Development Permit Board turns down an application for first time

Summary

On November 6, 2017, the Development Permit Board refused a development application for a 9-storey mixed-use building at 105 Keefer Street with ground-level retail and eight levels of dwelling uses above, containing 111 dwelling units. The application was the fifth attempt by the Beedie Development Group to seek approval for development on this former gasoline station site near the Chinese Veterans’ and Workers’ Monument and Memorial Plaza, and across the street from the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden and the Chinese Cultural Centre.

Neighbourhood opposition had been substantial and persistent since the first design was proposed. The refusal was unprecedented, as development applications undergo an intensive review process during which concerns are addressed and typically give rise to conditions being attached to the approval.


Development Permit Board REFUSES development application at 105 Keefer Street in Chinatown

Description

On November 6, 2017, the Development Permit Board refused a development application for a 9-storey mixed-use building at 105 Keefer Street with ground-level retail and 8 levels of dwelling uses above containing 111 dwelling units. The application was the fifth attempt by the Beedie Development Group since 2014 to seek approval for development on this site near the Chinese Veterans’ and Workers’ Monument and Memorial Plaza and across the street from the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden and the Chinese Cultural Centre.

Significance

This decision of the Development Permit Board appears to have two-fold significance. In the first instance, the overwhelming Chinatown neighbourhood opposition to market housing development on this prominent 18,278 sq. ft. former gasoline station site at the northwest corner of Columbia and Keefer Streets succeeded after three years of sustained pleading for respect of the community’s long-established history and cultural identity.

The many opponents of the Beedie Group proposals have argued that they were too large and out of character for the neighbourhood and the cultural and historical context of the location. They also expressed concern that the most recent proposal did not incorporate social housing and would add to and speed up gentrification in the area. Some argued the site should be 100% for social housing. Could it be that the DPB’s decision signals something transformative similar to the 5 years of debates and protests which succeeded in 1972 in halting the plans announced in 1967 for a freeway through Strathcona and Chinatown?

Secondly, the decision of the DPB to refuse an application is unprecedented since the establishment of the Development Permit Board in 1974. The process for DPB decision-making typically includes extensive staff analyses, open houses and other public consultations, Urban Design Panel review, review by heritage, historic and/or other civic advisory committees as may be appropriate, and advice from the Development Permit Board Advisory Panel at DPB meeting. Occasionally staff will report an application to City Council for advice and direction.

A development permit staff committee ultimately prepares a recommendation for the DPB, to approve the application subject to a number of conditions, some of them to be met through revisions of plans ‘prior-to’ development permit issuance. Occasionally, some conditions might be tweaked or additional conditions added in DPB meeting. This development approval process for major developments means that applications never go to the Board unless they are likely to be approved. Does the failure of an application to obtain DPB approval open the door to something new, such as consideration of social and cultural factors, or is an existing but unused tool in the city planner’s toolkit being utilized for the first time and displaying a role which could prove transformative in future?

Background

Established in the 1880’s, Chinatown is one of the two formative communities of Vancouver. It has an evolving and enduring cultural identity, with many active community organizations, a distinctive urban and cultural landscape, and a unique vernacular architecture. Zoning regulations, guidelines and policies for Chinatown generally seek the scale, architectural language and design quality of new development to be responsive to and compatible with the community’s established cultural and historic identity. Recent projects and proposals have failed to provide the neighbourliness and respect, the ‘contextualism’, which the community expected after several years of consultations.

Amendments to the HA-1A schedule allowing increased building heights in the Chinatown Historic Area were approved by Council in October 2012, following an extensive ten-year process of consultations with local Chinatown stakeholders and residents and the adoption of several policy documents:

  • Historic Area Height Review (pdf) In January 2010, Council adopted most of the recommendations of the Historic Area Height Review (HAHR), a key objective of which is to bring new residential development opportunities to revitalize Chinatown. The recommendations included the adoption of a rezoning policy (see below), amendments to the HA-1 and HA-1A Districts Schedule, and amendments to the Chinatown HA-1 Design Guidelines and the Chinatown South HA-1A Design Guidelines. The zoning amendments increased allowable building height in the HA-1A district from 21.3 m (70 feet) to 27.4 m (90 feet) and the rezoning policy allowed consideration of still greater buildings heights in Chinatown South, a small part of the HA-1A district.
  • Rezoning Policy for HA-1A District Chinatown South (pdf) On April 19, 2011 Council approved a rezoning policy to provide guidance for staff and developers for proposals to increase height beyond provisions of the base zoning: to 36.6 m (120 feet) throughout the HA-1A area and further to 45.7 m (150 feet) on sites between Keefer and Union Streets fronting on Main Street. The objective is to direct growth to Chinatown South, which has fewer heritage buildings than Pender Street, and to leverage public benefits from new development, including innovative heritage, cultural and affordable and social housing projects.
  • Chinatown Neighbourhood Plan and Economic Revitalization Strategy Adopted in June 2012, in recognition that residential intensification alone cannot bring back a vibrant Chinatown, the Plan and Strategy direct City staff to work with groups in the area to comprehensively address community aspirations. The Plan and Strategy were the result of over a decade of community work and lessons learned to encourage investment in the community and to improve conditions for those who live, work and visit the area.

Three rezoning applications in Chinatown South have been submitted on the basis of the 2011 rezoning policy. Two rezonings, at 611 and 633 Main Street, in early 2013 were highly controversial but were approved by the City in spite of considerable opposition. Perhaps because of the experience to date, the third application, submitted by Merrick Architecture in 2014 on behalf of the Beedie Group encountered stiff opposition both initially and in its subsequent 3 revisions. The fourth proposal to rezone the site from HA-1A to a CD-1, to permit development of a 12-storey mixed-use building (with height of 36.0 m (118 ft.)) commercial uses on the ground floor, 25 social housing units for seniors on the second floor and 106 strata residential units on the higher levels, was referred to Public Hearing 3 years after first being submitted. At the end of the hearing, which stretched over several days (May 23, 25, 26 and 29, 2017) in order to hear an unprecedented number of speakers mostly against the application, Council voted to defer discussion and decision to its meeting of June 13, 2017, where the application failed to obtain Council support, by a margin of 3-8.

In July a development application (DP-2017-00681) was submitted proposing a 9-storey development. The proposed height of 27.1 m (88.86 feet) was below the maximum allowable of 27.4 m (90ft.) and the proposed uses (Retail Store and Dwelling Uses) are Outright Approval Uses in HA-1A. [To note, the HA-1 and HA-1A, and the HA-2 (Gastown), zoning regulations do not have a maximum floor area or floor space ratio as other zoning district schedules in the city do.]

The only discretionary element in play was External Design, as provided in section 4.17 of the HA-1 and HA-1A Districts Schedule (Chinatown Historic Area):

4.17 External Design

All new buildings and alterations or additions to existing buildings require the approval of the Development Permit Board or the Director of Planning for the design of buildings or alterations to elevations facing streets, lanes, and adjacent buildings. The Development Permit Board or the Director of Planning may approve the design of such buildings, alterations or additions provided that he first considers the following:

(a) the intent of this Schedule and all applicable policies and guidelines adopted by Council; and
(b) the submission of any advisory group, property owner or tenant; …

The application did not seek an increase above the height limit or any land use not permitted outright in the zoning. Not only did the proposed development conform with the zoning regulations, it went beyond with a proposal to provide a neighbourhood amenity in the form of meeting space for Chinatown seniors. The project received the unanimous support of the Urban Design Panel on August 9, 2017 but was not supported by the Chinatown Historic Planning Committee on Oct 12, 2017. When staff analysis of the application was completed, it earned the support of the Development Permit Staff Committee with a recommendation that it be approved subject to various conditions.

At the DPB meeting of October 30, 2017 to consider the DPSC report on the application, it took more than eight hours to hear the staff presentation, advisory panel comments and almost 100 members of the public. In a rare move, the Board then approved a motion to close the speakers list and defer discussion and decision of the application to a meeting on November 6, 2017.  The Board also asked staff to come back to that meeting with information such as whether cultural aspects should be considered.

Gil Kelley, Vancouver’s Chief Planner and General Manager of Planning, Urban Design and Sustainability, after the meeting is quoted to have said “There were many questions that came up during the public testimony about our ability to interpret things more broadly with a cultural context and cultural fit for a project, beyond the physical guidelines,” he said. “The question I’d like staff to answer is: How narrow or how broad is our discretion as a board under our city rules?” he said. “Should this matter be referred to city council?”

At the DPB meeting of November 6, Planning staff informed the Board to the effect that height was not conditional, not something for which there was DPB discretion, not something they could reduce. (To note: Unlike other zoning district schedules, the HA-1 and HA-1A schedules do not have regulations regarding density or floor space ratio.) Deputy City Manager Paul Mochrie supported the application to build the proposed nine-storey building. He noted that several members of the Chinatown community supported the condo project, and he said he doesn’t believe that Chinatown’s future hinges on just one building. Jerry Dobrovolny, the City Engineer and General Manager of Engineering Services, moved to reject the application on the grounds that its design did not fit the cultural context of the site. He indicated that the building would have to be much smaller and would require a lot of changes to provide an appropriate backdrop to Memorial Square.

This left Chief Planner and Chair of the DPB, Gil Kelley, to make the decision. “I guess it all comes down to me,” he chuckled. {It can be noted here that if the votes of the 2 Board members present at such meeting are equally for and against a staff recommendation, the Chair shall have the right to exercise the casting vote.]  Kelley voted with Dobrovolny, saying the current design does not fit the cultural significance of the site. “Because this is such an important site, with such design significance to Chinatown, and because I feel that the application has not met the design test in my view, I’m going to support the motion to refuse the application,” said Kelley. He noted that the Board does not have the power to determine what kind of housing or retail would be allowed in the building. Many opponents of the application wanted it be all social housing and with retail chains excluded from the ground-floor commercial space.

In its 1-2 vote, the Board effectively decided that the application did not meet the guidelines for external design and so could not be approved. It was subsequently reported that this was the first time since 2006 that the DPB has rejected an application. Further investigation by this author, in consultation with City staff, confirmed that the 2006 application in question had not been refused but sent back to the drawing board for revisions. It was reconsidered by the DPB at a later date with same development applkication number.

Subsequently, a representative of the Beedie Group is said to have stated in an emailed statement that the company was “extremely disappointed” that the permit board “undermined” support for the project from the City’s planning staff and Urban Design Panel. Further, “Like many people, we are uncertain what this unprecedented decision will mean for these civic institutions.”

Anne McMullin, Urban Development Institute president and CEO, is said to have made a statement that “This project denial sends a negative chill throughout the industry. Our members … are concerned this decision undermines the integrity and reliability of the city’s rigorous planning regime, and puts into question future projects, not only in Chinatown, but across the city.”

Gil Kelley is quoted to have said it doesn’t. “I would not make this into a precedent in the sense that somehow the zoning only goes so far and all development is up in the air again,” said Kelley. “That I don’t think is the case. It was certainly not an anti-housing vote or an anti-development vote. It was really a question that was very site-specific about the design.”

Part of the context for the Development Permit Board meeting of October 30 and then the follow-up on November 6, and perhaps having some influence on the comments of the public made at DPB meeting and indirect influence on the deliberations of the DPB, was a concurrent decision by City Council regarding the historic discrimination against Chinese people in Vancouver. In Committee on October 31, and approved at Regular Council the following day, City Council received “Preliminary Research on Historical Discrimination Against Chinese People in Vancouver”, a report on historic discrimination against Chinese immigrants by former municipal governments.

Council the approved a recommendation of the Historical Discrimination Against Chinese People (HDC) Advisory Group that requests a public acknowledgement and a formal apology for past legislation, regulations and policies of previous Vancouver City Councils that discriminated against residents of Chinese descent. Council further approved that the apology in its Chinese version be delivered in a dialect that was spoken by early Chinese residents (‘Toishanese’). Other measures included redesigning Memorial Square and applying for Chinatown to be a UNESCO heritage site.

Sources

Media and Other Commentary


Prepared by: Phil Mondor, Vancouver City Planning Commission Chronology Committee
Revised: Thursday, November 30, 2017