September 24, 2022


It’s been almost five years since a controversial mixed-use project in Vancouver’s Chinatown was turned down by the city in a historic decision.

Development in the area has since stalled, with many stakeholders insisting new buildings do more to meet the needs of the heritage neighbourhood.

Click to play video: 'Vancouver turns down controversial Chinatown development'

Vancouver turns down controversial Chinatown development

Vancouver turns down controversial Chinatown development – Nov 8, 2017

“A number of groups want yesterday back but yesterday’s gone,” Bob Rennie told Global News.

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The real estate marketer and Rennie founder said it’s a shame the prime lot at 105 Keefer Street sits empty.

“The people that turned that down aren’t here saving Chinatown,” said Rennie.

In November 2017, Beedie Living’s fifth application to build at the corner of Keefer and Columbia Streets was rejected by Vancouver’s Development Permit Board, marking the first time the Board had denied an application since 2006.

105 Keefer would have been built metres away from the Chinatown Memorial Monument recognizing Chinese Canadian Second World War veterans and the thousands of Chinese Canadians who lived and died building the Trans-Canada railway system.

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The proposed building had been reduced from 13 storeys to nine and met the area’s existing zoning requirements – but opponents said it was never a good fit.

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“There are many forms of criteria that are in zoning bylaws that go beyond the size and shape of the building,” UBC history professor Henry Yu told Global News.

Still, the rejection Rennie said, sent a message to developers considering Chinatown.

“It’s probably not worth your effort.”

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When condos started going up on Main Street, there were concerns large, market-driven development would lead to the loss of Chinatown’s character in the area south of the protected heritage properties and National Historic Site on Pender Street.

In 2018, city staff recommended council revoke the 2011 Chinatown South rezoning policy allowing buildings up to 150 feet in height to be considered on sites along Main Street between Keefer and Union Streets, and development proposals up to 120 feet tall in the rest of the zoning district bordered by Columbia Street to the west, Gore Avenue to the east, Union Street to the south and Keefer Street to the north.

In July of that year, the controversial rezoning policy was cancelled and area buildings are no longer allowed to exceed 90 feet or eight storeys in height.

“It caused a gap that was then accelerated by COVID,” said Rennie.

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“Right now, unfortunately, nothing is happening,” added Carol Lee.

Lee, the founder and chair of the Vancouver Chinatown Foundation, said sensitive, thoughtful development is essential for Chinatown’s survival.

“Preservation without development is just as bad as development without preservation so trying to walk along this very fine line is difficult,” Lee told Global News in an interview.

Yu said developers must respect the inclusive neighbourhood, contribute to the cultural heritage economy, and not try to displace and replace.

“Development only as the kind of creative destruction of assembling a bunch of lots and then wiping them out and putting something big at scale in because that’s where the money is, I think that’s a real mistake,” said Yu.

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Historic Chinese clan associations are the largest class of property owners in Chinatown according to Yu, and the challenge he said will be redeveloping these spaces while retaining the neighbourhood’s character as a living community.

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“It is a signal of please, come and do business, those of you who want to do business in this environment,” said Yu.

“This idea that it’s not open for development – I hope that we’re able to change that,” Lee told Global News.

Rendition Development’s eight-storey Sparrow project with ground-floor retail, office space and 25 homes on the top five floors, was given the green light and is under construction in the 200-block of Keefer Street.

Had Beedie’s 105 Keefer development been approved, Rennie believes the area would have mirrored Main and Georgia Streets, where he said condos, coffee shops, restaurants and local businesses have helped create a liveable, walkable community.

“How can we respect yesterday but move on to tomorrow,” said Rennie.

“I think we’re on the threshold of that.”

© 2022 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.


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