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Vancouver City Council votes against controversial Chinatown condo

A street scene from the historic Chinatown in Vancouver.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

A controversial proposal for a new condo building in Chinatown was shot down Tuesday by Vancouver City Council in a vote that split not just council but political parties.

Two Non-Partisan Association councillors and one Vision Vancouver councillor supported the 12-storey project by Beedie Development, saying they couldn't reject the project's promise of social housing and community space for seniors.

But the majority – one NPA, six Vision and one Green councillor – voted against it, saying Chinatown leaders and advocates were too divided about the project, which became a trigger over the past four years for a cascade of concerns about changes in the historic-but-declining neighbourhood.

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Read more: Chinatowns grapple with new development, changing demographics

"It just cuts far too deep a divide in the community to advance," said Mayor Gregor Robertson, as he weighed in last on the project that was proposed for a site at Columbia and Keefer Streets, next to a Chinese war veterans' memorial. "We need to do everything we can to bring everyone back together."

That will take some work, everyone admitted, because of the unusual level of nastiness that prevailed, something that several councillors commented on.

Councillor Kerry Jang said a group of young activists who opposed the project was disrespectful in the way some of them harassed and intimidated project supporters.

"Would you be booing or jeering your mother or your grandmother? You should be ashamed of yourselves," said Mr. Jang, even while he said he couldn't support the project because it was just too big and out of place.

He also said that the 25 units of social housing promised for the project, along with space for seniors' cultural activities, could be found elsewhere in Chinatown.

Councillor Andrea Reimer said she was disturbed that young people had even booed a First Nations elder, and that it was hard for her to cast a vote that appeared to give support to "what felt like a mob."

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But she also voted against the project, saying that the original policy had tried to balance heritage and development, but the Beedie blueprint did not seem to embody that balance.

Young people, and some seniors who supported them, celebrated the decision in the lobby of Vancouver City Hall afterward, shrugging off the criticism while enjoying their triumph.

June Chow, a young activist who has been more moderate, said that "the community has to come together," which she said would happen "just one day at a time by being in Chinatown."

Fred Mah, a veteran Chinatown advocate who has been working for decades to revitalize the community, said he believes that all levels of government should work with Beedie to find a better use for the site.

However, a representative for Beedie said in an interview with The Globe and Mail several days ago that the company planned to continue with some kind of development on the site, no matter what the decision.

"We would still try to work some element of housing and cultural use, but not to the same extent," said Houtan Rafii, vice-president for residential development at Beedie. "If council rejects this, we don't turn our backs on what we're committed to."

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Mr. Rafii declined to comment Tuesday on the company's plans.

The Beedie condo proposal was the third in a series of rezonings that came to council since it passed a new policy in 2011 allowing taller buildings in some parts of Chinatown.

That policy had been arrived at after 10 years of disagreement among different groups within the community, but many came together six years ago to support the idea of new development.

The policy allowed for buildings taller than 90 feet if they contributed to Chinatown's character and provided social benefits for the community.

However, the tide of opinion started to turn shortly after the first two rezonings – both 17-storey buildings on Main Street – quickly went through. Many people found the buildings too big and blocky.

They also thought the new buildings didn't add much in the way of social benefits and that, ominously, they filled their ground floors with upscale retail operations that added to the existing tide of gentrification.

Beedie has the right to build a 90-foot building without having to go through a public hearing, according to zoning policy.

Although city planners have said they are looking at changing the Chinatown land-use plan to reduce the allowable height and width of buildings, any change could not be applied retroactively to the Beedie site.

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About the Author
Urban affairs contributor

Frances Bula has written about urban issues and city politics in B.C.’s Vancouver region, covering everything from Downtown Eastside drug addiction to billion-dollar development projects, since 1994. More

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