In 2014, the developer Beedie Living approached the City of Vancouver with a proposal to construct a new condominium. The site in question, 105 Keefer, overlooks the memorial to Chinese Canadian war veterans, right by the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden. The area is a symbol of the area’s long history and the proposed development threatens to change everything about the area.
It’s not a simple issue of the frantic pace of development that has continued to sweep Chinatown ever since the 2011 Historic Area Heights Review took place. There is speculation that the City has been more concerned with allowing development to proceed than to take the importance of the area into consideration, thus paving the way for more future developments without the need for rezoning applications and downplaying the needs of senior and low-income residents. In addition to chewing away at the distinct character of one of Vancouver’s oldest neighbourhoods, which has been consistently battered throughout most of its history, the gentrification and rising rents in the area will eventually lead to a fundamental change in the character and culture of the area in a city already swallowed up by massive rent.
In this interview with King-Mong Chan, we explore the fundamental questions and issues that lie at the heart of the proposed construction site, as well as the efforts that he and concerned groups have been spearheading to stop the planned construction from taking place. While he started out advocating with the larger community of the Downtown Eastside, his focus is now mostly with the Chinatown Concern Group since it was formed in 2016 since its largely Chinese and Cantonese-speaking working-class community is affected differently by the developments
Q. How long has the 105 Keefer Street issue been going on for, and what progress has been made so far?
A. Since the initial rezoning application in 2014, the project was met with considerable opposition not only from grassroots organizations like the Chinatown Concern Group but also from the Family Clan and Benevolent Associations who felt such a building was not suitable next to the Chinatown Memorial Monument. Together we’ve made progress to force the developer to revise their application twice but their current application is still not good enough. What we want to see at that site is a development that meets the needs of our community, namely housing that is affordable.
Q. What has the Beedie Group’s response been like?
A. They haven’t accepted Concern Group’s request for a development with 100% social housing. Instead they’ve only thrown some crumbs at us: 25 senior housing units (and 119 market rate units) and promising to only lease a 1,000 square feet space for a community group at below market rate for 10 years. That’s not good enough and ultimately not the kind of development we want to see at that site.
Q. And how about the response from the public and the media?
A. Recently, we held a press conference with various other organizations in the neighborhood including the Chinese Canadian Military Museum, Army, Navy and Air Force Veterans in Canada Pacific Unit 280, Chinese Benevolent Association, and the Canadian Alliance of Chinese Associations, as well as support from MP Jenny Kwan. Together, we called on all three levels of government to acquire the site in order to develop it to meet the community’s needs.
Overall, the response from the media and the public has been positive. People especially the residents we’ve been talking with, do see this as an important issue and we hope the government will respect the importance of this site and why a market development is not suitable here.
Q. Can you tell us more about the other organizations involved in the effort?
A. There are different groups in Chinatown working to preserve Chinatown’s physical and social heritage and working to build toward a better Chinatown. The different groups approach the issue in different ways and focus on different issues but I think we can all come together and play a role as long as we center our advocacy work on the working-class community. There have also been several groups bringing the energy of youth that working towards a better future for Chinatown: Chinatown Action Group, Youth Collaborative for Chinatown, and Youth for Chinese Seniors.
Q. Chinatown has had a difficult past few years as businesses closed and left. In your opinion, how much worse are things right now versus, for example, five years ago?
A. Since the 2011 Historic Area Height Review that upzoned Chinatown, we’ve seen a flood of market housing into Chinatown as well as a significant change in the retail. As Chinatown is being bought up by developers and redeveloped, as land values and rents continue to rise in the neighbourhood because of the intense market development, Chinatown is rapidly shifting away from a place serving the Chinese working-class community to a place serving higher-income and generally white people moving into the neighbourhood. The proposed development policy review will make things even worse, suggesting that the City is intent on gentrifying Chinatown despite the concerns our members have brought up.
Q. Do you have a message for the public?
A. Chinatown is definitely at a tipping point where gentrification is threatening to engulf not only Chinatown but the entire Downtown Eastside neighbourhood. I want to encourage everyone who has a connection to Chinatown, who cares about its future, and who cares about the working-class community here to join this struggle and fight with them. We must stand now to protect Chinatown and to build a brighter future where the working-class community is thriving, one that honours this important neighbourhood of struggle and resistance.
Photograph of Chinatown map obtained from the City of Vancouver Archives, Reference Code AM1594-: MAP 653.01.