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City Hall, Do the Right Thing: Protect Vancouver’s Chinatown

Despite disappointing hearings, I’m hopeful council will opt to support community, heritage and history.

By Janice Wong 9 Jun 2017 |

Janice Wong is a visual artist and author of Chow: From China to Canada. A fourth-generation Chinese-Canadian, her family roots trace back through British Columbia history to the mid-1800s. Born in Saskatchewan, she has resided in Vancouver since 1986.

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Protestors of the 105 Keefer project. Photo courtesy of Youth Collaborative for Chinatown.

I recently dreamt about a friend who passed away a few years ago, the feistiest woman I ever knew. She told me the story of her “trick” as a child when playing that apple-bobbing game — aim for the apple and drive your head to the very bottom of the bucket until you secure the pesky fruit with your teeth. Most kids, like me, would have avoided getting their hair wet, let alone soaking their entire head. 

As for the dream, it ended with me glancing up to see a cluster of cherry blossoms, behind which was a glowing point of pink light that kept growing and growing, more luminous with every second.

I regard the dream as a good sign, especially after spending so much time at Vancouver city hall — 26 hours over four days — for the recent public hearing on the controversial rezoning proposal for 105 Keefer Street, in Chinatown. I feel the need to express my disappointment after watching our civic government at work; the mayor and council, with one exception, refused to reset the final day of hearings — May 29, a Monday — to a time when working people could attend. Disappointing, too, was the lack of additional speaking time for people who required translation services, which effectively gave them less of a voice than others. 

And it was impossible to ignore the reality that the politicians making the decision represent parties that have accepted money from developers and that many of the proposal’s supporters at the hearing have ties to the real estate and property development industries.

The public hearing drew the largest turnout in recent years, with 324 individuals registered to speak. Central to the controversy is the location, adjacent to the Chinatown Memorial Plaza that is home to the Chinese Veterans and Railway Workers Memorial, the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, the Chinese Cultural Centre and two 1900s’ era heritage buildings. The proposed 12-storey condominium tower will dwarf these culturally significant markers. 

Adding to the controversy is what seems to be a one-sided deal stacked in the developers’ favour.

The proposed rezoning would allow the developer, Beedie Group, to build three additional storeys of high-end, penthouse condominiums. In return, all the city would get are 25 seniors’ social housing units (only eight of which will actually rent below market) and a seniors’ amenity space, a gathering space.

But the seniors’ social housing units and the amenity space are not gifts from the developer. Taxpayer-funded BC Housing has agreed to pay the developer, at full cost, $7.3 million for these units and the discounted amenity space will rent on a fixed-term, 10-year lease that will revert to market retail once the term is done.

As part of the deal, the developers also won’t need to pay development cost levies on the social housing units, those much-needed dollars that go towards neighbourhood infrastructure to assist with the demands created by additional residents.

Key to the opposition to 105 Keefer is the clear potential for this project, and all future neighbourhood market condominium projects, to increase upward pressure on land values and taxes, hurting the neighbourhood’s existing small businesses, services, seniors and families. 

Since the recent incursion of condominium development into Chinatown, the Hua Foundation has documented the loss of half of Chinatown’s green grocers, fish mongers and butcher shops. That presents serious issues for food security for Chinatown’s seniors and area residents, and erodes the character of the community.

What goes on in Chinatown doesn’t stay in Chinatown. I’ve begun to see the fight for Chinatown as a collective, city-wide struggle for community, heritage and history, those aspects that meld to create the living texture of a city, aspects that all Vancouverites share.

Of the 150 opponents who spoke during the four days of public hearings, many shared personal memories of Chinatown in an effort to describe the intangible qualities that create community. But it was clear that no one wants to mummify Chinatown. We are simply asking for development in scale with this rare heritage district, adequate social housing, respect for the cultural significance of the site and stewardship that will help the community move sensitively towards its future form.

Public feedback has resulted in city staff recommending changes to the current zoning of Chinatown. The Chinatown Development Policy Changes include scaling back and capping the allowable height and mass of future projects to better reflect the sensitivities around development in this heritage neighbourhood.

However, the current 105 Keefer rezoning proposal will be grandfathered in, exempt from these new recommendations, assessed within current zoning guidelines. In addition to 105 Keefer, several other Chinatown sites are currently in process, subjecting the community to intense development pressure.

I feel sad for Chinatown and the old grandmas and grandpas and young families who live there. I feel cranky about how developers are allowed to run our city, how small businesses, families and seniors will be shoved out of Chinatown due to upward pressure on land values, the resulting high taxes and the overall gentrification, that second, shiny, new “layer” that will be laid on top of the existing Chinatown, the two of which never really cohabit and integrate.

On June 13, I hope that city council makes the decision to support a community, heritage, history and the right for older, marginalized seniors and families to live with dignity and security. Chinatown does not need more luxury condominiums… that “revitalization” experiment, carried out at great personal cost to its most vulnerable residents, has clearly not worked, and it won’t work this time. As 80-year-old activist and academic William Lim encouraged mayor and council, “take the road less travelled.”

The apple-bobbing game, as my friend played it, seems like a fitting analogy for what it might take to fight this rezoning proposal — not being timid, or sticking to the water at the top of the bucket, but diving down, deep, to win.  [Tyee]

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