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.


  1. It’s a legally-compliant building, not a Georgia O’Keefe painting.What is all this introspective flagellation about “rhythm on the street” and ‘form respecting character’?
    This is terribly disingenuous; any excuse whatsoever to preserve in amber an idealized and “pure” concept of urbanity. Chinatown is not a museum. It is a place inhabited by humans. Why all this fear of change?

  2. It seems to me that if Chinatown is to be preserved as Chinatown the offspring of the local residents must be instrumental in keeping it alive and thriving.
    There are exceptions, but it’s fair to say they have not.
    Or outside-the-neighbourhood Chinese investors might have been able to develop with the cultural sensitivity required to maintain the character some are attempting to preserve. But I doubt they would. Most likely they’d want to modernize too. It’s going to change no matter what.
    Furthermore, if you take the approach that governments should provide social housing to keep elderly local residents in place how can you keep out equally elderly and struggling people from elsewhere? And if you can’t, how can you keep out non-Chinese shops and services that want to set up there? And how can you say that only certain developers can redevelop? Who should decide how Chinese a building should look? And what would that be anyway?
    If the Chinese community had invested in Chinatown it would remain Chinatown. But that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t have changed anyway. It’s plausible they didn’t invest because the city had a virtual moratorium on redevelopment. By the time people realized that you kill a neighbourhood when you heavily restrict redevelopment it may have been too late. It had lost any chance of organic continuity in that vacuum.
    Chinatown had been in decline for decades. Somebody thought preservation was key. It didn’t work. Somebody thought a multi-storey parking lot would help. It didn’t. Now redevelopment is a threat.
    Is it possible to preserve such a place without it becoming fake?
    Does it really matter if it evolves into something else?
    Who is crying over Robsonstrasse?

    1. Chinatown is in Richmond today. No need to reminisce about what used to be 100+ years ago. Just build more .. and far FAR higher.
      Any developer ought to be commended building social or seniors’ housing there. Why not 16 stories ? Where’s the subway btw ? CanadaLine or Skytrain ought to go further east to revitalize it (and then all the way to N-Shore via Second Harrows). Close a few streets for cars, as is proposed with Gastown, increase density, build a mental facility for the mentally challenged folks, build supervised group homes for the less mentally challenged homeless, and see this area flourish.

  3. The proposal is not stellar, but is is reasonable. Clearly it is better than what is there now and does not create any…oh no we can’t fix that issues. Social housing for seniors would be nice, too bad that got dropped….because of opposition to the project. I don’t blame the proponents for dropping it and going with existing zoning. It is clear from the comments many of the protesters will never be happy with any proposal (economic proposals anyway). Just approve it and if people now think the heights in the plan are too high (not my view) change them…but not for proposals already submitted.

  4. The heated debate over the development of 105 Keefer covers complex urban design, cultural and aspirational topics. Sometimes the opinions and positions have been based on beliefs rather than facts.
    For example, the ‘growing seniors population in the Chinatown area’ is a myth. In 2006 there were 955 seniors in the Chinatown Census Tract, 32% of the 3,005 people who lived there. In 2016 there were 805 seniors, 26% of the 3,085 residents. (Note that seniors also represent a smaller number, and a smaller proportion of the population in the adjacent Strathcona Census Tract).
    This was not the fifth time the Beedie Living group had brought this project to the Development Review Board – it was the first time. The advisory Urban Design Panel reviewed it several times, and having suggested a number of revisions, supported the final version of the taller design with non-market housing, and the shorter version that was considered by the Development Permit Board yesterday.
    The Chinatown Plan was one of the most heavily consulted plans in the city’s history. The plan that finally emerged was widely supported by Chinatown Groups, and the business community.

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