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Fred Mah of the Heritage Buildings Association wants people to return to the area. In a unanimous vote last week, Vancouver city council approved the first rezoning application to emerge from the lifting of Chinatown’s long-time height restrictions, which is expected to pave the way for numerous high-rise developments.Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Acclaimed author Wayson Choy remembers the way Chinatown used to be.

"A street mix of smells, of fresh crates of vegetables being loaded and ready to be trucked away, the hissing of a laundry," Mr. Choy recalled Sunday, of his time growing up there during the 1940s.

"All the buildings seemed high to me, though they were no more than two to five storeys, with painted-numbered doors or warehouse-size openings. It was a heartbeating place, filled with activity."

But the smells and sounds of Mr. Choy's boyhood are long gone, along with the gambling dens, rundown rooming houses, marvellous neon signs and cheap eateries. More recently, the people have been disappearing, too.

Amid the grand old heritage buildings of the past, shops have been closing, and veteran merchants are struggling to stay afloat. Now, increasingly desperate to survive as more than a museum piece, North America's second-largest Chinatown is about to undergo a dramatic change. It's going tall.

For the first time, buildings as high as 17 storeys are destined to loom over the storied, low-rise area. In a unanimous vote last week, Vancouver city council approved the first rezoning application to emerge from the easing of Chinatown's long-time height restrictions. The proposed development on the southwest corner of Main and Keefer will have a seven-storey, mixed-use building along the street, with a 17-floor residential tower at the rear.

A second high-rise proposal for a 16-storey building on the same block is expected to be given a council thumbs-up on Wednesday.

The coming towers represent the most significant deviation from Chinatown's traditional look since its origins more than a hundred years ago.

"For better or for worse, Chinatown will be different, absolutely," said urban design consultant Brent Toderian, who presided over the policy change during his time as chief city planner. "But the community didn't want to preserve the status quo. Chinatown needed change."

Proponents hope the influx of residents from the 350 or so condo apartments will revive the area, bringing what everyone seems to call "body heat" back to Chinatown.

Indeed, apart from Downtown Eastside social-housing activists who fear the move will increase land values and rents in their adjacent neighbourhood, pro-development feeling is strong, even among those who have fought for years to preserve Chinatown's heritage.

Nonetheless, their support is tinged with reservations and regret.

"I don't really agree with the height of those buildings, but I accept it," said 77-year-old Fred Mah of the area's Heritage Buildings Association. "We want people to return to Chinatown, to live and shop there again. I just wish the designs had more cultural characteristics."

Chinatown architect Joe Wai said renewal has long been hampered by the area's heritage zoning. "The notion of increased density and redevelopment is overdue. It's a big change, but it's needed."

Still, Mr. Wai acknowledged that he worries the buildings may overwhelm the "look and feel" of Chinatown. "We don't want to emulate Shanghai. Our Chinatown is unique."

As for Mr. Choy, he noted that "sentiment causes us to ache for the old places, but who can stop growth?"

The new height levels result from a dozen years of consultation with the local community. An earlier plan to allow 30-storey buildings was abandoned.

"It's an honourable compromise," said Mr. Toderian, noting the towers are destined for busy Main Street, rather than the heart of Chinatown. "Change is always risky, but all Chinatowns are facing challenges. You can't cast them in amber. If they don't evolve, sometimes they die."

At Jack's Chinese Herbs and Acupuncture on Main Street, meanwhile, the proprietor was meticulously weighing out his packets of traditional herbs. He shrugged off his shop's pending displacement. Added his friend, Michael Li: "It's a different world. Change goes on."