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City council votes to reduce building heights in Vancouver’s historic Chinatown

The Chinatown neighbourhood in Vancouver is seen in this May, 2017, file photo. The fragile community needs more protection now, say many city council members.

Rafal Gerszak

The decades-long campaign to revive Vancouver’s Chinatown – one of many in North America struggling for survival – took another twist Tuesday, after council voted to reduce building heights to protect it from speculation and over-development.

That decision comes only seven years after Chinatown’s business community and planners agreed in 2011 to allow higher new buildings to be built in the area, as a way of attracting development and new residents to what was seen as a dying Chinatown.

But the fragile community needs more protection now, said many council members, and just piling in development isn’t the answer to its future.

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“I think the argument that it’s really about getting more bodies in and height versus the economy is a false one,” said Vancouver City Councillor Kerry Jang, as he moved the revisions to the area’s zoning. “One of the things we have to do is find balance.”

Green Party Councillor Adriane Carr said she took to heart the sentiments of people at public consultations, who said Chinatown would be lost if the zoning wasn’t changed.

The change means that the height limit of new buildings in Chinatown, except for those on historic Pender Street, will be reduced to 90 feet, from the previous 120 feet to 150 feet. As well, the frontage for new buildings will be limited to 75 feet to try to fit better with the style of traditional Chinatown buildings, many of which are only 25-feet wide.

City staff acknowledged in a memo issued just before the meeting that the changes would likely slow down development activity, which some see as a benefit and others as a danger for the community.

Prior to the meeting, the proposed downzoning had prompted another round of sometimes vitriolic debate over building projects in Chinatown, as business owners, organized as a group called Chinatown Voices, warned development would stall, and Chinatown businesses would suffer with fewer people moving in.

Countering that position were various groups that have been concerned about the 2011 zoning changes, including some groups and activists who originally supported them.

Opposition to post-2011 developments arose as the first three housing projects were approved. A wide range of people, from academics to politicians to a new generation of young activists, said the buildings were too big, didn’t reflect Chinatown’s character and provided too little in the way of community benefits.

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The controversy over development accelerated when developer Ryan Beedie tried to get a condo project approved across the street from the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Gardens. After months of protests, both council and, later, the development-permit board, turned the project down.

Chinatown covers about 10 blocks near the city’s Downtown Eastside and is home to about 450 businesses.

It thrived until the 1970s, particularly as immigration from Hong Kong spiked from the 1960s onward, with many new arrivals setting up businesses or shopping in Chinatown because it was the only real commercial area catering to them.

From the 1980s onward, new waves of Chinese immigrants gravitated to the suburbs of Richmond, Burnaby and Coquitlam, and new shops and even malls opened in those areas to serve the new arrivals.

In recent years, community advocates and city staff have noted that the area has seen signs of speculative activity, such as some properties that were bought and sold more than once in a short time, and traditional businesses shutting down. Land prices have escalated, as developers look for sites close to downtown.

Although the number of businesses in the area has remained the same, about half of the 60 existing traditional food businesses have closed and new, more upscale ones have opened in their place.

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