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City's permit board approves controversial Chinatown condo project

Beedie made two unsuccessful attempts in 2017 to proceed with development at 105 Keefer St.
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The City of Vancouver’s development permit board unanimously approved Monday a 111-unit condo proposal from Beedie (Keefer Street) Holdings Ltd. to develop its property at 105 Keefer St.

A Chinatown condo proposal that was previously rejected in 2017 by Vancouver city council and the development permit board was given the green light Monday to proceed with a 111-unit building in the heart of the historic community.

The unanimous vote by the three-member permit board now allows Beedie (Keefer Street) Holdings Ltd. to turn the piece of property it acquired at 105 Keefer St. in 2013 into a nine-storey building.

“We're obviously pleased with the [development permit] board decision,” said Rob Fiorvento, managing partner of Beedie, who was at city hall to hear the vote. “We look forward to working with city staff and the community groups to move this project forward.”

The permit board’s three voting members were Theresa O’Donnell, the city’s director of planning, Lon LaClaire, the city’s chief engineer, and Andrea Law, the general manager of development, building and licensing.

Their approval came with a number of conditions related to design, including significantly reshaping the corner of the building, its façade and working with members of Chinatown’s design and art community on the project.

Fiorvento said he was confident Beedie would meet the conditions.

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Development permit board members Theresa O'Donnell, Lon LaClaire and Andrea Law at city hall Monday. Photo Mike Howell

In her reasons for supporting the project, O’Donnell outlined what the board can and can’t do, which was a response to some of the recommendations from the 115 citizens who spoke to the board over two days of hearings.

“The board has no authority to require a seniors’ housing project, it has no authority to require a social housing project or even below-market rental,” she said.

“The board does not have the legal authority to deny this project based on those elements. Neither does the board have the authority to require the property owner to sell their property to the City of Vancouver, or to swap their property with another piece of property owned by the City of Vancouver.”

'Deal killers'

Rather, O’Donnell said, the board has discretionary power to ensure the exterior design of the building delivers “an appropriate, contextual fit” to the neighbourhood, the surrounding buildings and the Chinatown Memorial Plaza, which features a monument that pays tribute to Chinese railway workers and veterans.

“Given the prominence of the site in relationship to the [monument], Sun Yat-Sen Gardens [across the street] and the Chinese Cultural Centre, the building must have a strong urban design relationship to these culturally significant places,” she said.

“I believe the project, as currently shown, doesn’t fully meet this test. However, I don’t think these concerns are deal killers — and I do think they can be successfully remedied by the architectural team.”

The vote clearly disappointed the crowd of organizers and residents of Chinatown gathered at city hall, many of them seniors who spoke to the board over the two days of hearings leading up to Monday’s vote.

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Jade Ho of the Vancouver Tenants Union at a rally last month in Chinatown. Photo Mike Howell

'Condemn this decision'

Jade Ho of the Vancouver Tenants Union was among a group of young people who organized Chinatown residents to push back against Beedie’s proposal. Ho was at city hall when the board made its decision.

“I don't think disappointment describes it,” said Ho, who helped lead rallies in Chinatown and outside city hall in the lead-up to the vote. “We definitely condemn this decision, but we are not going to be disheartened.”

Ho said organizers and community members will continue to push for more social housing in Chinatown. When asked if conditions imposed by the board will alleviate some citizens’ concerns, she pointed out the word “culture” was mentioned several times by board members and the board’s advisory panel.

“If there’s no people, where really is the culture?” she said, referencing the 2023 Vancouver Chinatown Seniors Affordable Housing Inventory Report, which showed a dearth of seniors’ housing in Chinatown.

Despite the board’s decision, Ho said a petition has already been launched to urge the provincial government to buy the land at 105 Keefer St. and develop it for social housing. Asked if that effort was futile at this point, Ho said she didn’t think so.

“This is really just the beginning for Beedie to start thinking about next steps, so I do believe our government can do a lot — and they should be doing a lot more — so I don't think it's too late at all,” she said.

During the hearings, opponents listed many reasons for the permit board to reject the proposal, including the site’s proximity to the monument in the plaza, the building’s design and size and its lack of social housing.

Concerns about gentrification and that it didn’t fit in with what many consider to be the heart of Chinatown — with Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden across the street — were other reasons.

Some of the speakers urged the city to buy the land, or negotiate a land swap.

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Rob Fiorvento of Beedie takes reporters' questions Monday at city hall. Photo Mike Howell

'Deep fabric of the neighbourhood'

During the hearings, the Urban Development Institute (UDI) and seven Chinatown organizations, including the Chinatown Business Improvement Association, the Vancouver Chinatown Merchants Association and Vancouver Chinatown Foundation announced their support for the project.

At the June 12 hearing, Anne McMullin, the president and CEO of the UDI, cautioned the board that rejecting the proposal could potentially harm the “integrity” of the city’s planning process, as viewed by the development community.

At the May 29 hearing, Jordan Eng, president of the Chinatown Business Improvement Association, said the Chinatown groups that support the project represented “the deep fabric of the neighbourhood and a broad base of constituents.”

In his comments, Eng pointed out Beedie’s rezoning application was for a private development.

“It is unreasonable to think that a private developer should be expected to provide significant social amenity, if not required when working within the rules,” he said. “Any threat or attempt of expropriation of those rights is not an acceptable solution.”

Beedie was allowed to go before the permit board this year because it had won a B.C. Supreme Court ruling in December 2022. Justice Jan Brongers wrote that he found the permit board’s decision in 2017 “unreasonable,” based on the fact there was no “justificatory explanation” for rejecting the project.

Beedie had gone to court after the previous makeup of the permit board rejected its proposal in 2017 by a vote of 2-1. That rejection came a few months after the-then city council rejected a 12-storey version of the condo project.

The site is currently used as a parking lot and storage space for construction materials.

mhowell@glaciermedia.ca

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