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Decision on controversial Vancouver Chinatown condo project expected June 26

Development permit board hears overwhelmingly from citizens to reject Beedie's proposal.
Opponents of Beedie's condo proposal in Chinatown held a rally Monday on the steps of Vancouver city hall.

The city’s development permit board has reserved June 26 as the day it will decide on whether to approve a nine-storey condo project in the heart of Chinatown, potentially ending a years-long battle by the developer to begin construction.

If a decision were to be based solely on the passionate speeches of citizens over two seven-hour hearings in the past month, it would be no contest: Beedie (Keefer Street) Holdings Ltd.’s project for 105 Keefer St. would again be rejected.

But design, scale of the project and zoning will be principal considerations of the board, which is comprised of three voting members who weren’t involved in the November 2017 decision to turn down Beedie’s proposal.

A successful court appeal by Beedie has given the developer another chance at approval.

What the board heard Monday from dozens of citizens was a continuation of a narrative that began at the May 29 hearing, where speakers were overwhelmingly clear that a 111-unit condo building is not welcomed in Chinatown.

Though some of the few supporters who spoke at city hall represented organizations with broad memberships, the final head count over two days of hearings saw a total of approximately 115 people take a turn at the microphone, with at least 100 of those against Beedie’s project.

Many of the reasons articulated May 29 were again emphasized Monday: the building’s design was bulky, that it was the wrong fit for the historic area and insensitive to the monument to railway workers and veterans, which is adjacent to Beedie’s property.

Concerns of gentrification, lack of social housing and no public space for seniors were also raised throughout the afternoon and evening, with some of the speakers again requesting government purchase the property from Beedie to build social housing.

A model of Beedie's 105 Keefer St. proposal in Chinatown. Photo Mike Howell

'Alarmingly out of context'

Many of the speakers attended a large rally on the back steps of city hall prior to the meeting, where the Vancouver Tenants Union mobilized a crowd comprised largely of Chinese seniors, many of whom spoke in English, Cantonese and Mandarin at the hearings.

Inside city hall, Melody Pan told the board she strongly opposed Beedie’s proposal because of its “negative impact on the long-term well-being and the sustainability of Chinatown’s character, culture and heritage conservation from multiple dimensions.”

Pan said the monument in the plaza inspired her to apply to the Canadian Armed Forces and carry on the ancestral legacy of Chinese-Canadians to protect and serve Canadians. She, like many who spoke, pointed out how a nine-storey building would overshadow the monument.

“The proposed building’s volume and size will overpower the national flagpole and monument, making the flagpole and the monument look like part of the building’s frontyard decor,” she said.

Sean Cao, a community organizer and artist with studio space on Keefer Street, said he is not opposed to development or leaving the property at 105 Keefer St. a vacant lot. But Cao argued a luxury condo building in the neighbourhood will increase “unaffordability, economic displacement and further gentrification in Chinatown.”

The proposed design, he added, is “alarmingly out of context” for Chinatown.

“The lack of consideration to the neighbourhood's character and aesthetic heritage is deeply concerning,” he said, describing the proposed red balconies and Chinese text on the building as “tokenistic.”

“We need seniors at 105 Keefer. They are the knowledge keepers, the guardians of our cultural heritage. They need dignified seniors’ housing, social spaces, cultural-specific shops to reflect their unique needs and offer them a sense of belonging.”

Zhong Rong Xu was among speakers Monday who urged the development permit board to reject Beedie's condo proposal for Chinatown. Photo Mike Howell

Shortfall of seniors' housing

Candie Tanaka, a librarian, referenced the 2023 Vancouver Chinatown Seniors Affordable Housing Inventory Report in her comments to the board. The report was authored by Louisa-May Khoo, with input from the City of Vancouver, BC Housing, Chinatown organizations and other agencies, including the Office of the Seniors Advocate.

“It shows that there's an existing shortfall of about 4,000 units of seniors housing in Chinatown, which is likely to triple in the next 15 to 20 years,” said Tanaka, who is also an artist and writer, whose Japanese father was interned during the Second World War.

“There are recommendations in the report to identify sites in Chinatown to build affordable seniors’ housing. The city should follow its own recommendations and see this as an opportunity to identify 105 Keefer as one of those potential sites.”

Nathan Edelson, a retired city planner responsible for Chinatown and the Downtown Eastside for 15 years, pointed out Beedie’s proposal is for one of the few remaining prominent sites in the neighbourhood, noting its proximity to the monument and Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden.

“As you've heard, it will become an important entrance to this community, which is of national significance,” said Edelson, noting the ongoing Northeast False Creek plan for redevelopment. “Its design requires the fine-grained architecture to respond more closely with the area's historic character.”

Added Edelson: “In effect, this square is a sacred space in Chinatown, and it should be showcased by any adjacent development as a contribution to the reconciliation to the Chinese, as well as to the Indigenous people that this city supports.”

Anne McMullin, president and CEO of the Urban Development Institute, at city hall Monday. Photo Mike Howell

'Undermine the integrity'

Among the few people Monday who urged the board to approve Beedie’s project was Anne McMullin, the president and CEO of the Urban Development Institute (UDI).

McMullin cautioned the board that rejecting the proposal could potentially harm the integrity of the city’s planning process as viewed by the development community.

“As you may be aware, it is very rare for UDI to support individual projects, as we focus on the overarching planning, policy and regulatory environment within which our members operate,” she said.

“However, our members and the thousands of individuals represented in all facets of development and building are concerned that if this project does not proceed, it has the potential to undermine the integrity and reliability of the city's planning regime, not only in Chinatown, but across the city.”  

Her comments were almost identical to what she said in a news release issued in 2017 when the-then development permit board rejected Beedie’s proposal in a 2-1 vote. At the time, McMullin wrote that the board’s rejection sent “a negative chill throughout the industry.”

Beedie appealed the decision and won a B.C. Supreme Court ruling in December 2022, which led to the current hearing before the board.

'Fits the current zoning for the site'

Tony Letvinchuk of Macdonald Commercial Real Estate Services said the development “will make an enormous difference in the economic revitalization of Chinatown, and therefore the lasting and sustainable legacy of the neighbourhood.”

Letvinchuk pointed out the project has the support from seven Chinatown organizations, including the Chinatown Business Improvement Association, the Vancouver Chinatown Merchants Association and the Vancouver Chinatown Foundation.

Karim Nanji, a realtor who described himself as affordable housing advocate, said he supported Beedie’s proposal and argued the debate in the community had been “politicized due to larger issues outside of the development permit board purview.”

“I understand the people speaking today need a platform to speak about Chinatown,” Nanji said. “Unfortunately, the development permit board is not the correct forum. The fact of the matter for today is that this development fits the current zoning for the site. This is the only piece the development permit board should be considering.”

Perry Lam, who owns Private and Co. men’s clothing store in Chinatown, said more people living in the neighbourhood will help struggling businesses. Lam and others — for and against the project — noted Beedie’s property has been a vacant lot for many years.

“This development will surely beat another four years of an empty gravel field, which has attracted a lot of sketchy activity in the area, including encampments, fires and lots of garbage,” Lam said.

“We need seniors’ housing — we need all types of housing — but we also need to give those who are struggling today like me, who has put so much on the line to open up a small business, a chance and some hope for our community.”

Added Lam: “I understand I'm not a legacy business, but Chinatowns are created for the Chinese community to help each other out. One of the strong beliefs coming into this community was to help each other out, and the members of the community have welcomed us with open arms.”

Theresa O'Donnell, Lon LaClaire and Andrea Law are the three voting members of the city's development permit board. Photo Mike Howell

'Many benefits for Vancouver's Chinatown'

The decision on the project is now left to Theresa O'Donnell, the city's director of planning, Lon LaClaire, the city's chief engineer and Andrea Law, the general manager of development, building and licensing.

Beedie representatives Rob Fiorvento and Curtis Neeser attended Monday’s hearing and watched the proceedings from the balcony in the council chamber.

Beedie first acquired the property at 105 Keefer St. in 2013. The city council of the day in 2017 rejected a 12-storey version of the developer’s proposal, which included 25 units of social housing.

Beedie then reduced the size of the project to nine storeys, only to be rejected again by the development permit board, also in 2017.

Beedie representatives have not spoken to media during the hearings, only providing a written statement from Fiorvento, who said in part that “we continue to believe the 105 Keefer project will provide many benefits for Vancouver’s Chinatown.”

The June 26 meeting is scheduled for 3 p.m.

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