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Vancouver rejects Chinatown condo-development permit

A Chinese-Canadian memorial stands next to an empty lot where Beedie Development hopes to build a nine-storey condo in Vancouver's Chinatown.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Members of Vancouver's development industry were aghast Tuesday at a rare decision by the city's top bureaucrats to reject the application for a controversial building in Chinatown that complied with zoning and had been green-lighted by three levels of city administration.

The highly unusual decision by the members of the development-permit board, after a cliffhanger meeting and 2-1 vote Monday night, had many saying on Tuesday that the board made a significant political choice instead of a purely technical one.

The board had not rejected a development permit in 12 years, but this project faced extremely vocal opposition from community groups who were jubilant at the decision.

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"I think the city has heard us," said Sophie Fung, a representative with the Chinatown Action Group, one of several groups that have opposed the project.

But others say the board's decision has undermined overall city planning and will create a new era of divisiveness. "We now have invalidated the entire community plan," said Jon Stovell, the chair of the Urban Development Institute, an association that represents the development industry. "And this will encourage other communities to filibuster."

The nine-storey condo building by the development company Beedie Living was planned for a site seen as a gateway to Chinatown. The project had earlier received a staff recommendation for approval, along with the same from the city's urban-design panel and the permit board's advisory committee.

Beedie Living's only statement on Tuesday was that it was disappointed that city's regulatory institutions had been undermined. "Like many people, we are uncertain what this unprecedented decision will mean for these civic institutions," said Beedie's executive vice-president, Houtan Rafii.

Typically, if a proposal complied with zoning, the most the members of the development permit board would do was recommend design changes before final approval.

But the Beedie building had become a target in the past five years as a new generation of young activists moved into Chinatown politics and helped generate opposition to building proposals that were the result of a plan that older Chinatown groups supported six years ago.

Activists had become alarmed at how big and out of place the new buildings were. They also felt as if they weren't getting many community benefits from them, which was supposed to be part of the trade-off in the plan. And they were worried about gentrification.

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City staff are now revising that community plan, but Beedie and at least one other developer had put in applications for projects under the old zoning before that work started.

Councillors had already rejected a proposal where the Beedie project would get three extra storeys in exchange for including 25 units of social housing.

But the project that went to the development-permit board had been scaled down and complied with the current zoning for height and uses.

That presented the board's three members with a dilemma.

Most of the opponents said the site should be used for social housing and traditional Chinese businesses. But the board didn't have the legal jurisdiction to deny a permit on those grounds.

The board had a limited range of reasons it could use for rejection. The main one was concerning the building's design.

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So that is what planning chief Gil Kelley and engineering head Jerry Dobrovolny relied on as they voted for rejection, even though almost none of the opponents had indicated the condo project would be more acceptable if it were redesigned.

Mr. Dobrovolny said he could not go along with the staff recommendation to approve the project, even with conditions for design changes.

"We have such a large gap that still exists about what the right thing to do is," the head engineer said. He said the exterior surfaces still needed work, that the building mass was too big (even though it did not exceed zoning limits) and that it needed to provide a better frame for the plaza in front of it.

Deputy city manager Paul Mochrie disagreed. "This projects fits within the constraints of the existing zoning. This is a significant property in Chinatown, but the fate of an entire neighbourhood should not and cannot rest on one project."

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About the Author
Urban affairs contributor

Frances Bula has written about urban issues and city politics in B.C.’s Vancouver region, covering everything from Downtown Eastside drug addiction to billion-dollar development projects, since 1994. More

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