Proposed 12 storey condo at 105 Keefer Street is feared to change Chinatown

Monday, May 29th, 2017

Proposed condo at the centre of battle between preservationists and those who want change

Douglas Quan
The Province

In this city of towering glass, it could easily have been overlooked as “just another condo.”

But a proposed 12-storey condominium in the heart of Vancouver’s iconic Chinatown has stoked a red-hot debate unseen in this city for years, pitting those who believe the development is needed to revitalize the neighbourhood against those who fear the project will further erode the area’s unique character.

Last week, as city council began to hold hearings to accommodate more than 240 speakers, some of the project’s opponents couldn’t help but compare the current fight to a campaign waged against the city in the 1960s and ’70s over a proposed inner-city freeway that would have gutted much of Chinatown.

Now, instead of a “freeway of cars,” the threat posed to Chinatown is a “freeway of condos,” they said.

“If we don’t manage to stop this development from proliferating, I think we’ve lost the Chinatown we know,” said Shirley Chan, whose family played a pivotal role in stopping the freeway project.

The very survival of the community is now threatened.”

As the National Post reported in December, cities across North America are wrestling with how to balance the goals of rejuvenating their Chinatowns while preserving their heritage.

But the debate in Vancouver, which boasts one of North America’s largest Chinatowns, has been particularly fierce — propelled by the recent unveiling of plaques marking Chinatown’s designation as a national historic site.

No issue in recent memory — not a contentious casino development or the thorny issue of bike lanes — has drummed up this much noise, municipal watchers say.

After going through several iterations, the building proposed by Beedie Development Group on a vacant lot now consists of 12 storeys, 106 market-housing units and 25 social-housing units for seniors, as well as several retail units and a community space.

Supporters, who include the Vancouver Chinatown Merchants Association, say the project will breathe new life into the neighbourhood, improve safety and provide a needed gathering place for cultural groups.

In a letter to council, Albert Fok, who heads the Chinatown business improvement area society, says with the growth of Asian supermarkets elsewhere in the city and in the suburbs, Chinatown has lost some of its allure. The only way it will survive is if it opens up to a wider demographic.

“There appears to be a reverse xenophobia in Vancouver Chinatown of late and that is unacceptable,” he wrote. “Many are flying the so-called flags of heritage preservation and promotion to curtail the influx of new businesses and new developments, particularly those that are non-ethnic-Chinese entrepreneurs and investors. This is absolutely absurd … and should not be tolerated.”

Chinatown, he continued, “cannot thrive on the historical component alone.”

Opponents say the building’s massing and height are not in keeping with the traditional architecture of the neighbourhood — slim structures no more than four storeys with recessed balconies — and dwarfs neighbouring sites, including a classical Chinese garden and a memorial plaza that pays homage to Chinese railway workers and war veterans.

Planning in the neighbourhood should put the needs of the area’s existing, mostly low-income seniors first, critics say. To that end, the 25 units of social housing are tokens at best. And they worry that continued gentrification of the neighbourhood (there are already a couple of new condo buildings up the street) will lead to higher rents and displacement of seniors already feeling squeezed by the encroachment of new coffee shops and eateries that do not cater to their tastes or budgets.

An ongoing study by the Hua Foundation, a local non-profit, has found the number of traditional green grocers, fishmongers and barbecue meat shops has fallen by more than 50 per cent since 2009.

“Chinatown is one of the last sanctuaries for many low-income residents, particularly Chinese-Canadian elders, to readily find housing, community, services and acceptance in the city,” Andy Yan, an urban planner and academic, says in prepared remarks he is set to deliver when hearings resume Monday.

“The failure of development and planning to embrace social, cultural and historical context and neighbourhood need should not be rewarded.”

The debate has been noteworthy for the heavy involvement of Chinese-Canadian youth. One group has been holding regular mahjong socials on the plaza next to the proposed site as an act of protest and as a symbolic way to lay claim to the space.

Many of the twenty- and thirty-somethings say they feel obligated to continue the work of previous generations who fought to keep Chinatown alive.

“Shirley Chan, Joe Wai (a Chinatown architect who recently passed away) and others fought the ’60s freeway, which gave us the Chinatown we grew up with,” said Melody Ma, who heads the #SaveChinatownYVR campaign. “We need to fight the ‘freeway of condos’ today so that the next generation has a Chinatown tomorrow.”

Chan said she never thought that 50 years after the freeway scrap, she’d witness another battle for Chinatown’s survival.

With a council vote possibly early this week, she’s not sure what to expect. The Chinese-Canadian community today is a lot more diverse and dispersed, she said, and lacks the galvanizing influence of such leaders as Wong Foon Sien, who was dubbed the “unofficial mayor” of Chinatown back in the day.

“My gut is telling me if council listens, they’ll vote against,” Chan said. “My fear is that they will not.”

© 2017 National Post,

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