When I was president of the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Garden Society from 2008 to 2010, I led that organization into the public discussion of the Historic Area Height Review. I convinced the Garden Board to join with the Chinatown organizations in what was to become known as “Chinatown United.” After defeating the foolish idea of 30 storey towers in Chinatown, Chinatown United gave its strongest possible support to City’s Historic Area Height Review. We supported Planning and Council in changing the zoning of the historic Chinatown district for the precise purpose of encouraging development that would secure the economic health of the district and conserve its unique heritage character. The changes we endorsed are what have made the 105 Keefer Street proposal possible. After the October 8th community open house I’m inclined to believe I made a great mistake in encouraging the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Garden Society to support the HAHR and in working hard with Chinatown United to create the political support Council needed to turn the review into enabling by-laws.
These are my greatest concerns arising from the October 8 open house:
- However one dresses it up, the proposed building is a tall bulky structure in an historic district that is low and fine-boned. Disturbingly, the presentation materials fail to represent this.
As I pointed out to City staff and the proponent’s staff the visuals at the open house, especially the isometric view from the southwest, were disturbingly inaccurate. The drawings show the buildings on the north side of the 100 block of Pender as being about the same height as the proposed redevelopment. The proposed building appears to be tucked into a neighbourhood of buildings of a similar height and bulk. We of course know this is not the case. The project architect pointed out that this drawing was generated with the City’s data. From a community perspective, the source of this error isn’t relevant; what matters is the proposed structure is of a much different height and bulk than the structures around it and the presentation materials present it as otherwise. I am not suggesting these drawings are purposefully misleading. They are simply misleading. The model, while more accurate, also contained many errors, most of all completely missing the variation in the height of existing buildings on the north side of the 100 block East Pender. The height and bulk of new buildings in Chinatown does matter. The impact of these structures on the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Park and Garden and East Pender are especially important. Nothing should be allowed to compromise these rare and unique assets and it is important that the proposed redevelopment be presented to the community in a clear and accurate fashion.
- To date the project proponents have not demonstrated how this building conforms with Section 2.3 of the Chinatown Neighbourhood Plan and Economic Revitalization Strategy concerning “Higher Heights.”
The Chinatown Neighbourhood Plan & Economic Revitalization Strategy of June 2012 reads: “Higher Heights: A rezoning policy for Chinatown South was also introduced as part of Council’s approval. This policy provides Council the opportunity to consider rezonings up to 120’ throughout HA-1A and up to 150’ within a sub-area of Main Street. The higher buildings in Chinatown were for the specific purpose of economic revitalization while also considering heritage values. These sites are also expected to provide public benefits, and the rezoning policy specifies these benefits should meet the community’s objective of innovative heritage restoration, cultural and affordable housing projects. For every supported higher building, a significantly higher standard of architectural and urban design excellence will be required.” (from Section 2.3, page 28).
This is the measure against which HA-1A rezoning applications that ask for height increases and high floor space ratios must be held. It is not enough that the proposed building provides housing units, especially of standard market variety. So here are the questions that arise from the simple breaking out the clauses of Section 2.3, above:
- How will the building contribute to the economic revitalization of Chinatown?
- How has it taken heritage values into account?
- What public benefits does it generate?
- What does it contribute to innovative heritage restoration?
- What does it offer culturally?
- How does it contribute to affordable housing?
- Does it achieve a higher standard of architectural and urban design excellence?
Nothing in the open house suggested these questions – taken directly from the neighbourhood plan as adopted by Council – have been seriously addressed. That needs to be done in a thorough way. Maybe it will turn out that the proposed height and bulk are irreconcilable with Section 2.3.
- The City itself needs to explain how this rezoning and the building it will allow will serve the overarching objectives of the Chinatown Plan.
The City needs to decide if it is really serious about the Chinatown heritage district. All over the world districts like this are used to inform citizens of their heritage and serve as economically significant tourist attractions. How will a proliferation of buildings such as those under construction at Keefer and Main and the proposed redevelopment of 105 Keefer contribute to this? What differentiates the buildings I have referenced from other mid- to high-rise residential structures anywhere in the Vancouver Metro Region? Is the City prepared to permanently damage the heritage district and Sun Yat-Sen Park and Garden for a few additional housing units?
I left the October 8 open house with impression that the proposed 105 Keefer building, like the two redevelopments at Keefer and Main, would not contribute to the preservation of the historic buildings that constitute the physical heritage value of Chinatown. Nor would the 105 Keefer proposal create seniors or social housing. But the wide Chinatown support for greater density and height was premised on these expectations. And these expectations did not come from nowhere – they were explicit in the years of discussion leading up to the Chinatown Plan and in the Plan itself as adopted by Council.
The City, as much as the proponent, has to do some serious soul searching as to how we have gotten to this stage with the third disappointing building under the revisions to the district’s zoning bylaws the community so resoundingly supported. How will Chinatown be any different than a strip of Kingsway if redevelopment continues on this course? There is a lot of good will in every corner in this discussion but that good will needs to be fully reflected now in the buildings that are actually constructed under the new rules.”