“I was wrong.” That uncommon confession slipped from the lips of Vancouver developer and Courier columnist Michael Geller. At that exact moment, he and I were sitting cheek by jowl at last week’s development permit board hearing on Beedie Development’s fifth revision in the past four years of a proposal for 105 Keefer St. in Chinatown.
Moments after the city’s real estate guy Bill Aujla explained that, after months of negotiations, Beedie was unwilling to either sell or swap this piece of property, Geller picked up his phone and sent out a tweet: “This will pass.” Although, he added, there may be some minor modifications.
It seemed a pretty sure bet. After all, no application to the development permit board had been rejected since 2006 and that included more than 200 projects. And didn’t that morning’s Globe and Mail give us chapter and verse about how a rejection would be “unprecedented”?
Besides, we were heading into an election year and this is a city where politicians, with only the rarest of exceptions, are known to drop to their knees for any developer with a chequebook willing to support their campaign.
Of course, thanks to the new NDP government in Victoria, significant corporate (and union) donations will no longer be allowed in the next municipal battle. But more to the point, the boys making the decision that would ultimately lead to hoots and cheers from the Chinatown crowd and give the Urban Development Institute a severe case of the vapors, well, they were all white boys and members of the city’s senior staff.
And so it came to pass that while deputy city manager Paul Mochrie would give the developer a pass, two of the heaviest dudes on the city’s senior management team, the city’s chief engineer Jerry Dobrovolny and the head of planning, Gil Kelley, turned it down.
It was pretty clear why. The property is an exceptional site; it is the gateway to Chinatown, across from the Sun Yat-Sen Gardens, and it would be the backdrop to the memorial honouring Chinese workers who helped build this country and those who went off to fight for Canada in our wars.
Any building filling that space would have to be culturally appropriate. Yet, what we were being offered was another tower of expensive condos perched on a platform filled with what would likely be chi-chi shops.
Did it technically fit the zoning? Yup. And was that zoning approved not so long ago by the majority of the community? Yup, to that, too.
But on seeing the first products of that zoning plan in the form of a couple of condo towers a short distance away on Main Street, the community freaked out. Even Geller agreed those kinds of towers were inappropriate for Chinatown.
So city staff was assigned the task of rejigging the community plan; and that was going on when Beedie Development turned up with its latest rendition for 105 Keefer.
One more thing. Chinatown and neighbouring Strathcona have been much plagued by the city’s development fantasies. That was certainly the case when, in the 1950s and ’60s, council was determined to build a freeway through the east side and demolish housing willy-nilly as part of the preparation while putting in new viaducts on Georgia and Dunsmuir, which would act as the opening chapter.
In a great moment of Vancouver history, the local residents led a building wave of resistance.
Shirley Chan, who was at last week’s hearing and was opposed to Beedie’s proposal, was a young girl back in the day acting as a translator for her activist mom who was knocking on doors warning residents of the impending destruction.
While the damage was stopped, many of Chan’s generation chose to move away from their parents and Chinatown while the area slipped into economic doldrums.
But most recently, and you could see it in the crowd at the hearing, the next generation of Canadian kids of Chinese origin have reignited the battle. They are working with seniors who never left, to save and restore the neighbourhood.
They were “over the moon” at the permit board’s decision.
That was no comfort to the Urban Development Institute’s Anne McMullin who fumed to one reporter: “I mean, what message does this send to anybody trying to do business in the City of Vancouver?”
I think it is pretty clear. Times have changed.