Vancouver's city planners say they will likely end the practice of allowing developers in the Chinatown district to build higher than existing zoning rules in exchange for social housing and community benefits.
But such a change in policy would not apply to a controversial 12-storey condo project that has galvanized advocates who say such developments threaten the heritage, culture and economy of traditional Chinatown.
The neighbourhood has seen $2-million in community benefits from two large buildings that were allowed to go above the standard height, but planners say they've heard from the public that they don't think it's a good deal.
"We are looking at rescinding the zoning policy … so there are no rezonings," said Karen Hoese, the acting assistant director for the downtown area.
Instead, the city will have to try to achieve public benefits another way, she said.
The recommendations come as city council is facing a contentious rezoning decision next week for a 12-storey building by Beedie Development.
The project has been in the works for four years and generated an unprecedented level of opposition. Almost 200 people came out during four days of public hearings at city hall over the last two weeks, with three out of every four against it.
However, any new rules about the rezoning process in Chinatown would not be retroactively applied to the Beedie project, nor would it apply to another rezoning application already in the works for a 150-foot-high (the equivalent of 16 stories) building by Bonnis Development Corp.
Ms. Hoese's team has been holding open houses and consultations since last September to get feedback on adjustments to the land-use plan for Chinatown, which went through a huge process to adopt a new plan in 2011.
That new zoning policy allowed for buildings to go as high as 120 feet if the developer provided something back for the community.
One of the buildings approved under those rules included 22 rental suites for seniors. The other provided a million-dollar contribution to fix up heritage buildings in Chinatown.
"What we heard was that the trade-off wasn't worth it," said Ms. Hoese, whose team saw 650 people come out to three open houses, along with 400 written submissions and a 1,200-name petition.
One of the many groups that has been opposed to both the Beedie project and the overall land-use plan approved in 2011 thinks the city has done the right thing by revisiting the plan.
"The current way the city has of supporting neighbourhoods is through densification in exchange for public benefits," said Kevin Huang, director of the Hua Foundation, a group that works to promote a vibrant food system in Chinatown. But that isn't working for this neighbourhood, he said. He and others have been alarmed about real estate speculation, which they say has already affected some traditional businesses in the area.
One example is Chinatown Supermarket, which closed after ownership changed hands recently.
According to BC Assessment records, it is now owned by a recently incorporated company called Keefer Gardens Holdings, whose director is Brian Roche. Mr. Roche, a former board member of the Vancouver Heritage Foundation, is the founder of a company called Rendition, which is described on its website as "being particularly focused on infill development in up and coming neighbourhoods."
Mr. Huang said the city hasn't provided a full report yet on its proposed changes, so he's not sure of the details.
But, he said, the concern for many people was the bulk and height of buildings, which the new recommendations address.
Ms. Hoese said that new buildings in the historic zone on Pender Street will be limited to a maximum width of 25 feet for the storefront, unless they are replacing something larger. Currently, any new project can go up to 50 feet.
In Chinatown's south section, the area that saw big new projects come in, the recommendation is that frontages be restricted to 75 feet or the existing frontage, with storefronts no wider than 50 feet.
"We're not saying everything was wrong with the zoning before," Ms. Hoese said. But Chinatown was in "a very different place then," with a lot of vacant storefronts and no private investment coming in.
That's not the case now. Besides the Beedie and Bonnis projects, a new large condo project by Porte Development was completed recently on East Pender and another one, Brixton Flats by GMC projects, is under construction at Pender and Gore. Several other sites are in play.