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City council rejects 12-storey condo for Chinatown

Beedie Development Group could still build a shorter building without public hearing

Applause and cheers followed city council’s 8-3 vote Tuesday to reject a 12-storey condo proposal for Chinatown that deeply divided the community and raised concerns about gentrification, culture and affordable housing.

An overflow crowd at city hall of both supporters and detractors of Beedie Development Group’s proposal for 105 Keefer St. listened for an hour as Mayor Gregor Robertson and 10 councillors gave reasons for their decision.

In a rare move, Vision Vancouver Coun. Raymond Louie cast the only vote from his party in favour of the project, which called for 106 market condos, 25 apartments for seniors, a recreational and cultural space and room for business on the ground floor.

“In a time where our city is struggling for social housing, it is a challenge for me — and it should be a challenge for all of you, council — to vote against social housing,” Louie said. “I will not — I will not vote against social housing.”

NPA councillors Elizabeth Ball and Melissa De Genova joined Louie in supporting the project while their NPA colleague, Coun. George Affleck, opposed the rezoning application.

The decision may mean the project as proposed is dead but Beedie still owns the property and could apply again to build another development at 90 feet tall, which is allowed under the city’s current policies and doesn’t require a public hearing.

The proposal before council Tuesday was for 118 feet tall and technically allowed under council’s polices, as long as additional height “supported innovative heritage, cultural and affordable and social housing projects.”

Houtan Rafii, vice-president of residential development for Beedie, said outside city hall that he respected council’s decision and looked forward to working with the community on what the future of the site may hold.

Some councillors suggested the provincial and federal governments help purchase the land to retain the property for something that would keep with Chinatown’s culture and history.

Housing activists have also called for a social housing building that would be rented at welfare rates. A land swap with the developer was also mentioned.

“It’s been defeated today and that’s what we know,” said Rafii when asked about the suggestions and whether Beedie would proceed with another project at 90 feet tall. “We’re disappointed, we think it’s a loss for Chinatown.”

Vision Coun. Kerry Jang was the first member of council to state his reasons for opposing the project. Jang said a recent trip to Hong Kong, where he and his wife visited a garden that was surrounded by highrises, convinced him of the need to vote against the condo proposal.

He said it was too tall and would block out the views of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Garden — across the street from the proposed development site — where he visited on the weekend.

“I looked up and said, ‘Wow, it’s a beautiful view of the sky,” Jang said. “It embodies everything a classical Chinese garden should have, except for the fact the building would intrude into that view.”

Jang and several other councillors pointed out the division in the Chinese community among leaders and accused some of the younger people who opposed the project of disrespecting Chinese seniors who supported it.

“Seeing people bully, seeing people boo [Musqueam Indian Band councillor] Howard Grant, seeing that kind of behaviour, and having social media make assumptions about our position and treat us with disrespect here in the council chambers — that did not make it easy for me to make this decision,” said Vision Coun. Heather Deal. “In fact, it was very difficult to shut that out and focus instead on the merits of the argument made on both sides.”

Fred Mah of the Chinese Society Heritage Building Association, who opposed the project, said outside council chambers that he was happy with council’s decision.

“That site is very important to Chinatown,” said Mah, who agreed with suggestions that senior levels of government should look to purchase the site, or work a land swap with the developer.

Mah pointed out that when the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts are demolished, the area of the proposed site will effectively be an entrance to Chinatown.

“Whatever is created there has to have some Chinatown character, and it shouldn’t be so high, and it shouldn’t be so massive,” Mah said.

Longtime housing activist Jean Swanson was moved to tears after the decision, saying she was proud of the young people and seniors who turned up at the hearings and fought against the proposal.

“I’m over the moon,” said Swanson, who was surprised by the vote. “I never thought I’d see Vision vote against a developer, I never thought I’d see Vision split, I’d never thought I’d see the NPA split.”