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A man walks by the Gain Wah Restaurant in Vancouver's Chinatown.Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

The public is expected to learn Tuesday whether a city staff recommendation to prohibit towers and restrict storefront widths in Vancouver’s historic Chinatown neighbourhood will be referred to a public hearing.

The proposed zoning changes would restrict new developments to a height of 90 feet, essentially overturning a 2011 decision that allowed developers to apply to build up to 150 feet in certain areas in exchange for public benefits. New buildings would also be restricted to narrow lots with smaller storefronts in efforts to preserve the feel and character of the neighbourhood, according to the city.

“While it is rare to revise policy adopted recently by council, the City is committed to consult with the community on changes to better manage development in Chinatown, recognizing the sensitivity of this historic neighbourhood,” reads a March 23 report on the proposed amendments.

Unlike most other zoning districts, Chinatown does not have restrictions on density and lot widths. Supporters of the proposed revisions say this leaves the area vulnerable to real estate developers and speculators who want to cash in, at the risk of eroding culture, heritage and affordability.

“Essentially right now, it’s a developer’s buffet, as well as property owners’ buffet,” said Melody Ma, leader of the #SaveChinatownYVR campaign. “At some point, someone’s going to need to take the punchbowl away.”

Ms. Ma added that it has been clear that the “public benefits” promised in the 2011 rezoning policies – such as contributions toward heritage, cultural or affordable housing projects – were lower than expected.

“I think we all can see what the result of that is: We’re getting big, bulky buildings that are completely out of context, that are culturally inappropriate, and did not bring the type of businesses and residents that really supported Chinatown,” she said.

“What ended up happening [was the creation of] these parallel economies. The result is gentrification, economic displacement and physical displacement of both residents and businesses.”

Those who support the 2011 policies claim they are just starting to bear fruit. A group called Chinatown Voices – composed of business and property owners, merchants and residents – held a news conference on Monday denouncing the proposed changes as an ill-thought-out, knee-jerk reaction to some community opposition.

Catherine Kwan is property manager of the Sun Wah Centre, once a bustling shopping mall that over the years dwindled to just a handful of shops. BC Artscape recently signed a 10-year lease for three vacant floors and the rooftop of the building, with a goal of turning it into an artistic and cultural hub.

Ms. Kwan said she has seen the ups and downs of Chinatown, and insists that the 2011 rezoning policies helped spur activity in the area.

“My building, before, never [had] rented out more than 35 per cent occupancy,” she said. “But since [the new policy was introduced, we got] a lot of people coming to us asking us different inquiries. Now, in 2018 and 2017, we’re 95 per cent occupied. We are sure that this policy is a good policy.”

Steve Lee, a property owner and a spokesman for Chinatown Voices, said it makes little sense to downzone Chinatown when the neighbourhood “finds itself in the path of growth.” He cited the plans for the new St. Paul’s Hospital, in the False Creek Flats area, and the demolition of the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts to create more space for housing and recreation as examples.

Mr. Lee said it feels as if council is trying to rush through a decision without adequately addressing the concerns of groups such as his, who have not been as vocal or public as others.

“What we’re asking them is to slow this down and give us ample time to meet with the planning department, have discussions and move this along in a more meaningful way rather than rush this through before this city council winds up its term,” he said.

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