I recently allowed myself to become embroiled in a debate over the design of a building on a high-profile former gas station site in Chinatown. This has caused me a real dilemma. On one hand I don't support the scale of development being proposed for the site. On the other hand, I believe the Development Permit Board made the wrong decision in rejecting it.
My concerns with the scale and design of this building and other recent buildings in the Downtown Eastside and Chinatown date back to 2007 when I joined Milton Wong, Ray Spaxman, Mike Harcourt, Joe Wai, Gerry Zipursky and others as a member of the Building Community Society (BCS). BCS was formed by a group of volunteers who shared a personal desire to contribute positively to the future of the Downtown Eastside and nearby Chinatown. We hoped that in collaboration with community leaders, we could offer professional advice to be shared with the Vancouver planning department and others on the future of the area.
After a year, I left the group having found the experience too frustrating. The most outspoken community leaders opposed any new condominium developments since they feared they would gentrify the neighbourhoods, and make them less comfortable for low-income residents. I disagreed. I subsequently decided to run for Council in the hope that I could effect neighbourhood change and improvements in the Council chamber. As my daughters often tell their friends, I was the first loser!
Four years later the City of Vancouver planning department recommended changes to the Chinatown zoning to allow taller buildings. I thought this was wrong, since it would compromise the neighbourhood's unique character and expressed my views in the media and in a blog posting in January 2011 http://gellersworldtravel.blogspot.ca/2011/01/form-and-character-in-chinatown-and.html.
I found it somewhat ironic that I was now on the same side as many of the people whose views I had previously opposed.
Unfortunately staff and City Council listened more to some local businessmen who naïvely believed taller towers would revitalize Chinatown and the zoning was changed. A number of new condominium projects were built.
Fast forward to 2017 when the Beedie Group came forward with a proposal for a 12 storey building on a prominent site. While the outright permitted height was nine storeys, the extra height was being requested in order to include some social housing units, which many staff, politicians and community leaders wanted to see in the project.
However many others in the community, including Carol Lee were opposed to the resulting 12-storey scale of the development and I was approached to join them in opposing the development, which I did by writing the following letter:
Vancouver City Staff and City Council, I am writing this email because I do not support the 105 Keefer St and 544 Columbia St application. I care about the historic area. For many years was a Director of Building Community society which was concerned with future plans for Chinatown and DTES
I am very concerned about the application for many reasons including the following:
- It is taller than every other building in the surrounding area.
- The density proposed in this project is not reflective of Chinatown.
- The design is put simply, inappropriate for its context. While I am aware of city policy to allow taller buildings, this was a mistake. If a larger building must be built, it has to be very, very, very well designed. This isn't.
The following uses of the site are more appropriate:
- My concern is less about the alternative uses, but more about the current design.
The 105 Keefer rezoning application is not suitable for Chinatown. Staff should not recommend City Council to approve it.
Regards, Michael Geller
While I acknowledged that social housing was needed, I thought the extra 3 storeys was too high a price to pay. (pardon the pun!) Nonetheless, I, along with most others, was shocked when City Council rejected the proposal.
Following the refusal, the Beedie Group decided to prepare another submission in accordance with the existing zoning. Again plans were prepared by Merrick Architecture, one of the most respected names in British Columbia. These plans did not include any social housing, but did include street level retail and a community space to be used by various community groups.
Prior to the application going forward, CBC spoke to city staff. Responding to a question from CBC's Justin McElroy, Anita Molaro, the city's assistant director of urban design said the Development Permit Board typically looks at 30 to 50 projects a year that need approval but don't require rezoning.
"They're often more complex projects...that have a lot of public interest in the application," she said.
Molaro added amendments are often made to proposals but full rejections by the board are rare.
"Pretty well all projects that go to the DP Board have had enough input and direction provided by staff to an applicant that they are approvable under the parameters of the zoning and guidelines.
"It's generally refinement at that point."
This proposal went to the DP Board on October 30. I did not attend the meeting; however I heard from media reports that over a hundred protesters objected to the application, mainly over concerns that more condominiums would gentrify Chinatown; that this significant site would be better used for 100% social housing; and the development did not acknowledge the cultural and historical context of the location.
Following the meeting, I was surprised to hear that the Board decision was deferred until a special meeting scheduled for a week later, a highly unusual step.
Prior to the reconvened meeting, Globe and Mail urban affairs columnist Frances Bula contacted me to seek my opinion on the likelihood that the application would be rejected, noting that it had been years since a project was rejected outright.
I told her that based on my six years experience on the DP Board advisory panel, while I had not followed the latest application closely, if city staff, Urban Design Panel, and DP Board advisory panel members were all recommending approval, I did not expect the application to be rejected outright. Instead, I would expect approval with conditions to modify the design, since that was really the only aspect the Board could deal with. The type of housing, and other cultural and historical concerns were beyond the Board's jurisdiction.
In the early afternoon of November 6, I was contacted by CBC radio which was following up on Frances Bula's column. I confessed to the reporter that I personally thought the zoning was wrong, and as a result the building was too big. However since the applicant had been working with the city for years, the design was in conformance with the zoning, and staff were recommending approval, and most of the community's objections related to issues beyond the purview of the DP Board, I expected the application to be approved.
When I arrived at the meeting I reviewed the staff report.
It noted "the application is generally in line with the objectives of the heritage regulations and guidelines; the height and uses are outright allowances; the application meets the intent of the guidelines with respect to achieving new development that is compatible with the historic architecture and urban fabric of the neighbourhood; the applicant has voluntarily offered to provide cultural space in one of the ground floor units for the use of community groups; and in conclusion, the application has generally address the applicable policies, and will contribute high-quality housing, commercial space, and community space to the neighbourhood, within a form of development that is compatible with its context. Staff support the application, subject to the conditions noted."
Sitting with fellow Vancouver Courier colleagues Allen Garr and Mike Howell, I predicted that based on this staff report, and my understanding of the history of this project, it would be approved.
I became more certain of this when City staff were asked to comment on whether a land exchange had been considered, (it had but negotiations failed) and Anita was asked to comment on various questions previously asked by Board members.
I was therefore shocked when the City Engineer of all people recommended that the application be rejected on the grounds that the design wasn't appropriate. He of course said much more, acknowledging the 100s of objections, but as no doubt instructed by the city's lawyers, focused primarily on design matters.
He was followed by the Deputy City Manager who supported the project, noting that most objections, including concerns about condominiums and a desire for 100% social housing, or different types of retail uses, were not matters within the jurisdiction of the Development Permit Board. It was then time to hear from the Director of Planning who seemed extremely uncomfortable joking "Well, I guess the decision is up to me".
In a somewhat rambling soliloquy he said he didn't think the design was good enough for such a significant site and concluded by urging the developer, if they were going to come back with another submission, to better consult with the community. He then proceeded to vote with the City Engineer to reject the application.
Following the decision, media again noted this was the first time in many years that a project had been refused outright. When the Vancouver Sun's John Mackie asked what I thought of the decision, I told him I thought this was a 'political' decision in the broadest meaning of the word, insofar as the decision was impacted by the hundreds of mainly young Chinese protesters who had previously spoken at the Development Permit Board hearing and were sitting in the gallery. I also thought their decision was influenced by other factors including Council's recent decision to issue a formal apology for the historical discrimination of Chinese residents in Vancouver.
Following the decision, many asked if I thought the developer would sue the city. I said it was unlikely since developers who want to do repeat business in the city rarely resort to legal action. Furthermore, because the dissenting Board members couched their opposition primarily in design terms, it would likely be a hard case to win.
Others asked whether I thought the city would seek to acquire the land from the developer with funds from the Property Endowment Fund or through a land swap. While I thought this was an option, the developer would probably only agreed to it if they were more than amply rewarded financially.
Many in the development community were also shocked by the DP Board decision. This was not simply sour grapes. Rather, it was a concern that a developer and extremely capable and respected architect could design a project in accordance with the zoning; work with planning staff for years; receive the approval of numerous city planners, the Urban Design Panel, DP Board Advisory Panel members; only to witness the Chief City Planner ignore his staff recommendation and vote with the City Engineer in rejecting the application.
While the the City Engineer and Chief Planner said they rejected this project because of design considerations, most people I have spoken to believe they were swayed in part by the hundreds of protesters concerned by cultural and historic issues beyond the jurisdiction of the board or other considerations beyond the jurisdiction of the Board. Others questioned whether the City Engineer, in making his initial motion, was perhaps expressing the wishes of some politicians.
Regardless, many now fear this decision will encourage and motivate opponents of other future development projects to believe that if they too can organize well enough, and be loud enough, they too will succeed in convincing the DP Board to reject a project.
While I continue to have reservations about the scale of buildings in Chinatown, and would support revisions to the Local Area Plan to reduce permitted heights and establish limits on FSR (which generally apply everywhere in the city), I object to the idea that this site, or others in Chinatown and DTES should only be with 100% social housing.
This morning, on CBC radio, I listened to the views of Shirley Chan, who I've known and admired for 45 years. She and many others would like Chinatown to be more like the old Chinatown. She too wanted social housing on this site, rather than all condos. I understand her point of view.
However, anyone who has been to Richmond recently knows that this is where you find the new Chinatown.
While I am not Chinese and probably should keep my views to myself, I too believe Vancouver's Chinatown should remain a distinct, heritage character area. However, like Chinatowns in San Francisco, Toronto, and other cities, it must be allowed to regenerate by accommodating a broader mix of people, retail establishments and so on.
Tonight I am attending the Vancouver Chinatown Foundation Gala which is raising funds to help preserve the heritage of the area. It is with some trepidation that I attend since I worry many will feel that I was wrong to appear to side with the Beedie Group in my remarks regarding the Development Permit Board decision.
While I remain convinced the decision was wrong, the current Chinatown local area plan is wrong. The sooner that that a new plan is put in place, the greater the likelihood for a revitalized, distinct Chinatown. As for the future of 105 Keefer, we will all have to wait and see.