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Vancouver's Chinatown provides a shifting backdrop for divisive condo proposal

VANCOUVER — The nondescript parking lot at the centre of debate about the future of Vancouver's historic Chinatown is unchanged in the six years since plans to build a condo tower there were shot down by the city's development permit board.
A parking lot that is the proposed site of a condo development in Chinatown is seen in Vancouver, on Tuesday, June 6, 2023. The nondescript lot at 105 Keefer Street is at the centre of debate about the future of Vancouver's historic Chinatown. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

VANCOUVER — The nondescript parking lot at the centre of debate about the future of Vancouver's historic Chinatown is unchanged in the six years since plans to build a condo tower there were shot down by the city's development permit board.

But the landscape surrounding 105 Keefer Street is now much different. 

Businesses ravaged by the pandemic have shut down, including Goldstone Bakery, a nearby landmark that would refund customers who paid to park on the site. Concerns about street crime and security in Chinatown have spiked. Vancouver, meanwhile, elected a new mayor and council that promised a law-and-order focus for the neighbourhood.

It is against this shifting backdrop that some groups that once rejected the development plans of Beedie Living now say they support the condo project that is back before the city's permit board. They frame their new positions as a response to threats of urban decay and business decline, even as unmoved critics continue their years-long campaign against the project.

“The neighbourhood is deteriorating and we need a new light,” said Lorraine Lowe, whose predecessor as executive director of the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden had opposed the project.

Chinese Cultural Centre board chair Fred Kwok also once rejected Beedie's plans. Old posters still clinging to the site's fence quote Kwok's 2017 position that the condo project "has no place being situated in such a culturally significant area."

Now, he has switched camps, and puts a priority on keeping Chinatown alive by increasing foot traffic, something he believes the condo tower can help achieve.

“Without any foot traffic, Chinatown only has historical values left behind,” Kwok said in an interview in Mandarin, adding that he was convinced by a change in the tower's planned height, from its original 13 storeys to an "acceptable" nine. 

“We need to bring people back here.”

The project had been seemingly quashed by the development board's 2017 ruling that cited non-compliance with regulations and objections from neighbours. But it's back in the spotlight after a court last December ordered the board to reconsider.

Beedie, which had bought the site in 2013, returned it to the planning board last week, at a raucous city hall meeting where opponents, including elderly Chinese residents, chanted slogans in Cantonese and English.

At a protest outside, critics sang: “Beedie, Beedie, you can’t hide. We can see your greedy eyes."

Some waved placards with slogans including “Save Chinese Canadian Heritage,” while young activists distributed bottled water and Chinese-style pastries.

A large majority of the 70 or so speakers at the May 29 meeting were opposed to Beedie's proposal for the tower featuring 111 condos and commercial space. No social housing is included in the plan. 

The meeting lasted until 10 p.m., but not everyone had a chance to speak. It will reconvene June 12 to hear more submissions before a decision is made. 

Chinatown resident, Zhiping Zhang, 70, who lives on a monthly pension of about $1,300, said seniors and low-income people like her are being priced out of their homes. With its lack of social housing, the condo proposal is wrong for the neighbourhood, she said.

"What we need aren't luxurious condos. We want social housing instead," she said in an interview conducted in Mandarin outside city hall. 

"The wealthy have already owned tons of resources, and they can move everywhere if they like, but the poor always end up having nowhere else to go."

Beedie Living didn't respond to questions about the lack of social housing for the project, but said in a written statement that it would provide other benefits to revitalize the neighbourhood. 

"105 Keefer will bring additional much needed mixed-use housing to the area, which aligns with the City of Vancouver’s efforts to make the historic community prosperous again," said Rob Fiorvento, managing partner at the company.

Others see the project as out of tune with the neighbourhood that is a national historic site. 

The project would be close to the Sun Yat-Sen garden, and would face the Chinatown Memorial Monument, a statue depicting a 19th-Century railway worker and a Second World War soldier honouring the contributions of Chinese Canadians to Vancouver and Canada.

The monument's sculptor, 82-year-old Shu Ren Cheng, wrote a letter opposing the tower that was read out to the planning board.

He said in an interview in Mandarin that there were many ways to revitalize Chinatown, but the condo project was selfish, would benefit few, and “create a mess” next to a site meant to honour ancestors.

Jordan Eng, president of the Vancouver Chinatown Business Improvement Association, was one of the few to speak at the meeting in support of the proposal last week. 

Eng said in an interview that his organization had supported the project from the beginning, making him an "easy target" for critics who labelled him one of the "greedy business people." 

But Eng said Chinatown has had a tough few years with people moving out amid rising crime. His association was spending about $240,000, more than half its annual budget, on security, he said. 

Chinatown needs more people living there, he said. 

“A community only thrives when it has people to live in the neighbourhood."

His views were in the minority at the meeting, and Eng was roundly booed when he finished his remarks. 

Lowe was unmoved by the tone of the hearing, describing those opposed as “people not willing to meet in the middle” to get things done.

She said that since taking over as executive director of the Sun Yat-Sen garden in 2018, Chinatown had been "going downhill."

“I think the more we resist, the more we don’t want to change, the more Chinatown is going to fall into further urban decay,” said Lowe, adding that her position on the Keefer Street proposal was backed by a unanimous vote from the garden's board of directors.

“So, we do need people to invest back into Chinatown.”

Other Chinatown groups issued a joint statement last month, saying they were in favour of the project. In addition to the garden, the business improvement association, and the cultural centre, the supporters include the Chinese Benevolent Association of Vancouver, the Chinese Freemasons of Vancouver, the Vancouver Chinatown Foundation and the Vancouver Chinatown Merchants Association.

But not all business owners are in favour of the plan. 

William Liu, co-owner of Kam Wai Dim Sum, said he's worried for senior residents and believes the project would drive rents up.

“Our property values are growing so much faster because of all these developments, so if our property values go up, obviously the rents for the seniors are going to go up," he said.

“They're going to be priced out, the rents for businesses is going to go up. That's why so many legacy businesses are leaving,” said Liu.

He said a "Yaletown-style" tower wouldn’t add any value to the area, referring to the trendy neighbourhood in Vancouver's downtown core. 

Instead, he said the intangible assets of food and culture in Chinatown could bring crowds back.

"All these luxury condos are not going to enhance what Chinatown already is and it's going to detract from all that cultural heritage, all that history and it’s only going to make it worse,” said Liu. 

Zhang said her vision for Chinatown was a healthy, vibrant community where the voiceless were heard. 

“I am not against developers building homes, but you have to make sure that your business plan caters to the needs of the lower-income people in the community, who now make up a big chunk of society," she said. 

"If you just want to curry favour with the rich and ignore others, your business won't go any further."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 8, 2023

This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Nono Shen, The Canadian Press

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