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?
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.”


  1. All this grief for what has been a parking long for as long as I have lived in the neighbourhood (~15 years). There are just so many reasons not to densify. Many of these arguments are even reasonable but all add up to doing nothing. It’s not like any of the buildings that have gone up so far have replaced anything historical. Even the most egregious storefront — the new BMO and HSBC — is not that bad. It’s a bit disappointing that they didn’t bring the fishtank when BMO moved, but otherwise it’s just as good.
    I bet a lot of the people protesting this don’t even live in the neighbourhood. While they may have sentimental and familial attachments, they can go home to their own neighbourhoods and not have to deal with the every day realities of the area, the proximity to the DTES, and the preference of new Chinese immigrants for other parts of town. Meanwhile, a co-worker of mine is having trouble finding anything suitable to rent near downtown where he works under $3K/month for his family. Less density means less opportunities for people to find anywhere to live within their price range.
    Neighbourhoods should change and evolve. Putting a bowl on top of Chinatown may be good for tourists, but for people who live in the area, the new buildings, and the businesses and people that have come with them, have been a welcome change to what had been — let’s face it — a dying neighbourhood.

  2. The thing I find hilarious is that this lot has been vacant since the 1970s, and had a large development proposed on that site during the 1980s.
    If I recall, it was supposed to be a casino with a taller building, maybe 18 floors?

  3. It’s amusing to hear about densification is coming to Chinatown because only a few decades ago it was considered high density. Times change.

  4. It should be painfully apparent by now that planning and consultation within established and historical neighbourhoods require a better process. I believe that a well-crafted neighbourhood urban design plan will have greater value and utility than words of policy printed on a page in a report, will provide greater certainty, and will help eliminate the disruptive pattern of project-by-project fights. In this sense the op-ed by Jim Lehto rings true. The issues are so much more complex than the mere application of density.
    This is as much about process as it is results. There must be an equitable and much more constructive consultation format presented where all voices will be heard, valued, recorded and weighed. Chinatown shouldn’t be preserved or developed where winners and losers will be practically predestined by typical planning and development methods and procedures. Cultural identity does not manifest itself often in such concentrated areas with such a powerful contribution to Canada’s and Vancouver’s history. Treating culture like just another box to tick on a planner’s list in this case is, quite frankly, insulting. Chinatown is at the top of the list of special places, and therein the planning and development within it have to be special.
    This is not a call to lower a protective dome over the neighbourhood. Nor is it about giving sway to NIMBYs. Economic vitality is important, but it’s obvious that deterioration in the community is prevalent and that the development so far hasn’t been completely sensitive to the community’s sense of identity and deep history. This is so much more than merely plunking a mid-rise on an empty lot with maybe, just maybe, a bit more traditional Chinatown red brick filigree. It’s about the incremental deterioration of a unique architectural and cultural gem with small doses of neglect, sameness and ubiquity, and finding ways to turn it around.
    If people are moving away, then what will attract them back to at least visit regularly? What will encourage residents to stay or move back? What will enliven the community in terms of enlightened financial and enhanced cultural recognition? What is the correct level of sensitivity and respect when developing there?
    Multiple workshops with all involved parties where everyone will be heard and respected should be standard practice in special districts like Chinatown. Techniques to challenge unreasonable preconceptions need to be explored along with finding common ground within a complex array of views. This was supposed to be the lesson learned in Grandview Woodlands, which though historic and well-established, doesn’t have the same intense unique concentration of culture, density, nation-building input, and history of official prejudice as Chinatown.
    The multiple workshops need to be designed so no one group or clutch of strong personalities can take over the entire thing, yet democratic enough to afford vigourous debate and creative solution-making exercises on key issues. Social and subsidized senior’s housing must be considered alongside with the economic viability of reasonable density increases and harnessing market forces. Architectural relevance is perhaps more important here than anywhere else; Chinatown should not be subjected to the same old developer’s formulae. The treatment of the public realm (i.e. streets, sidewalks, plazas, parks, housing …) needs to be even stronger.
    The workshops should be flexible enough to hear from knowledgeable people and organizations who will address demographics along with density, project financing along with housing advocacy, and so forth. Paths to constructive compromise need to be identified and resolutions founded on encouraged as an imperative by professionally neutral facilitators. Most of all, partisan politics must be kept out of the process.
    The ultimate goal will be to produce an urban design plan for all of Chinatown that would graphically illustrate what the community stakeholders, facilitators and all who gave input have agreed on, or at least where they arrived at a compromise. If it has to be accomplished on a building-by-building, block-by-block basis, then so be it.
    The Chan family opened their Strathcona house to 1,200 people on the recent Vancouver heritage homes tour. This is the family that was instrumental in helping to save Chinatown – and Vancouver – from destruction by freeways. I know an architect descendent of Yip Sang whose Pender Street building (one wife per floor!) was rescued from near-destruction through over-vigourous renovations, and is now condo-king Rennie’s gallery. Members of the Yip family were heavily involved in rescuing their ancestor’s home. These people should not be discounted or ignored in this conversation, just as new residents promoting the area as a cool Millennial enclave should also be heard.

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