By Paul Merrick
The marathon public hearing for Chinatown’s Keefer Street rezoning is not just about the project, it’s about the “turf”. It's on a privately owned site, zoned to allow consideration of the proposal brought forward.
I have been practising architecture for 60 years, largely in and out of Vancouver and have been immersed in aspects ranging from the whole of False Creek to Cathedral Place; the evolution of the old city into what has come to be known as Gastown, and yes, the adjacent Chinese community among others. I cannot point to another circumstance particularly or site-specific circumstance that has gone on this long or had as much thorough thought.
The zoning governing the site is reasonably straightforward, having no density limit, limited setbacks, a 90-foor height governance, with a provision to adjust that to 120 feet in exchange for benefits that in city council’s judgement warrant this height relaxation.
The governing construct was not invented by city council, or its advisory staff, in isolation. It was developed over more than a decade of iterative dialogue with the incumbent Chinatown community.
Indeed, by 2011 when it was enacted, this community was advocating such a measure to encourage this neighbourhood’s revitalization. Like the zoning, the proposal did not materialize out of a vacuum. It is the manifestation of going on four years of developing a concept, dialoguing with those who make up its context, and reviewing it with community advisory groups and the city’s advisory design panel. Through this considerable length of time and several revised iterations, the advising design panel’s position went from “no, we don’t agree with the governance therefore we don’t support the proposal”, to “maybe”, to unanimous support.
The community advisory groups over this period went from lukewarm support to split, to non-support, through a process that endeavoured to genuinely hear concerns, respond to them, and add further benefits. This is why we are left having to conclude that it is “not just about the proposal”.
The site owners and initiators of the proposal, the Beedie Group, has been persistent through all of this and tenacious in its desire to develop a circumstance that is more than a unidimensional single-use building. On more than two occasions through the process we have pondered why it wouldn’t just lower the bar and do an “outright” project. It has consistently responded with “no we want to do something that could be more meaningful.”
We live in an amazing society. A society that has constructs that entitle any person to have anything they like to say about a proposal that will affect the physical environment, because whatever we do with our physical environment affect us all. But we must take responsibility for the comments we make because our right to consent exists alongside our equal right to advocate and implement subject to the constructs that govern what we’re entitled to do.
At the civic level, it is city council that has the prerogative and the responsibility to create the mechanisms of stewardship, steward their application, and adjudicate on their implementation. I honour, but do not envy its task.