British Columbia

City of Vancouver considers banning new towers in Chinatown

After the backlash to a proposed new tower dominated land-use discussions around Chinatown for years, the city is now considering preventing any future towers in the historic neighbourhood.

New buildings taller than 90 feet — about 8 storeys — would not be allowed under proposed zoning amendments

Vancouver's Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden sits beside a number of towers in the adjacent Crosstown neighbourhood.

The newest debate in Vancouver's never-ending affordability crisis isn't whether to approve a tower but to ban them in a neighbourhood altogether. 

City council voted to put amendments to rezoning policies in the southern half of Chinatown to a public hearing.

The new rules would cap any future building at 90 feet (27 metres) in height, and will be voted on by council after the hearing, which is yet to be scheduled. 

It was just 2011 when council passed a rezoning policy allowing new towers over 90 feet "when public benefits are offered."

But heated protests by many in the Chinatown community, most notably around a new condo at 105 Keefer Pl., since rejected, has caused staff to reconsider what can be built in the area south of Pender Street.

"There was strong consensus in the community that the limited public benefits achieved though extra height and density are 'not worth it,' given the notable impact on Chinatown's character," the report heading to council reads. 

The northern half of Chinatown only permits a maximum height of 75 feet (23 metres) on new buildings. 

A number of development applications were submitted in recent years for 105 Keefer Street, a parking lot just off Columbia Street and Keefer Street in Vancouver but rejected by city council. (Peter Scobie/CBC)

Focus on heritage

The proposed change is welcomed by Melody Ma, a Chinatown heritage advocate who has fought against the city's development plans. 

"The current regulations are essentially a buffet for the real estate industry as well as property owners ... these new zoning policies will really protect Chinatown," she said. 

"We realized [the current rules] didn't produce the results we want to see. It hasn't been authentic revitalization, and, in fact, we're seeing gentrification and economic displacement, even physical displacement."

The city's proposed changes follows a re-emphasis on the history of Chinatown, including lobbying to make it a designated UNESCO World Heritage site and a formal apology to Chinese Canadians for past legislation, regulations and policies that discriminated against them. 

"The overall intent of the proposed changes is to ensure that this unique cultural and historic neighbourhood will continue to thrive and honour its history and character," reads the report by city staff. 

Chinatown Voices, which says it represents more than half of businesses and property owners in the neighbourhood, wants more discussion with the city before it moves ahead on a process to change zoning laws. (Justin McElroy/CBC)

Divided opinion

But while some groups representing the Chinese community have argued against new towers in the neighbourhood, there are businesses and property owners that want the city to keep the current zoning guidelines. 

"We're asking them to slow this down, and give us ample time to meet with the planning department, have discussions ... rather than to rush this through before city council winds up its term," said Steve Lee. 

He spoke at a news conference for Chinatown Voices, a group claiming to represent a majority of Chinatown property owners. 

"We want more residents in Chinatown to make our retail viable," said Lee, arguing the area would suffer once major developments are built at the current site of the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts.   

"While they're proposing this, they're proposing to down-zone Chinatown. It doesn't make any sense."

Ma said the changes Lee hopes for with increased density aren't worth the tradeoffs. 

"It's already one of the great mixed used neighbourhoods in Vancouver. 

"We need more people to frequent the neighbourhood but not necessarily create ... up to $2 million condos that no locals can afford and definitely not the locals within Chinatown."

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