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Chinatown Needs Senior Housing. What’s In the Way?

For Chau Luen Society, the barriers literally grow out of a previous victory for the neighbourhood. The latest in Hot, Hot Housing.

Christopher Cheung 13 May

Christopher Cheung reports on urban issues for The Tyee. Follow him on Twitter at @bychrischeung.

The Chau Luen Society wants to construct a new building to continue its mission of housing seniors in Vancouver’s Chinatown. But the city so far says no.

At the root of the problem are... roots.

The root structures of four trees, to be specific. Which further frustrates some who blame the planning department for too often holding up needed new housing. On this particular file, Mayor Kennedy Stewart, in an election year, says he’s eager to work towards a solution.

The seeds of the controversy are these: the Chau Luen Society has called Vancouver’s Chinatown home for eight decades and has a tower on Keefer Street home to 82 units of seniors housing.

The tower was built 49 years ago and recently had extensive upgrades to its envelope, which gives it another 20 years of life, estimates the society.

“We generally have very low vacancy rates, definitely a bit of a waitlist, and that’s why we need to build more,” said Mike Tan, the vice-president of the society’s board.

That way, current residents can move into a new building while the society decides what to do with the old one.

The society is planning a new tower on their land but that’s where they ran into the unusual obstacle: four trees on a strip of land owned by the City of Vancouver.

There isn’t much on that land, just the trees, boulders and a dirt path created by people walking on it over time.

When the society told city staff about their plans for a new tower, they received two pieces of bad news.

The first is that the society’s hope of doubling their total units won’t be possible.

The society had wanted to buy some land from the city’s grassy strip to build a bigger new tower of 80 to 100 units.

But the city said it needs to keep the property as is. A spokesperson told The Tyee this is because of the “importance of retaining the trees at the location to provide much needed tree canopy and green space for this neighbourhood, which is deficient in both.”

The second piece of bad news is that the society’s less ambitious option — building a smaller 60-unit tower on the edge of their existing property — won’t be possible either.

This is because it would interfere with the root network of the four trees on the city property.

The only thing they can build on their own land? A smaller project that stays clear of the root network.

“That doesn’t make financial sense [for us],” said Tan.

This isn’t the society’s first run-in with the city regarding their real estate. That episode is a part of Vancouver legend.

The society used to own a three-storey building at 800 Main St., but it was expropriated in the late 1960s by the city along with other properties on the block, including the houses of Black residents who made up the Hogan’s Alley community.

“We’re very proud of our history there,” said Tan, noting their building was the home of the first London Drugs.

A black and white photo of Vancouver’s main street, taken in 1968. On the right is a one-story building home to the Pioneer Junk Co., with painted signs on the windows advertising bottle returns for cash. On the left is a three-story building, with a London Drugs store on the main floor. A sign reads, “Camera and complete photo supplies.”
On the left of the image is the Chau Luen Society’s original building at 800 Main St., home to the first London Drugs store. It was expropriated by the city in the late 1960s. The block was bulldozed to make way for the viaduct. Photo: Item CVA 203-10, City of Vancouver Archives.

The society was given about $100,000 by the city for the forced sale and displacement, which they fought “tooth and nail” with other owners and property owners, he said.

The city bulldozed their block and built viaducts for a highway that never materialized, thanks to years of protests by local residents. It made Vancouver an anomaly among North American cities for not having a highway that runs through its core.

As it turns out, the trees that plague the society’s plans today are part of that highway legacy from a half-century ago. The city acquired that grassy strip in the first place with the intent of developing a road for the highway — “There’s a bit of irony there,” said Tan.

On the block next to the society’s tower, you can still see the curve where that branch of the highway would’ve been located.

An aerial map of Vancouver’s Chinatown, showing a strip of grassy land with trees once intended for a road coming off the highway, which was cancelled.
See the curve? It’s where you would’ve come off the cancelled highway. Called a ‘right of way,’ the land still belongs to the city. You can see where the four trees butt up against the potential location of a tower by the Chau Luen Society. Illustration by Christopher Cheung, based off Google Street View.

In an immigrant city like Vancouver, there is huge demand for culturally-appropriate senior care, whether it’s Chinese or Punjabi, Japanese or German. Many providers like the Chau Luen Society that offer it have waitlists.

For Chau Luen, their care includes staff who speak Chinese, which is crucial for seniors’ well-being and health needs. There is also cultural recreation from dance, singing and mahjong. Being situated in Chinatown is especially critical, giving seniors the independence to venture into a neighbourhood where they can visit service providers like banks and medical offices and purchase kitchen staples they need — all in their own native language.

A spokesperson told The Tyee that the city isn’t commenting further on the matter publicly until the society submits a formal rezoning application, after which they would assess the fate of the grassy strip of land.

Mayor Stewart has heard about the situation and his office told The Tyee that it will be meeting with the society and city staff to “explore how we can get this project moving forward.” The mayor recently told the Vancouver Sun that he’d always hoped that grassy strip could be used to help revitalize Chinatown, particularly for seniors housing.

“We definitely appreciate the importance of the tree canopy,” said Tan, who doesn’t want this to turn into a debate over whether trees or senior homes are more important.

Trees have special meaning in the Chinatown and Downtown Eastside neighbourhoods. This is one of the hottest places in the city when summer hits because of how urban the landscape is and the lack of shade from limited trees. That shade is all the more important for the local population, many of whom are seniors, low income, immunocompromised and live in old buildings that get incredibly hot. The Downtown Eastside and the nearby city of New Westminster were home to the highest death tolls during last year’s heat dome, according to the BC Centre for Disease Control.

Tan knows the seniors who live at the society’s tower take refuge under those four trees, as do many nearby residents.

“We hope that the city can come around to the fact that these trees can be relocated, which would enable us to build that housing and have these trees in the neighbourhood.”


Hot, Hot Housing is a reported column on the housing crisis in Vancouver and beyond, published in The Tyee every Friday. Got housing stories of your own? Whether it’s market hijinks, tenancy horrors or survival tips, you can email us at  [Tyee]

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