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Vancouver condo tower redesigned to better fit historic Chinatown

A rendering shows the proposed controversial tower in Vancouver’s Chinatown, proposed by Ryan Beedie's development company.

Renu Bakshi Communications

A new tower proposed for Vancouver's rapidly changing Chinatown has been redesigned to include $6-million worth of seniors' housing and fit better with the historic community.

But it's unclear whether that will be enough to appease the wide variety of groups passionate about the area, some of whom fear the neighbourhood is being overrun by hipster restaurants, condos and out-of-sync new buildings with little in return for existing residents.

Houtan Rafii, vice-president of residential development at Beedie Living, says the company made some major adjustments, and he hopes that has changed some people's opinions.

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"We are re-engineering the dollars and reducing our expectations," said Mr. Rafii, whose company's new proposal was presented in an open house earlier this week. The building's total square footage has gone down slightly, and the proposed 120-foot building will now have apartments for seniors instead of commercial space on the second floor.

It also has been redesigned to look less like one unified block and more like a cluster of different buildings – a style that fits in with Vancouver's hodge-podge look in older areas, where builders of the early 20th century put up small buildings with varying heights and materials.

The original proposal from Beedie, put forward last year, generated an uproar.

It came on the heels of three other condo projects on Main Street that were developed quickly after the city passed a new neighbourhood plan in 2011 allowing taller buildings at the south end of Chinatown.

The Beedie land is at the corner of Keefer and Columbia Streets, near a corner known as the Keefer Triangle, where there's a monument to Chinese-Canadian war veterans.

Mr. Rafii said the company "is taking the brunt" of opposition that started with the first three projects.

But, he acknowledged, it also had to go through some education about the community.

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"We've learned lots. Chinatown is a very valuable asset and it's exceedingly complicated."

City planners, responding to a near revolt among community groups and prominent Chinatown defenders when the Beedie building was first proposed, held a series of meetings over the last year to get public input on what should change.

The city's assistant planning director, Kevin McNaney, said Beedie had offered to provide cash in the first project for community benefits, but when it became clear that what people wanted was seniors' housing, that's what planners pushed for.

"Twenty-five units was what the building could support," said Mr. McNaney.

Mr. Rafii said that the Chinese immigrant-support society SUCCESS will be managing the units, which have a value of between $6-million and $7-million.

But SUCCESS director Queenie Choo said that hasn't been finalized yet.

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"We are still looking at the agreement because we need to make sure we can afford it," said Ms. Choo, whose society is going to manage 25 other units of housing at another condo project nearby built by Westbank.

Ms. Choo said the 25 units doesn't match the demand, but, she said, "it's better than nothing."

"At least we hope to chip a little piece of the elephant. And we can't afford the whole building."

However, that's what some Chinatown advocates say is needed – a whole building of seniors' housing.

Kathryn Lennon, who speaks for a coalition of youth-dominated groups in Chinatown, said "twenty-five is just not enough. That is not meeting the need."

She and other young people organized their own open house Tuesday in advance of the city's open house to advocate for a project with no market condos at all.

"A 2011 study said that 3,300 more units were needed for seniors. We can do better than this," said Ms. Lennon.

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