Museum, shops and seniors’ housing: The 105 Keefer that might have been
Condos will likely be built on the contentious Chinatown site — but a planner and an architect had a different vision.
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Council’s decision to turn down an application to build a 12-storey condo in the heart of Chinatown has some thinking about what could be, although the fate of the site is still very much up in the air.
“There was a site that had been vacant for a long time and it was the last large, vacant site left in the community,” said Nathan Edelson, a former Vancouver city planner who worked with the late architect Joe Wai on an alternate vision for the site at 105 Keefer St.
“It faced right on to the Chinatown Museum and the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Gardens. So we were talking about what might be possible on that site and thinking about something that the lower floors would pay respect to the Chinatown memorial, and would house an interactive museum.”
Vancouver city council turned down the fourth iteration of the condo proposal on June 13 in an eight to three decision. Council had heard from hundreds of speakers during the lengthy public hearing process, and councillors who voted against the condo proposal from Beedie Living said the concerns they heard about height, heritage and rapid gentrification had led them to turn the project down.
Beedie Living had applied to build a 12-storey building and had offered 25 units of seniors’ housing as well as a discounted space for a seniors’ group for the extra height. Council’s rejection means Beedie can still build a lower building, at nine storeys, entirely made up of market condos and ground floor retail space.
Edelson, Wai and museum designer Ian McLellan had an alternate vision for the site. Edelson acknowledges that plan didn’t get “even a toehold” of interest from the developer. It would have the developer to partner to build the new building, or a land swap for city-owned land for the 105 Keefer St. site, something that is currently not on the table.
A memorial to railway workers and to Chinese veterans sits on one corner of the site, so Edelson and Wai thought it made sense to incorporate Chinatown’s history — much of which is still largely unknown — into their proposal.
“(McLellan) showed us a number of facilities in other cities that worked, where they really engaged young people and others in exploring different history of the area,” Edelson said of the “interactive museum” component.
“There’d be rotating exhibits and artwork coming in. That was seen as the centrepiece, but then there would also be making commercial space for some of the goods and services that have traditionally been in Chinatown and a considerable amount of seniors’ housing in the floors above.”
It’s now unlikely that Wai and Edelson’s alternate vision will come to pass. But, Edelson said, he believes that even a nine-storey condo building is preferable to a higher building that wouldn’t have been a good fit near the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden and other historic buildings. The Beedie building in the final proposal had smaller storefronts, some of which opened onto the back lane in keeping with the historic character of Chinatown, and a public lane through the ground floor, as well as a better-designed public plaza in front of the memorial.
“I think it’s better to turn this down to make it clear that the city is interested in retaining the historic character of the community,” Edelson said.