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chinatown23nw1

It has been an interesting time to read the different viewpoints being expressed about the proposed 12 storey Beedie development proposed for the site at 105 Keefer Street. The site is strategic because it is an important iconic corner in Vancouver’s Chinatown, which is the largest most contiguous Chinatown in North America. The buildings have been owned by families and historical clans and often had scores of people on the property deeds, a fact that may have delayed the redevelopment of this area.

There is no doubt that there is an important historic place, central to the development of Vancouver and this country. The importance of Chinatown and these early folks that built the country through the railway and through trade has been checkered by abject racism, head taxes, and many other indignities. This group also stopped the freeway from going through Strathcona and Chinatown in the 1960’s and 1970’s creating the fabric of Vancouver as a livable place.

The challenge with the proposed Beedie building has been about scale, context, and size. In exchange for an additional two storeys, 26 units  were going to be built for seniors (fully paid for by BC Housing) along with 106 market condos and an additional three storeys. But this tradeoff has been contentious with nearly two hundred people coming out to speak to Council over four days, with the majority being against the project. This has also been a touchstone for a new generation of interested Vancouverites with roots in Chinatown to learn about planning processes and fret about the erosion of this significant place by developer density. Why when there is a plan from 2011 is the City allowing rezonings?

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Jim Lehto is a former development planner from the City of Vancouver and a graduate of the Harvard University Urban Design program. He wrote much of the policy for the heritage areas of Chinatown and Gastown, as well as the density transfer policy.  In this opinion piece published in the Vancouver Sun Jim discusses the difference between “density” and “neighbourhood”. Jim states:   “Vancouver neighbourhoods are under siege by densification. If done correctly, a host neighbourhood will survive and prosper. If done without a comprehensive understanding of the area, a host neighbourhood will no longer be recognizable physically, demographically or economically. Its resident culture and amenities will be depleted and altered beyond repair. What is happening in Chinatown is an example of one-dimensional application of density that does not consider the socio-economic, cultural, and amenity characteristics of this unique neighbourhood…The old adage “The operation was a success, and the patient died” can well apply to densification exercises that are not matched to their host neighbourhoods.”

While discretionary zoning in Chinatown allowed additional height and density, Jim notes it was not the “right” of a developer to just obtain the bonuses. Somehow the approved outright height of 70 feet allowed in 2003 morphed into an outright height of 90 feet, without a merit test. This was further compounded in 2011 with  a strategy allowing permitted heights to 120 feet on the Keefer site and even higher, 150 feet along Main Street. As Jim Lehto notes “But as heights have been continually raised, the city has lost its leverage to test the merit of the project despite the original intent of the Chinatown zoning… The community against the rezoning wonders how many truly affordable senior’s units will be available, whether the form of the building respects the historic character of the neighbourhood, and is highly concerned about potential negative gentrification.”

“Densification alone is a crude and inadequate planning tool in every established neighbourhood, and especially within the complex socio-economic, cultural and heritage objectives of Chinatown. The fallout of the 105 Keefer project is the outcome of deleted zoning tools that formerly would have allowed the city to properly judge the merits of this project... If Chinatown, which is one of the most identifiable and culturally secure neighbourhoods, can be so significantly impacted by densification, then no neighbourhood is exempt. There is much damage possible in a rush to rezone and densify, without a comprehensive understanding of the host neighbourhood, a digestible densification phasing, and an inclusion plan to protect and value the people and amenities of the host neighbourhood that have evolved over time. In this time of hysterical land values, care must be taken to value what will be lost — as much as what will be built.”

jlehto