who lives in a tiny third-floor apartment. “We live in difficult conditions now. It’s very small and crowded.”

Mr. Leventhal promises that the residents will get proper compensation. “It would be a terrible message to send if a Jewish consortium was throwing them all out. We’re not going to go in with bulldozers. But they’re living in unsanitary conditions, and it would be a humanitarian gesture to give them modern housing.”

The consortium says it has surveyed the residents and confirmed that the vast majority are willing to move to modern new housing, as long as it is within 10 kilometres of the neighbourhood. Still uncertain, however, is what would happen if some residents refuse to move.

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