In May, the City of Vancouver’s development permit board approved the development proposal at 105 Keefer after a BC Supreme Court ruling ordered the City of Vancouver to reconsider the proposal. The proposal is the same 9 storey market condominium with a ground level senior centre that was turned down when it went to the development permit board in November 2017.
The developer took the proposal to the development permit board after its 12 storey version with 25 below market units was rejected by council at a public hearing in July of that year. Much like six years ago, what captured the debate was differing imaginations of what Chinatown ought to be.
105 Keefer reveals a stark split between what revitalization and interpretations of place mean to different people.
Similar to six years ago, the debate over the site remains deeply split. Generally, those supporting the condo development believe Chinatown benefits because the people living in the new condo will bring activity to Chinatown. These new residents will spend time in the neighbourhood and shop at the businesses.
Some also argue that the presence of more residents in the condo will make Chinatown streets safer. During the lead up to the Development Permit Board hearing in May, several influential Chinatown organizations such as the Chinatown BIA and Dr. Sun Yat Sen Gardens came out in support of the project.
Those opposing the project generally feel that what’s necessary on the site is housing and space that supports the lower income demographic of the neighbourhood. They are also concerned that developments that are intended for higher incomes make the seniors and low income residents more vulnerable.
This is because the preferences of more affluent residents moving into the area puts pressure on people who do not have much money. Land prices can increase and businesses that support the existing demographic may not be able to afford to remain as new businesses open up to cater to the tastes of more well-off residents. As a result low income residents and seniors lose their ability to remain, to feel they belong, to afford services and things they need, and to age in place.
While this debate concerning what revitalization looks like remains the same, in the six years since the initial rejection of the development proposal, different members of the communities in Chinatown have made a considerable push to try and change how heritage is understood and approached, particularly in policies by the City of Vancouver.
Chinatown Cultural Heritage Assets Management Plan (CHAMP)
The controversy over the 105 Keefer site significantly spotlighted how many different Chinatown community members felt policies and understandings of heritage based on historic architectural features and building preservation compromised the heritage they were trying to protect. Much of the positioning of heritage in the 2017 (and prior) proposal was meant to check off points that made a new building look like a Chinatown building.
But to the different people who came out to oppose the development proposal (both in public hearing and at the development permit board) contributing to the social and cultural context was much more important. To them, architectural gestures towards a recessed balcony style characteristic of Chinatown does little good when the version of the new building makes it more difficult for them to maintain a way of life and connection to their culture.
Higher prices start affecting the ability of existing residents to remain or feel that they belong as shops and services start changing to cater to higher income residents. This difference in the understanding of heritage was one of the catalysts that led to the creation of the City’s Cultural Heritage Assets Management Plan (CHAMP) for Chinatown which was passed by Council in 2021.
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While this plan exists, CHAMP is not yet fully operational. Furthermore, at the Development Permit Board hearing this year in May, the development project was reconsidered under the policies of 2017 and therefore, CHAMP, which provides considerably more clarity on heritage considerations was not in effect.
Today, as discussed above, Chinatown remains complicated with differing ideas of how to revitalize it. Clearly more businesses catering to a more affluent demographic continue to move to the neighbourhood and more market housing is being built.
The site has taken on tremendous meaning for Chinatown. It has become a symbol for the fight for a type of heritage that is rooted in social and cultural context, and in particular the context of the people who are left vulnerable by a type of revitalization that increasingly upscales the neighbourhood. This might be the first time in Vancouver that heritage has been brought together with a concern by youth for a loss of cultural ways of living, and a concern for the effects of gentrification in such a public display.
Although the decision to build the condo has been made, meaning making at the site still continues with numerous events meant to keep the community thriving and draw attention to gentrification.
Members of areas such as Punjabi Market and Joyce-Collingwood who are devoted to sustaining their cultural identities, connections to and experiences of place also see themselves in a similar struggle, seeking similar goals of more holistic approaches to revitalization and policies like CHAMP.
We acknowledge the financial assistance of the Province of British Columbia