6 years after its rejection, Chinatown condo project is back on the table and dividing the neighbourhood

Lily Tang, pictured here in 2017, has opposed the proposed development at 105 Keefer since it was originally introduced six years ago. (Provided - image credit)
Lily Tang, pictured here in 2017, has opposed the proposed development at 105 Keefer since it was originally introduced six years ago. (Provided - image credit)

Some Chinatown residents and organizers are speaking out against a proposed development in the heart of Vancouver's Chinatown once again as it heads back to City Hall for consideration nearly six years after it was initially rejected.

On Monday, the Vancouver Development Permit Board will once again consider an application from Beedie Holdings Ltd. to build a condo tower at 105 Keefer St., where a parking lot currently sits.

After several revisions over many years, the project was ultimately rejected by the city in 2017 before the B.C. Supreme Court ruled last December that the permit board could take another look at the proposal.

The idea of the nine-storey building with 111 units of market-price housing towering over Chinatown Memorial Square in a neighbourhood where many low-income seniors live has raised the ire of residents and organizations, who say the "luxury" units will be out of reach for most people in the neighbourhood.

Justin McElroy/CBC
Justin McElroy/CBC

Lily Tang, 80, arrived in Chinatown in 1968 and has lived in her social housing building for about 25 years.

She and her husband have opposed the development at 105 Keefer since it was first rejected in 2017.

Tang says life in Canada has become unaffordable and the government should be using the site for social housing instead of market-rate units.

"We are not against constructing this building but it's looking at our needs," Tang told CBC in Mandarin. "The last several years the government hasn't built much housing for us. There used to be a bit, but now governments just give lip service."

Her husband, Kim Tang, says the proposed design doesn't reflect the history of Chinatown and previous generations of immigrants who built and defended the community from displacement.

"I want them to respect Chinatown, our ancestors and their blood and sweat, so they can rest in peace," Kim said.

Residents and activists say for low-income seniors in the area, affordable housing means paying up to 30 per cent of their monthly pension or income assistance rate in rent, not simply a below market rate as the city defines it for developers.

"There is no affordable or seniors housing and no safeguards against gentrification," said Russell Chiong, president of Chinatown Today, speaking on CBC's The Early Edition on Thursday.

"It would just do irreversible damage to the sense of place and community vibrancy of Chinatown," he added.

Jenny Kwan, MP for Vancouver East, has also voiced her opposition to the project by sending an open letter to federal and provincial ministers asking for alternative solutions for the site.

Many housing activists cheered the city's decision to turn down the development years ago, expressing doubt that it would help with housing affordability and raising concerns about how it would fit in with the character of the historic neighbourhood.

The Vancouver Tenants Union organized a protest Thursday afternoon at the site of the proposed tower to demand all units be built as social housing if the project goes ahead.

Concerned low-income and senior Chinatown residents also held a community council and news conference that afternoon.

In a written statement, Rob Fiorvento, managing partner at Beedie, told CBC that the development will bring much needed mixed-use housing to the area, which is in alignment with a city goal of making the historic community prosperous again.

"We are grateful for the opportunity to re-apply to the development permit board and remain committed to working with our neighbours and community partners on a safe and vibrant Chinatown," said Fiorvento.

Zhi Ping Zhang, 70, told CBC News she would support the development if it were affordable to low and middle-class residents who already call Chinatown home.

"Wealthy people are unaware of how challenging it is for low-income people, they just wanna make money," Zhang said.

Organizations in support

Several neighbourhood groups openly support the project.

On Wednesday, a joint letter signed by seven Chinatown organizations was sent to the development permit board as well as Mayor Ken Sim and city council advocating for permit approval.

Signatories include the Chinese Benevolent Association of Vancouver, the Chinese Freemasons of Vancouver, the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Garden Society, the Chinese Cultural Centre of Greater Vancouver, the Vancouver Chinatown Merchant's Association, the Vancouver Chinatown Business Improvement Association (Chinatown BIA) and the Vancouver Chinatown Foundation.

"We stand united in support for this project, and for the continued renewal of Chinatown; this important, historic and cultural jewel in our city," said Jordan Eng, president of the Chinatown BIA in a news release sent to media with the letter.

Belle Puri/CBC
Belle Puri/CBC

The letter says the proposed location of the development has been an empty eyesore for years; that the proposal adds housing without displacing anyone; and that "more feet on the street will help reverse the descent of the district into further street disorder."

The Vancouver Police Department has said it has seen an increasing number of incidents involving racist aggression or hate crime in the area.

The development permit board will make a decision about the tower on May 29 at a meeting scheduled to start at 3 p.m.

The meeting's agenda includes details about the building, which proposes one level of retail, a cultural amenity space, eight levels of residential living with 111 units and three levels of underground parking.