British Columbia

Vancouver defers decision on contentious Chinatown development

The city's development permit board deferred its decision on the project, pitched by the Beedie Group, following a public hearing Monday.

The proposed condo at 105 Keefer Street was pitched by the Beedie Development Group in 2013

Another development application has been submitted for 105 Keefer Street, a parking lot just off Columbia Street and Keefer Street in Vancouver. (Peter Scobie/CBC)

After five attempts over three years, a proposal to build a mixed-use tower in the heart of Vancouver's Chinatown has been delayed for a week.

The city's development permit board deferred its decision on the project — which would be on land owned by the Beedie Group — following a public hearing Monday, during which dozens of speakers voiced their opinion on the project.

Most speakers were against the project, and a group of protesters rallied before the meeting.

People against the development at 105 Keefer Street held a rally at city hall prior to the Development Permit Board hearing. (Justin McElroy/CBC)

In June, city council voted against the project, with several councillors noting how it divided the community. 

On Monday, Gil Kelley, Vancouver's general manager of planning and urban design, said the board staff deferred its decision over outstanding questions. 

"There were many questions that came up during the public testimony about our ability to interpret things more broadly with a cultural context and cultural fit for a project, beyond the physical guidelines," he said.

"The question I'd like staff to answer is: How narrow or how broad is our discretion as a board under our city rules?" he said. "Should this matter be referred to city council?"

The new submission was only for a nine-storey building on site, not 12 or 13 as previously proposed. That means it doesn't need to break existing zoning regulations for height and only needs the approval of the permit board — not council.

"The board's authority is to judge this based on the current zoning and guidelines. The board not does have the authority to impose things like social housing in this proposal," said Anita Molaro, the city's assistant director of urban design. 

Meeting over 8 hours long

The development permit board typically looks at 30 to 50 projects a year that need approval but don't require rezoning. 

Most of their meetings are tame affairs, but Monday's hearing at city hall brought nearly 100 speakers.

Near the end of the meeting, which went for over eight hours, a group opposed to the project interrupted proceedings. 

The vast majority of those in attendance voiced their opposition to the project, saying it did not fit in with the historic character of Chinatown, being located near the Chinese Cultural Centre and Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Garden. 

"To approve this project is to continue this history of racism against Chinese people, by saying Mr. Beedie's profit is more important than the lives of working-class residents," said King-Mong Chan of the Chinatown Concern Group.

"To approve this project is to not support reconciliation. Instead it means you have decided to escalate hostility against the Chinese community."

Beedie vice-president Houtan Rafii claimed there were many in the Chinatown community who were supportive of the project, but would not be at the meeting due to what he characterized as a "hostile environment" created by those against it. 

He asked the permit board to not base their decision on political discussions surrounding the debate — or the possibility of future zoning coming to Chinatown that could change requirements for the land — but on whether it met zoning regulations as understood by the permit board. 

"It conforms to local policies and guidelines," he said. "The proposal before you should be examined under the existing policy."

The narrow focus was rejected by Kevin Huang of the Hua Foundation.

"It's a very complex issue, but I think as a city the policy and the planning policies are failing these types of people."

The permit board will revisit the issue after hearing from staff on Nov. 6. No new speakers will be allowed at that meeting.