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Vancouver seeks to protect character of historic Chinatown

Some traditional stores are shown in Chinatown on East Pender Street in Vancouver. Voters in San Francisco have approved creation of a fund to help support historic businesses.

Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

The city's historic Chinatown may get even more protections and new rules, from a limit on the density and a non-negotiable requirement for seniors' housing in new residential projects to a possible designation of the neighbourhood as a heritage-conservation area.

Those are some of the ideas being explored this week in community workshops, as city planners continue to try to look for the right formula to preserve the history and traditional businesses in the more than 100-year-old neighbourhood while allowing for new life.

"Over the last four years, we've heard from the public that they're concerned about the loss of character in Chinatown," said Karen Hoese, whose planning team ran a workshop on Saturday and will do another one Tuesday on the possible changes.

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The city's moves are being welcomed by a group that has been advocating vigorously for changes over the last few years.

"We hope the city has heard us and there are some strategies to put the brakes on a little bit," said Doris Chow, a co-founder of the Youth Collaborative for Chinatown.

A city plan passed in 2012 ensured that the blocks along East Pender Street, lined with Victorian-era buildings put up by Chinatown's clan associations, would be protected.

But the plan encouraged new development and higher building heights along Main Street, in return for some community benefits for developers.

Three large condo buildings quickly went up. But many people felt like they didn't fit in with Chinatown's look.

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As well, there was concern about what the community got back. One developer's project provided 22 units of social housing. Another's contributed $1.3-million to be used for refurbishing existing low-income units in the area.

Now, said Ms. Hoese, planners are considering reducing the allowable density – though not heights – for buildings.

Both Chinatown and Gastown have never had density caps, so that anyone proposing a project there could pack in as much built space as possible on the lot, as long as the design didn't break the height limit.

But, she said, that's created some problems with bulky buildings on bigger sites that have been assembled from the typical small Chinatown lots.

"People are developing the buildings trying to squeeze in as much as they can. One of our objectives is to set realistic expectations about the density for the developers."

That conflict over density has surfaced several times as a fourth project, by Beedie Development, has gone through the approval process.

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At its last round at the urban-design panel, members said that the building had some nice architectural elements, but it was just too big.

Ms. Hoese said another change being considered is a requirement to provide social or seniors' housing in every project. At the moment, developers have to provide some kind of community benefit but it's always been a negotiation what that will be.

She said the city is considering simply demanding a fixed percentage of units in every project, likely around 20 or 25 per cent.

And, she said, planners are "exploring the idea of a heritage-conservation area," like Shaughnessy.

Something that's not being considered in this round, but will be part of a bigger-picture plan for community economic development in the whole Downtown Eastside area, including Chinatown, is whether there should be limits on new types of businesses coming in and more support for local-serving and traditional businesses.

San Francisco recently announced it will start new initiatives to preserve "legacy" businesses in the city, after almost 4,000 businesses closed in 2014. Voters approved an initiative last November to create a fund that could be used to support unique and historic businesses.

Ms. Chow said she would like to see Vancouver consider something similar. Although some Chinatown businesses are shutting down as the owners get old or they feel their customer base has dwindled, others are being pushed out by increased rents.

"They would like to stay," she said. And a move to support those heritage businesses "can help protect some."

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