There is a growing gap between the knowledge of place and how we treat one of the most important early settlements of Vancouver. Given the housing and affordability crisis and the growing lack of direct and practical information on issues coming out of City Hall we are lucky to have people like local activist Melody Ma, historian John Atkin and former City Planner Nathan Edelson and many others come out to talk about Chinatown, why it is important, and why we should all care that a 111 unit building of market housing is going to be plonked at 105 Keefer Street.
This is the fifth time the Beedie Living group has submitted a plan for this site to the city. The last iteration of the project did include 106 units of market housing and 26 units for seniors in a twelve storey building. That building was nixed because of “building’s height, lack of adequate social housing and deep community opposition” as reported in the Vancouver Sun. The developer’s answer to this thumbs down is to bring an amended plan for a nine storey building, no social housing units (which by the way would have been paid for fully by BC Housing) and a cultural space on the main floor, as well as three underground levels of parking. This plan simply needs approval from the four folks on the development permit board at the city. And guess what~this board can only review applications based upon the permitted zoning and area guidelines, nothing else. A new generation of concerned citizens are learning how the city approves development projects with minimal public input and context.
Price Tags Vancouver has already written about this project showing the dark underbelly of city hall’s lack of inclusion and meaningful engagement needed for a growing seniors’ population in the Chinatown area. Instead, the focus has been on providing market units as if increasing condo supply and turning Chinatown into the southern extension of Gastown will magically lift the low-income seniors that live and rely on the services in this area.
This is a nationally significant early settlement district with people from a rich culture whose forebears built the railway across Canada, developed buildings and connections in an area unique to North America and also endured tremendous racism. The residents of Chinatown and Strathcona were also responsible for the early 1970’s stopping of the downtown freeway that would have eviscerated Chinatown, and emasculated downtown Vancouver.
And in a way, this whole debacle is City Hall’s fault. It was former City Development Planner Jim Lehto that noted that somehow the outright approved height of 70 feet allowed in 2003 became 90 feet with no merit test, compounded in 2011 with permitted heights up to 120 feet on Keefer Street and up to 150 feet on Main Street. As Jim Lehto observed “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.”
There are no seniors’ units and the building shape and form does not mirror Chinatown’s rhythm on the street. How will these condos add to Chinatown? As Jim Lehto states “much damage is 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.”
The development permit board will be making their decision on November 6.