News / Vancouver

Condos pushing people and culture out of Chinatown, council told

Chinatown advocates say a 2011 zoning change to allow for taller buildings hasn’t worked out as planned.

Urban planners and Chinatown advocates in Vancouver worry that aggressive rezoning will make it impossible for small businesses like this, one of the few remaining Chinese herb stores in the neighbourhood, to survive. Photo taken Jan. 31, 2017.

Wanyee Li/Metro File

Urban planners and Chinatown advocates in Vancouver worry that aggressive rezoning will make it impossible for small businesses like this, one of the few remaining Chinese herb stores in the neighbourhood, to survive. Photo taken Jan. 31, 2017.

It turns out that condos might not be able to solve all our problems.

At a marathon public hearing for a proposed condo building on an important corner of Vancouver’s Chinatown, many speakers spoke about how several new condo buildings in the area had accelerated gentrification in the neighbourhood.

“It’s the feeling of the community that the larger developments are out of scale and lacked character,” said Carol Lee, the chair of the Vancouver Chinatown Revitalization Committee.

“Trading character for public benefit is not worth it, and the pace of development puts pressure on existing businesses and residents.”

Beedie Living has proposed to build a 12-storey condo building at Keefer and Columbia. The site is located across from the Chinese Cultural Centre and in front of a memorial to Chinese veterans. While 90-foot buildings are currently allowed under the zoning for the area and developers can ask for up to 120 feet, Beedie’s proposal is 115 feet.

The developer has offered to sell the second floor of the building to BC Housing for 25 units of low-income seniors’ housing, eight of which will be at welfare or pension rates; and to make one of the commercial spaces on the first floor available for seniors’ cultural activities at a discount.

On the evening of May 29, council voted to defer their decision on whether to allow the extra height to June 13.

The proposal comes in the wake of two condo buildings at Keefer and Main, completed in 2014 and 2016, following a 2011 change to the zoning for the area that allowed for building up to 90 feet, higher than the previous 70 foot maximum. Apartments in the two buildings sell for $1 to $2 million, and one-bedrooms rent for around $1,800.

At the time of the zoning change, Lee said, it was thought that more development in the area would revitalize the area, which is home to many low-income people and where traditional businesses have struggled.

But seven years later, “we’ve found out the hard way these large buildings that were supposed to revitalize the community with economic impact had the opposite effect,” Lee said.

The proposal attracted hundreds of speakers and public hearings have stretched over several days. Council was expected to vote on the proposal at the conclusion of the public hearing. Many of the speakers spoke about the historic racism and discrimination towards Chinese immigrants that led to the creation of Chinatown, and how it is still the only neighbourhood in Vancouver where many people of Chinese heritage feel they can connect with their culture.

Others spoke about grandparents who spent their last days in social housing in Chinatown, living full lives in a vibrant community.

Supporters of the project have praised the seniors’ housing addition and said Chinatown needs more residential development to revitalize the area. City planning staff have commended the project for adding smaller commercial spaces for small businesses, some of which open onto a back lane in keeping with Chinatown’s historic character.

But several historians and planners have said opposition to 105 Keefer is comparable in importance to the 1970s fight against a freeway through Chinatown, which had a lasting impact on Vancouver’s downtown.

“At the retail level, which is particularly important, they contain large new facilities that are geared to the wider population…(like) the inevitable Starbucks,” said Nathan Edelson, a former Vancouver city planner, of the new condo buildings. “This has triggered speculation and a significant rise in commercial rents in the area that has driven out many of the cultural and historic uses.”

Some speakers also expressed scepticism about the promised social housing, saying there are too few units for the lowest-income seniors.

Andy Yan, an urban planner, noted some of the expected commercial uses for the project are bars and restaurants, and he questioned whether the one floor of seniors’ housing on the second floor is simply soundproofing for the higher floors. The original proposal suggested the second floor would be commercial.

“Seniors social housing should not be used … (as) sound buffers to luxury market condos units,” he said. “It is disrespectful of our elders and sets a terrible precedence for building in the City of Vancouver.”

A review of the 2011 zoning change is expected to come before staff in June.

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