Will the winds of political change bring a breath of fresh air for Chinatown?
As news broke Monday of the historic NDP-Green deal to form a progressive government for our province, I was waiting at city hall, one of hundreds of speakers over four days testifying before city council in defence of Chinatown.
I had managed to steal away from work to attend and speak on the final day of public hearings over the proposed Beedie condo development at 105 Keefer Street. I’m glad I attended in-person. The mood was electrifying and inspiring, the gallery and chambers packed with advocates and activists.
At issue: the rezoning proposal for a new large-scale condo development in the fragile heritage neighbourhood. This latest in a series of rejected applications by Beedie Developments for the block next to the Chinese Classical Gardens and Cultural Centre has been met by resistance every step of the way.
Chinatown advocates are right to be concerned; after years of neglect, recent big block condo developments in the name of renewal have radically transformed the neighbourhood.
So far, similar large-scale new developments may have succeeded in bringing new businesses, residents, and short-term vacation rentals to the area, but at a cost: the displacement of low-income seniors, affordable residences and businesses, and the continued erosion of Chinatown’s character and heritage.
On day one of the public hearings, respected neighbourhood activist Shirley Chan lamented that over the last several years, the development decisions by council were not—as purported—saving Chinatown, but in fact they were replacing Chinatown.
There is a real irony then, that those same development decisions replacing Chinatown may have succeeded in saving Chinatown after all. Opposition to the project has succeeded in rekindling that most intangible aspect of heritage: it has built real community.
The opposition to this development proposal has managed to bring together young people, old people, heritage advocates and housing activists, small businesses and historic clan associations, multigenerational Canadians with deep roots and recent immigrants contextualizing their own sense of belonging in our city. The opposition to this project has brought about something of a Chinatown renaissance, and ignited a passion to save the neighbourhood.
A new generation of bright, articulate, and inspired Chinese-Canadian youth and allies have taken up the mantle of the 1970s freeway fighters—organizing and advocating, working with Chinatown seniors, and quite literally breathing new life into the neighbourhood. The same neighbourhood that the city council majority and real estate interests had decided was in need of replacement, underperforming and moribund.
If there were any grounds of justification for council to still approve this rezoning it wouldn't be for revitalization, but for public benefits. The provision of truly affordable housing as a public-benefit condition of the various recent big block condo developments in Chinatown so far has been pretty minimal: in the low double digits as far as actual numbers of units.
This most recent application for rezoning to accommodate the Beedie Group’s new 12-story condo building at 105 Keefer Street offered little by way of public benefits: 25 units of seniors rental housing, only eight of which would be at pension rate, and paid for by B.C. taxpayers. The proposal was also to include a cultural amenity space at “below market rate” (which by definition is not necessarily affordable or accessible).
As most of the opponents agreed, the public benefits fell well short of what the community needs, and the building came at a significant cost to the neighbourhood. It's too big, and in the wrong place.
As I went to speak before council Monday, the news that a Green-NDP deal had been struck just moments earlier presented a literal last minute game-changer. Among other things, both parties have committed to increase the supply of affordable housing.
That will likely mean that begging for developers’ table scraps will no longer be the only route to securing housing for our society’s most vulnerable.
With a new provincial mandate, the veritable knife through the heart of Chinatown in exchange for barely-there public benefits will seem a lot less attractive to city councillors going into a 2018 municipal election. Looking forward, any suggestion of developer-donor influence should be put to bed by the NDP-Green commitment to ban big money political contributions (over the 11 months of the 2014 civic election reporting period, Beedie Group and their VP Rafii Houta are listed at having contributed at least $65,000 to Vision Vancouver).
City council will make a decision on the 105 Keefer application on June 13. Those extraordinary record-breaking four days of public hearings have bought councillors a little extra time to see not only the extent of public opposition to this project in support of Chinatown, but also how the political landscape is changing.