Gabriel Yiu: Advocates of Keefer Street rezoning create a ruckus to divert attention

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      In the final days before the city council reaches a decision on the 105 Keefer Street rezoning application, supporters of the project developer called two news conferences, accusing a person on the opposition side of bullying Chinese seniors.

      They demanded that an MP and MLAs who've expressed opposition to the application declare their position on this accusation.

      This intriguing tactic not only reflects the low level of argument of the supporters, but also shows that after their supporting reasons have been rebutted one by one, they are running out of reasons to back their pitch that the commercial project is going to bring benefits to the public and Chinatown.

      First, the timing is odd. They complained two weeks after the incident.

      I’ve watched the video provided by the supporting side. All I could see were two people quarrelling and one was the fellow who was making the bullying accusation. 

      When a Ming Pao Daily reporter asked the president of a Chinese seniors group (who is a figurehead of the supporters' side) about it, this president said that she had not heard anything about seniors being bullied.

      Even if someone on the opposition side misbehaved, do all the people who oppose the rezoning application have to be held responsible? Likewise, if someone on the supporters' side has reaped benefits, can we at one stroke accuse all the supporters of the developer to have stood up because they too have received benefits?

      The reasons cited to support the rezoning application are:

      * It provides 25 seniors' social housing units;

      * it provides a lower-than-market rental rate for space for community groups;

      * if the application is refused, the developer can still build a nine-storey tower but there will be no benefits for the community;

      * and more residents in the tower means more customers to Chinatown businesses.

      It has been revealed that the 25 units are not a generous gift from the developer. The provincial government would spend $7.3 million to purchase these units from the developer.

      If these funds were spent renovating existing Chinatown buildings instead, this could generate more social housing units. A recent example: spending $2.4 million to renovate the Ma’s Building provides more than 30 units of single-room-occupancy accommodation in Chinatown.

      Likewise, the 1,200-square foot community activity space provided by the developer is not charity. The so-called lower-than-market rate could be $500 cheaper in monthly rent. 

      The current market rate for a unit at Main and Keefer is $72 per square foot. That means the market rental rate for a 1,200-square foot space is $7,200 per month. Even if the developer is generous enough to cut the rent down to $5,000 or $6,000, could small community groups afford it?

      Merely cutting the rent of one unit in exchange for adding three luxury storeys on top? No wonder the developer would come back again and again after its applications have been rejected. But what are the benefits for the community and the public in this project?

      Since the setback of the current building design is on the top three floors, even if the developer builds nine storeys, then the company would need to make huge changes to the design to include the setback—and the building would no longer look so immense. If the rezoning is rejected, the developer may want to negotiate a land swap with the government.

      The International Village tall towers were built in neighbouring Chinatown. Throughout the years, we have not seen them help Chinatown’s traditional businesses.

      Several years ago, the city approved the building a couple of tall towers on Main Street. That hasn’t helped Chinatown's traditional businesses either. The fact is, we are seeing an escalation of the displacement of traditional Chinatown businesses.

      It is understandable that the Chinatown Merchants Association and landlords would like to see tall towers. A high-profile former CMA president used to advocate demolishing the Chinese Cultural Centre to build a tall tower there.

      Businesses certainly have their freedom to advocate for their commercial interests and benefits. It’s the role of the government to make decisions according to the public interest.

      Overall, the public opinion on this rezoning project is overwhelmingly against. There are more people speaking up against it, and there are more signatures against. This is the quantitative evidence.

      On the quality side, the opposition wins hands down. The opposition side includes a former B.C. premier, an elected MP and MLA representing Chinatown, and two other Vancouver MLAs (one is the past chair of the major Chinatown society, the Chinese Benevolent Association), Second World War Chinese veterans, historians, professors, distinguished architects, city planners, and so on.

      Mediawise, the Vancouver Sun published quite a few articles critical of the rezoning. Even Business in Vancouver, which has strong ties with real estate businesses, and the Vancouver Real Estate Podcast shared the concerns of the opposition side about a 12-storey building on 105 Keefer Street.

      What is truly encouraging in this fight is that so many people have shown they care about the development of Chinatown. And it's not only the Chinese. Other ethnic groups and mainstream society have made their voices heard in the debate. 

      What is truly inspiring is that Canadian-born Chinese youths stood up to show their participatory efforts. They also helped those elders who cannot speak English to have their say. The enthusiasm and respect they show toward Chinatown and the elders are there for all to see, and to call upon in future.