Rejection of 105 Keefer opened the door to new future for Chinatown, but will anyone walk through?

Yesterday’s 8-3 council vote to reject Beedie Group’s proposal to build a 12-story project at 105 Keefer ended the longest public hearing in a decade, a process that turned into a debate on the future of Chinatown.

I voted with the majority in that vote and wrote down my comments — something I never do — to be sure I said what I had on my mind. Here’s what I said:

“This hearing has been the longest and most intense in my time on council. Sadly, it reflected how one of the city’s most important communities — Chinatown, a neighbourhood most consider part of the soul of our city — has become deeply divided over the best way to sustain the community while preparing to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

“Despite the anxiety, fear and frustration expressed by many, everyone who participated in this debate is deeply and passionately committed to Chinatown’s future.

“The reality is that neither option available to council today — approval or rejection — can assure that future. That will take leadership, and most importantly, require unity and collaboration.

“The decision before council has  been defined by speakers on both sides as a turning point,, a watershed, vital for Chinatown’s revitalization, a defining moment in the life of the city as critical as the decision to defeat freeway development.

“On the face of it, there is no reason why this should be the case.

“The Beedie project, according to the staff report, is compliant with the existing policies for this site. It has arrived here after three trips to the Urban Design Panel, where the design was rejected twice and sent back for more work. What is before us is the result of many revisions, including the addition of social housing and a seniors’ centre.

“We heard from many supporters of the project, including some clan associations, people who believe this project is appropriate, respectful of the site and a net contributor to Chinatown.

“It is supported by many Chinese seniors anxious to enjoy the security and affordability of a purpose-built seniors centre.

“We heard from William Chan, of the Vancouver Chinatown Merchants Association, as well as Chinatown veterans like Henry Tom and Syrus Lee about the tremendous difficulties faced by local businesses. They think new development will bring new customers.

“We heard also from opponents — many of them, from many walks of life. They included some of Chinatown’s most senior clan and heritage organizations. The Chinese Benevolent Association reported its members were divided — so the CBA remained neutral. The Mah Society expressed its opposition, as did other important leaders of the Chinese Canadian community.

“We heard from many young residents, again from diverse backgrounds, vocally demanding that the application be rejected. They argued that any gain offered by the project — in social housing or a seniors’ centre — would be offset by the harm caused by a building they consider too tall, too massive, too unresponsive to this critical site — and certain to contribute to gentrification and loss of Chinatown’s unique character.

“Our job is to determine what is best — best for this site, best for the community, best for the city.

“The site qualifies for consideration for height up to 120 feet on the basis of the Rezoning Policy for Chinatown South, which “recognizes [that] achieving additional growth and resulting public benefits can be balanced with preserving the important heritage and cultural character of Chinatown.”

“I recall the meeting here in 2011, when council adopted that policy. There was unprecedented unity among Chinatown organizations in support.

“That unity was based, in my view, on the hope and belief that this plan would generate important benefits in heritage protection, seniors housing and new life for Chinatown.

“Development has proceeded quickly, with three new market condominium projects.

“But the addition of hundreds of market units did not achieve the goals the community and the city had set for this plan:

  • Long-standing small businesses closed their doors and were often replaced with coffee shops and bars with no particular connection to Chinatown’s past;
  • The amount of money generated for heritage protection was far below what was required;
  • Very few units of seniors’ housing were built — only about 22, according to Mr. Beedie — meaning the application before us could double the number.

“The acquisition of this site by Beedie in 2013 came just as community concern about the direction of the 2011 plan was beginning to emerge.

“It’s a sensitive location: right next to the Keefer Triangle, the site of the community’s 2003 memorial to Chinese veterans and railway workers, and across the street from Sun Yat Sen Garden and the Chinese Cultural Centre Museum.

“With the replacement of Georgia and Dunsmuir Viaducts, this site is expected to be a new gateway to Chinatown, opening up to communities ringing False Creek.

“So not surprisingly this project has become a test of the success or failure of the current Chinatown policies. Important voices have been urging we review that 2011 process and regroup.

“That process of reconsideration is already under way. It’s true that this project is compliant with the rules in place when the Beedie Group applied, but if council approves staff’s upcoming recommendations for this area, that would no longer be the case.

“My job is to consider the project under the existing rules. Those rules avow additional height to support “innovative heritage, cultural and affordable and social housing projects.”

“But the overarching goal is to strike a balance between growth and preservation of the heritage and cultural character of Chinatown. I don’t believe that balance is being achieved.

“For all these reasons, I will be voting to deny this application.

“Many speakers referenced the divisive nature of this debate. For Chinatown to flourish, this divide needs to be closed and no one has the right to opt out of this task.

“If council rejects this proposal, those who urged a no vote have a big obligation to step forward with their solutions to the problems facing one of our most important communities.

“It’s not good enough to throw out demands for a land swap or 100 percent social housing — demands that are completely out of step with current realities — and call that a solution.

“The clan associations that have done so much for our city are struggling against overwhelming odds to protect the 12 key heritage buildings they own.

“That’s without considering the 50-odd buildings with limited or no heritage value owned by societies that provide crucial low-cost housing throughout the neighbourhood. Many had hoped that the existing zoning plans, now to be revised, would achieve that goal. That has proved unrealistic, but it remains the only plan on offer.

“They deserve our thanks and support for the work they do every day for our community. One way to show that appreciation would be to answer the call by Chinese seniors for secure, affordable facilities.

“The real cost of protecting and revitalizing Chinatown no doubt runs into the hundreds of millions of dollars. And to be clear: the result would be something different from the Chinatown many of us recall from 20, 30 and 40 years ago.

“Where will vision and that money come from? The new voices we heard at this hearing have to continue their engagement and show real respect to those who helped build Chinatown by forging constructive alliances and practical programs to achieve the new future for Chinatown we all aspire to.

“Without action like that, this “watershed” or “turning point” moment may just be the point at which many conclude the cause is hopeless. I pray that’s not the case.”