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Chinatown Seniors Return to City Hall to Protest 105 Keefer

After multiple revisions and rejections, a divisive development is still seeking city approval.

Christopher Cheung 1 Jun 2023The Tyee

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

At a development permit board meeting at Vancouver’s city hall on Monday, municipal staff in suits were joined by a crowd of over 200 protesters, most of them seniors in colourful sun hats and young activists furiously documenting the proceedings on their smartphones.

On the agenda: the return of 105 Keefer.

After multiple revisions and rejections since the condo development was first proposed in 2014, real estate developer Beedie seems closer than ever to getting the controversial project built in Vancouver’s Chinatown.

105 Keefer has been viewed as a bellwether for the future of Chinatown by supporters and opponents alike. In recent years, the neighbourhood’s challenges include the declining number of Chinese businesses, the gentrification of blue-collar Chinatown into a trendy spot for upscale shops and services, the inadequate quality and limited supply of homes for Chinese seniors, and crime and safety, particularly incidents involving hate and discrimination.

Those in support of the building believe the new condo residents will help revitalize the area. Those against the building believe it will continue to make Chinatown too exclusive for its low-income residents, hoping for social housing or amenities at the location instead. An open letter to the board from local organizations opposed to the project counted five new condos in recent years and noted that they did not bring “the promised increased business for our legacy, heritage, cultural and family-owned businesses.… Instead, they increased development pressure on the surrounding neighbourhood, and we watched as beloved neighbours continued to close their shops for good.”

The 105 Keefer property shares the corner of the block with the Chinese Memorial Plaza, recognizing Chinese veterans and railroad workers, and is across the street from the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden. The northern edge of the site was home to a Chinese theatre that ran for five decades until the early 1960s. On Keefer Street, there was a Texaco station owned by the Lee brothers, of whom Hubie Lee was a Second World War veteran of covert missions. The site is currently used as a parking lot.

In 2017, Vancouver city council rejected a rezoning proposal by Beedie for 106 condos and 25 units of social housing for seniors. Beedie returned later that year with a revised application that respected the property’s existing zoning: 111 condos with shops and a seniors centre on the street level. In a monumental decision by the city’s development permit board, with a vote of two members against one, the application was rejected in 2017.

To contest the decision, Beedie filed a petition to B.C. Supreme Court. In December 2022, a judge called the board’s decision “substantively unreasonable because the reasons provided by the board are inadequate.”

The judge ordered a reconsideration of the project and Beedie returned to the development permit board with the same application on May 29, 2023.

A crowd of Chinese seniors in a dim, 1980s-era looking room. They are all sitting quietly looking at the front of the room.
The return of 105 Keefer has yielded an unusually packed development permit board meeting for city hall.

The meeting lasted several hours into the evening, with 44 out of 48 speakers urging the board to reject the application. Representatives from Beedie were in attendance, answering questions from the board, but did not make a presentation.

There were about 25 registered speakers remaining by the time the meeting adjourned without a decision.

The Tyee interviewed a few senior Chinatown residents about the proposal. Here are their translated responses from Cantonese, lightly edited for length and clarity.

Ms. Huo
A Chinatown resident of over 10 years

A Chinese woman in her early 60s. She’s wearing a mask and a sun hat. She’s standing in front of the steps of Vancouver City Hall.

“This really is a dilemma. I see it two ways.

“All cities need to grow, so why would you reject more housing?

“But on the other hand, who is that housing for? If you’re a city planner working on a neighbourhood like Chinatown, are you really going to invite more rich people to come live here? Are you using the power that you have for the good of the people? When you’re making decisions, shouldn’t you consider low-income people first before the people at the top?

“This isn’t about politics. This is about the life of everyday people. That’s why I don’t think this project is fair.”

May Li
A Chinatown resident of over 20 years

A Chinese woman in her early 60s. She’s wearing a mask. She is wearing a white-spotted denim shirt over a teal polo.

“I don’t care if they make the building taller — they really should have social housing in it. I live in social housing with my mother and I don’t know where to put her one day if she needs more intensive care. I’m in my 60s and on my way to becoming a senior myself. Where am I going to go? There are waitlists everywhere, especially in Chinatown.

“I want the new building to be 100 per cent low-income housing, for seniors, for people with disabilities. It would be great if there was more space for us to do activities too.”

Kung Ku Yang
A Chinatown resident of over 20 years

“In Chinatown, we have too many seniors and not enough places to go. I’ve been part of an exercise group for six years. We meet Monday and Friday mornings for 45-minute sessions. Let’s call it an hour. That might not sound difficult, to find space for an hour, but we keep having to move around.

“For a few years, we rented the foyer of the old police station on Main Street. But then they said they couldn’t host us anymore, so we moved to the second floor of the Sun Wah Centre on Keefer Street. It got crowded there fast, because it’s not a very big space and our group grew to about 60 to 70 seniors.

“We stopped meeting during the pandemic. It wasn’t good for me because I use a walker and I didn’t get enough exercise. When we started again, I could really feel the difference. My legs were healthier again.

“Recently, we went to exercise at Chinatown Plaza. It’s the perfect place. There’s air conditioning. There’s seating. But then a manager came out to tell us that we couldn’t use the space. Our leader asked why not, because people come in here to hang out all the time. The manager called the police and told us to leave.”

Chinatown Plaza is a mall owned by the City of Vancouver. The Tyee asked about the incident and the city said that it had received complaints about the volume of music and lack of access for deliveries. The property managers asked the seniors to stop their activity on site as they did not have permission to use the space.

According to the city, “the situation escalated and a police officer arrived to assist” and “sincerely apologize[s] for the way the situation was handled.” The city said that it was and is in conversation about offering up the space to the Yarrow Intergenerational Society for Justice, which runs the tai chi program, but added that it was “disappointing” that the group used the space in advance of receiving permission.

“People ask us why can’t we just exercise in the park,” Yang continued. “But we’re oldies. If we’re outside, there’s wind, there’s rain, it gets hot, it gets cold.

“So that’s why I’m against this project. It’s an important location for Chinatown. Seniors and low-income people need more housing, and at least one or two floors of space to do activities.”

The development permit board hearings kicked off with a shaky start due to microphone and feedback issues.

Speakers using Cantonese or Mandarin had English interpretation for the benefit of the board. But many of the Chinatown residents in attendance had a hard time comprehending portions of the meeting carried out only in English.

Yang was one of those who struggled to follow along. She eventually requested to be added to the speakers’ list so that she could share her experiences, one of the final few to do so before the meeting ended around 10 p.m.

Yang registered on the spot at the development permit board meeting to speak against the 105 Keefer application.

“I was here six years ago to oppose this project,” Yang told The Tyee. “I’m back to oppose it again.”

The development permit board will reconvene on June 12 to hear from the remaining speakers.  [Tyee]

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