Between the front of the Chinatown property and sidewalk on Gore Street, there is a 3,000-square-foot city-owned area comprising of large rocks, a bumpy patch of grass and four tall trees.

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Four trees could stand in the way of a proposal to expand plans and add space to house an additional 20 to 40 low-income seniors in Chinatown.

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The Chau Luen Society has owned and operated an 80-unit building for Chinese seniors on Keefer Street at Gore, just east of the business streets in Chinatown, since 1973. The building is about 51 years old, has reportedly had “significant” maintenance issues , and requires extensive upgrades or a rebuild.

The society has been corresponding with the mayor and city staff over a proposal to develop a second building on the site, which the society said would then house the current tenants of the older building while it undergoes renovations or considers other options.

The idea was originally for a six- or seven-storey building with 60 units. But between the front of Chau Luen’s property and the sidewalk on Gore Street, there is an approximately 3,000-sq.-ft. area that is owned by the city. There are no picnic tables or even benches, just some large rocks in a bumpy patch of grass, and four tall trees.

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If the city were to sell some of that space to Chau Luen, it could plan for a taller, eight- or 10-storey building and possibly get 80 to 100 units.

In a recent email to the society, however, staff said this wouldn’t be possible because the location is “within an equity initiative zone that seeks to protect and retain existing tree canopy.”

These zones are needed to reveal “the inherent privilege in access and enjoyment of parks and recreation held by some populations, and opens up opportunities to support and welcome populations without this privilege,” according to the policy.

Chau Luen was told that city staff “do not support removing the existing city trees located along the street boulevard” and that it would actually have to set any new building further back and reduce the proposal for 60 units to a smaller number in order to protect “the root system (of the trees) that is in place,” said Michael Tan, a director of the society.

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The society’s architect is currently redoing the plan, said Jim O’Dea, principal of Terra Housing and a long-time social housing consultant. It might be possible to get 60 units by moving the new building further back and closer to the society’s existing building, but this could lead to higher costs and possibly jeopardize funding.

O’Dea said Chau Luen’s request to the city was to access maybe four or five feet deep onto the city’s land, which is about 30 feet wide.

The city’s ownership of that “right-of-way” strip on Gore Street dates back to the 1960s when there were plans for a freeway through Chinatown. But city council reacted to heated protests from the community and scrapped the freeway, and the city bought up those plots of land on Gore because one of the roads coming off the planned freeway would have fed onto it.

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Chau Luen’s original three-storey building, which included housing for Chinese bachelors, used to be at 800 Main St., but this was expropriated by the city for about $100,000 in 1966. Even though the freeway never materialized, the society was displaced when the viaducts were built.

“Historically, a lot of low-income seniors have benefited from the community doing a great job of providing housing,” said Vancouver City Coun. Sarah Kirby-Yung, citing the importance of culturally sensitive care for Chinese seniors so they can age in place.

“Isn’t there another way to mitigate tree loss versus losing needed housing units that are some of the most important to have in the city?”

“City staff have responded to public questions on the right-of-way,” a city spokesperson told Postmedia on Monday, “(and we have) noted the importance of retaining the trees at the location to provide much-needed tree canopy and green space for this neighbourhood, which is deficient in both.”

Kirby-Yung said the city introduced a process last year that allows projects to come before city council for consideration even when they don’t comply with bylaws and policies.

City Coun. Pete Fry said he knew the location of the Chau Luen building and “would find it curious that tree maintenance would be the deal breaker. We allow developers to chop down trees for far less. I was recently advocating for a 100-plus year Douglas Fir that was taken out for a laneway house.”

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