Debate heats up in Chinatown as embattled 105 Keefer St. development is reviewed again

As a handful of Chinatown organizations prop up an embattled condo development project under consideration by the City of Vancouver, some area residents are banding together to oppose it.

Beedie Living wants to build a 111-unit, nine-storey, mixed-used building at 105 Keefer St., in the heart of the historic neighbourhood, on a site that has long been an empty lot.

A group of Chinatown locals, however, are condemning the application’s complete lack of social housing units in a part of Vancouver that is home to many folks with limited and low income.

“We feel like that’s a really unfair process and also very indicative of the developer not caring about low-income people that live Chinatown who have been living for decades and depend on the services here,” said Chinatown youth organizer Jade Ho, who is also a member of the Vancouver Tenants Union.

“We do exist, we live here, and we want to thrive with the rest of the neighbourhood.”

Opponents to the project are hosting a community council meeting Thursday to reaffirm their position on the project, opposing “luxury” condo developments and calling for 100 per cent social housing units at rates accessible to pensioners and people on welfare.

The 105 Keefer St. proposal is before the City of Vancouver for a sixth time, with the Vancouver Development Permit Board scheduled to consider it at an in-person meeting on Monday.

The board voted down the application in November 2017 — its fifth rejection — but was directed to take another look at it following orders from a B.C. Supreme Court judge in December 2022. That judge found the board’s rejection of the application was “substantively unreasonable” because it failed to provide adequate reasons for its decision.

“The community basically opposed five times and got the application shut down five times,” said Ho, who doesn’t live in Chinatown but said she is in consistent contact with local residents.

“It was due to an intergenerational movement that formed here that consists of low-income Chinese seniors, residents, youth organizers, many of the leaders in Chinatown and also allies around the city.”

Ho said the community is also concerned about the possible gentrification impact of the Beedie proposal, which could include include an increase in the price of goods and housing nearby, and the displacement of residents currently living there.

Connie Chang, a resident of Chinatown who lives in social housing, said she wants “the people at the bottom to be considered” in the application. Chinatown is the best place for many newcomers who don’t speak English and lean heavily on the community, she added.

“If they cannot afford it the community will not be able to be here,” said Chang, whose words were translated by Ho.

“We would like to see the developer using their ability to consider the low income residents that are in Chinatown, even some social housing would be good for the residents here.”

Beedie Living’s proposal for 105 Keefer St. first surfaced in 2012.

A previous iteration of the project contained 25 units of social housing, but those were removed. The developer did, however, reduce the number of storeys in response to community concerns and local zoning laws, and it maintains the project will benefit a Chinatown that aims to revitalize.

“105 Keefer will bring additional much needed mixed-use housing to the area, which aligns the City of Vancouver’s efforts to make the historic community prosperous again,” Rob Fiorvento, managing partner of Beedie, said in an emailed statement.

“We are grateful for the opportunity to re-apply to the Development Permit Board and remain committed to working with our neighbours and community partners on a safe and vibrant Chinatown.”

While some residents oppose the 105 Keefer St. application, a coalition of seven Chinatown “legacy” organizations have come out swinging for it in a Wednesday letter to the Development Permit Board.

The Chinese Benevolent Association of Vancouver, Chinese Freemasons of Vancouver, Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden Society, Chinese Cultural Centre of Greater Vancouver, Vancouver Chinatown Merchant’s Association, Vancouver Chinatown Foundation, and Vancouver Chinatown Business Improvement Association Society are all in favour of the application.

“No new development applications have been submitted for Chinatown. Approved infill projects have stalled. We are losing legacy businesses at an alarming rate,” the letter states.

“More feet on the street will help reverse the descent of the district into further disorder.”

The Development Permit Board’s consideration of the project comes just days after an inaugural conference of 50 representatives from 18 Chinatowns across North America to discuss new collaborations and solutions for revitalizing and protecting the historic cultural neighbourhoods.

That conference took place in Vancouver, whose Chinatown neighbourhood has been beset by problems in recent years, including the financial blow of the COVID-19 pandemic, increased racism and a spike in crimes such as window smashing, graffiti, theft and arson.

“Chinatown’s one of 22 BIAs and we’re the only one that really doesn’t have a residential base in close proximity that supports the business in the area,” said Jordan Eng, president of the Vancouver Chinatown BIA, explaining his support for the 105 Keefer St. project.

“There’s no displacement of current residents, it’s been a vacant parking lot for 50 years. It’s part of keeping the neighbourhood alive and vibrant and active, is having people in the neighbourhood both during the day for the businesses and at night time.”

Eng said opponents to the project don’t represent the majority of Chinatown residents and stakeholders.

In an emailed statement, the City of Vancouver said it received the letter and appreciated the feedback but could not comment further as the Development Permit Board has not convened yet.

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