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Vancouver: Local advocacy group decries the changing character of Chinatown

Chinatown residents seek moratorium on condo development

FRANCES BULA

VANCOUVER — Special to The Globe and Mail

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The rapid pace of condo development in Vancouver’s historic Chinatown has prompted a local advocacy group to start petitioning for a moratorium on new building.

“We’re seeing a wave of development that is changing the character of Chinatown. It’s become another Gastown or Yaletown,” said King-mong Chan, who works with a Chinatown planning group through the Carnegie Centre Action Project. “And it’s condos and luxury hotels, when there’s a wait list for affordable housing here.”

Mr. Chan and his group, who were out collecting signatures this week, are not alone in being worried about the transformation of Chinatown in the past two years, with 780 units of new housing developed or proposed since a new neighbourhood plan went into effect in 2012.

Former city planners, people whose families have a long history in Chinatown, and heritage advocates have expressed concern about the wave of building because it is not bringing the community benefits they thought it would and it does not mesh with the neighbourhood’s historic architecture.

In response to the latter, the city’s planning department has organized a meeting in March between the city’s urban design panel – local architects who vet major projects before they go to council for approval – and the Chinatown Historic Area Planning Committee.

“Those [concerns about design] are valid,” city planner Kevin McNaney said. “The meeting in March will look at how can these developments reflect the architecture of Chinatown.”

He also said the city got 22 units of social housing from one project (although only 11 rented at the lowest rate of $375 a month) and $1.3-million from another that will go to refurbishing 600 units of low-cost apartments in Chinese family-society buildings.

But several advocates besides the CCAP want a moratorium on new development until the city comes up with clear, strong rules for creating more social housing and improving the building design.

“The trade-off, when this plan was approved [in 2012], was, we’ll have densification if the other needs are met,” said Henry Yu, a University of B.C. professor who specializes in Asian history.

He said the community is getting only a few true social-housing units and new buildings that look out of place because clear planning tools were never developed to achieve better results.

People got concerned as the first three condo projects on Main Street started going up.

That spiked when a new nine-story, luxury-condo was proposed last September by Beedie Development Group for a site at Columbia and Keefer streets across from the Sun Yat-Sen Gardens.

Mr. McNaney said city planners are talking to the company about changes to incorporate social housing.

He also said the pace of development will slow naturally.

There was a burst activity when the city came out with the new plan, which protected Chinatown’s most historic blocks but allowed taller buildings on a few sites .

“Most of the sites that were available for development are gone. This rate of change is not going to continue,” Mr. McNaney said.

People have been wrestling over Chinatown’s future since the 1980s, when Chinese immigrants began choosing to settle and shop elsewhere.

Chinese seniors occupy many of the 900 units of social housing in the area.

Business groups have lobbied to allow development in the hopes that new residents would help support local businesses.

Chinatown Business Improvement Association president Albert Fok said Chinatown needs change to survive.

“What we’ve been witnessing the last decade and a half, we don’t like that.”

But people like Mr. Yu say local businesses may find that high-end consumers in new developments would not shop at their herbal medicine or produce stores.

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