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The ship has sailed when it comes to saving Vancouver’s Chinatown

Stephen Quinn is the host of On the Coast on CBC Radio One, 88.1 FM and 690 AM in Vancouver.

When Vancouver city council rejected the development proposed for 105 Keefer St. this week – sorry, I forgot to include the obligatory "controversial" before the word "development." When council rejected the controversial development at 105 Keefer St. this week, I thought, "Why this one?" With everything that's happened in Chinatown over the past five years, how did this project become the proverbial straw? How did it divide a community and, perhaps more surprisingly, Vision Vancouver?

I'm of the view that when it comes to development in Chinatown, the ship has sailed.

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It pulled up anchor and left the harbour in 2011, when the city removed height restrictions and allowed developers to build up to 15 storeys in some areas, and nine to 12 storeys in others.

The move was seen by the business community as an economic-revitalization effort – an attempt to breathe new life into a Chinatown that had fallen on hard times.

Opponents worried that new developments would drive speculation and gentrification and push up rents, forcing out lower-income residents. There were also concerns about erasing the character of the historic neighbourhood.

At the time, Mayor Gregor Robertson said this: "Council will need to be very careful and thoughtful with the rezonings and land use decisions that ensue. We have to protect affordability in the neighbourhood, we have to create more social housing and we have to support small business that serves the neighbourhood."

Walk through Chinatown now, six years later, and you may not recognize the place.

The block between Keefer and Georgia on Main Street has been built out completely – rising up to 17 storeys on its northern edge.

Across Keefer Street, there's a nine-storey building with a Starbucks and pizza joint at street level.

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Around the corner on East Georgia, there's a new, slightly less obtrusive nine-storey condo building called Framework. It's conveniently located across the lane from a groovy coffee shop and across the street from a hipster barbershop/antique store and a soon-to-open Vegan Supply outlet.

To the east, at Gore Street, you'll find a new six-storey rental building under construction with the decidedly un-Chinatown name Brixton Flats. It will contain 56 units (prices not yet available, according to their Facebook page) and 5,000 square feet of "vibrant" street-level retail space. On its website, the developer features a photograph of a gorgeous Chinese mural on the side of the Lee's Benevolent Association building next door – a mural that has been obliterated by the development itself. Think of it as digital heritage preservation.

And for those worried about gentrification – you need look no further than 133 Keefer – one lot away from the Beedie Group proposal that council rejected.

It contains four luxury lofts, each of them occupying an entire floor and each accessible via private elevator. The penthouse unit – recently listed for $4.88-million – boasts a rooftop, glass-bottomed swimming pool where you can look down into your loft while swimming. Nice.

There are other development applications in the works and new businesses setting up shop, very few if any of them preserving or reflecting the character of Chinatown. High-end clothing stores, record stores and marijuana dispensaries come to mind. Simultaneously, slowly and steadily you'll find the windows of some of the original Chinese businesses papered over with "For Lease" signs hanging from their awnings.

So much of what was predicted in 2011 has come to pass, it has rendered moot some of the impassioned arguments of city councillors this week opposed to the Keefer Street development.

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In voting against the proposal, Green Party Councillor Adriane Carr worried about an increase in both residential and retail rents. Done and done.

Vision Vancouver City Councillor Geoff Meggs said the project failed to strike a balance between growth and preserving the heritage of Chinatown. Too late.

There were other concerns: the height and form of the building, the limited amount of affordable seniors housing included in the proposal, the prominent location – adjacent to the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen gardens and the memorial to Chinese-Canadian veterans.

In the end, Councillor Raymond Louie, who parted ways with his fellow Vision Vancouver councillors to support the development, nailed it. Mr. Louie said developments like 105 Keefer are the reason a Chinatown plan was formulated in the first place.

"Many people spoke about their connection to Chinatown, and why this place was special to them and what it represented and their place in history. Many people spoke about the future of Chinatown. But I would say it is perhaps unfair to place those hopes and aspirations wholly the shoulders of one site," he told council. "Laying it at the feet of one site is a challenge for me to accept," he said.

It's hard for me to accept as well, given what's happened to the neighbourhood. Forces on both sides of the debate may have been passionate and well organized. And council may have buckled to the pressure this time. But the writing is on the wall.

Chinatown, as we once knew it, is gone.

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