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Rendering of kitchen interior, 188 Keefer, Vancouver

Westbank Corp.

While cities like New York have designated "moderate income" buildings designed to keep workers, artists and young families from fleeing to cheaper suburbs,Vancouver seems to be experiencing a more market-driven response.

Developer Westbank Corp. is preparing to fling open the sales room doors for its newest project, 188 Keefer. Not only does the new 156-unit residential and commercial project aim to revive Chinatown's fortunes, it's also part of a larger trend to create affordable housing for people that live and work in the city.

With over 2,000 potential buyers registered since the beginning of May, there is clearly a need for this kind of housing – one that fills the gap between low-income, single room occupancy (SRO) units and high-end condos. This is the antithesis of the "empty condo" syndrome documented by Vancouver planner Andy Yan and others, exacerbated by absentee owners.

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Located at the new hipster centre of Main and Keefer streets – right across the street from Bao-Bei restaurant, a block from Sun Yat Sen classical gardens and two blocks from the seawall – 188 Keefer goes into presale in June and is a follow up to Westbank's successful 60 West Cordova Street project. It's echoed by similar "micro-loft" projects found in Vancouver's downtown eastside as well as in Toronto. And according to Hong Kong born project architect W.T. Leung, such affordable, small-footprint urban living is "the sign of a mature city."

As with the 60 West Cordova project, Westbank targets buyers who live and work in the area, offering one bedrooms that start at $239,000 and an equal number of two bedrooms for under $400,000.

And with units at $500 per square foot, and available with 5-per-cent down payments, 188 Keefer offers first-time buyers the opportunity to own for the same price as renting.

"When I first came here in 1975," said Mr. Leung, lamenting Chinatown's demise '80's and '90's, "I remember how vibrant this area was." His hope is that the new mixed-use development featuring double-height ground floor commercial retail and a second floor office component fronting Main Street, will help contribute to the neighbourhood's revival.

Indeed a quick scan of the area today reveals an already colourful scene: a young mom dressed in neo-Goth chic emerges with three cherubic blonde children from a corner dollar store that features a recorded hawker's voice announcing a going-out-of-business sale in English and Cantonese. A middle-aged man with a haunted look in his eyes eats a discarded sandwich from a trash can, while a group of skateboard toting 20-somethings embrace on the crosswalk in front of another development called Keefer Block. An elderly Chinese gentleman dressed in a dapper leopard-print Panama hat observes the scene as he walks by, tapping his cane up Main Street.

Clearly, this is a neighbourhood at a crossroads.

But then, suggests Mr. Leung, Vancouver's Chinatown – built around the central train station that welcomed immigrants from everywhere – has always been more open to development, as opposed to, say, San Francisco's, which, a stone's throw from the financial district, remains museum-like in its pristine heritage aesthetic.

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188 Keefer does not sacrifice design principles for affordability. Taking advantage of new technologies and products – such as porcelain tiles that look and feel like marble – keeps the cost down while elevating the aesthetic. Westbank's existing bulk buying contracts with Miele – as well as with a curtain wall supplier and a German kitchen appliance factory – make for streamlined, quiet and well-designed units.

Smaller floorplates and large common areas – such as "study rooms" for children and a BBQ pit on a roof terrace – as well as amenities such as larger balconies to increase outdoor space – are examples of the project's smart, space-maximizing design.

In many ways, the project's 17-storey tower (facilitated by 2011's rezoning of a handful of areas in Chinatown now allowed up to 150 feet) built on top of a six-storey podium (a more square, less rectangular subversion of the traditional Vancouverist model) reads like neighbourhood metaphor.

The six-storey brick podium, designed to resonate with the traditional Chinatown mid-rise and featuring ironwork on the balconies that resembles oriental lattices, will likely sit atop a major bank. On the north-facing Keefer side, a smaller five-storey building conjoined with a three-storey one to effect a gently graduated decline toward the neighbouring low-rises, will feature bright red glazing. At its ground level, where once a casino stood before it relocated to the old Expo site, will be an inner courtyard planted with bamboo.

From these structures a gleaming new tower will emerge – complete with a concrete panel installation of cryptic "new alphabet" signage by Ron Terada called The Unseen. Whether the tower will be the siren call of neighbourhood renewal or sing a more gentrified tune, remains to be seen.

But in Vancouver's real estate casino, 188 Keefer offers a real possibility to keep moderate-income earners from cashing out and moving to the suburbs.

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