Chinatown might soon be the site of yet another high-end condominium development. The Beedie Group wants to build a 13-storey condo tower at 105 Keefer Street, at the intersection of Columbia and Keefer. If approved, community organizers fear that the tower’s 127 market rate units will add to the displacement pressures currently facing Chinatown.
The open house for the condo project is scheduled for this evening at the Chinese Cultural Centre Auditorium (50 East Pender Street). Community opposition to the project is expected from DTES groups and Chinatown youth organizations, including the Youth Collaborative for Chinatown. According to by the Chinatown Concern Group, “gentrification is transforming Chinatown and thus marginalizing working class Chinese people from the neighborhood; this project will continue this marginalization and displacement and therefore we reject this application.”
This latest development proposal comes in the midst of an unprecedented level of condo development in Chinatown. In 2015, 427 condos and 298 market rental units are either approved, proposed, or under construction in or near Chinatown.
As new condos continue to increase land values, rents in several privately-owned SRO hotels in the surrounding area of the proposed tower are likely to increase, pushing out low-income residents. Yet, when the Beedie Group initially submitted their rezoning proposal one year ago this month, there was no plan to build any units of social housing, let alone any affordable rental housing units.
Pushing back against the condo-fication of Chinatown
City council has no zoning regulations in Chinatown requiring developers to build social housing as part of new developments. Previous protections for Chinatown were reversed by city council in 2011, against strong opposition from the community. As a result, the overall ratio of condo/market units to social units being built is 69 to 1 in Chinatown according to research by Carnegie Community Action Project (CCAP).
In response to the rapid gentrification of Chinatown and the staggering number of proposed condos in the area, more than a hundred residents of Chinatown marched on city hall earlier this year, in March 2015. Chinese residents delivered a 1,400 person petition demanding a moratorium on all market development, including the 105 Keefer project. Residents gave speeches in both English and Cantonese. According to a speech by Chinatown Concern Group organizer King-mong Chan, “we see an absence of policies to protect Chinatown from being transformed into Western Town, as many residents call it.”
In his speech Chan said that Chinatown is a “ground zero” in Vancouver’s long history of anti-Asian racism. “The agenda for Chinatown is for a new Yaletown, but no, this is Chinatown, the birthplace of the Chinese community Vancouver: ground zero of racism, discrimination, our struggles, fights and victories.”
After an hour of waiting, Mayor Gregor Robertson finally met with the large contingent from Chinatown. When the Mayor opened his speech to the crowd by saying that his council is committed to preserving the “heritage character” of Chinatown and that they want Chinatown seniors to be involved in an “Urban Design Panel” to discuss design ideas for new buildings in Chinatown, Vincent Chan also member of the Chinatown Concern Group shouted back at the Mayor “When you did the HAHR [Historic Area Height Review], you didn’t get any input.”
The HAHR was pushed through by the Vision-led council in 2011 and meant an overall rezoning of Chinatown, as well as additional height increases for a cluster of new developments in the area (See map of rezoned area). The height increase was a green light for the large-scale gentrification of Chinatown and it was pushed through despite organized and persistent opposition from hundreds of low-income Chinatown and DTES residents.
Robertson has time and time again defended the HAHR on the basis it was a ten-year process with “lots of input from the community,” referring to the Chinatown Revitalization Committee. Yet according to long time redress organizer Sid Tan, “[i]n terms of the Revitalization Committee that the Mayor is always talking about, they took ten years to do it. But just because you take ten years to do something doesn’t mean it’s any good. It was all landowners, it was all developers; there were no ordinary people at those meetings.”
When King-Mong Chan eventually delivered the petition to the Mayor, he asked directly: “yes or no, will you support the petition.” The Mayor answered in line with Vision Vancouver’s agenda for the area, “We’re not halting development. We are working on making sure that changes meet the community plan and that we respect the character of the neighbourhood.”
At the end of the meeting, Vincent Chan and other angered seniors shouted back at the Mayor, “You’re no good.” “You’re tearing Chinatown apart,” and “Think about the people.”
New proposal for 105 Keefer falls short
Due to the public backlash, the public hearing for 105 Keefer initially scheduled for spring 2015 was postponed, and the developer has now submitted a new and revised rezoning proposal. The new revised proposal includes 25 “non-market” housing units, representing 16% of the total number of units.
The non-market housing would be operated by the housing society SUCCESS, “underwritten” (financed through loans) by BC Housing, and designated for Chinese seniors. Yet, when a delegation from Carnegie Community Action Project (CCAP) meet with the developer on September 10th, it was unclear if any of the non-market units would rent at welfare rate. Looking at the precedent set by similar social mix developments in the area, it is likely that any low-income tenants will be expected to qualify for SAFER grants to afford the rents.
By promising to finance the non-market component of the condo project, BC Housing is giving the developer the political edge necessary to push the development ahead at city hall, putting hundreds of surrounding low-income housing units at risk of being lost. According to Jean Swanson of CCAP, “new social housing units should not be contingent on private developments, nor should it come at the cost of hundreds of low-income SRO rooms. What we need is buildings with 100% social housing at welfare rate.”
The Chinatown Concern Group also rejects the new proposal for 105 Keefer, worried that the token number of social housing units will not offset the lost units of affordable housing due to gentrification. “Though the revised application includes more low income seniors’ housing, it still falls tremendously short of what we want to see in new housing projects: 50% of units for low income people not just 16%.”
The proposed site is located just across from the East entrance to the Sun Yat Sen gardens and next to an important monument commemorating the efforts and lives of the Chinese who built the Canadian Pacific Railway from 1881-1885 and fought in WWII from 1939-45. The Chinatown Concern Group wants a community centre built on the site that serves the working class Chinese community and promotes Chinatown as a thriving affordable neighbourhood. They also want to see seniors’ housing built on top of this future community centre.
A community open house for 105 Keefer is scheduled from 5:00-8:00pm on Tuesday, October 6, 2015 at the Chinese Cultural Centre Auditorium (50 East Pender Street). CCAP and a coalition of Chinatown youth organizers including the Youth Collaborative for Chinatown is holding an Alternative Open House from 3–5pm at 105 Keefer, where you can share your concerns about the impact of this development and to build a collective vision for this site and for Chinatown. At 5pm, Chinese seniors and youth together with DTES residents will walk from 105 Keefer over to the City’s Open House (50 E Pender) in collective opposition.
Facebook event here