Vancouver neighbourhoods are under siege by densification. If done correctly, a host neighbourhood will survive and prosper. If done without a comprehensive understanding of the area, a host neighbourhood will no longer be recognizable physically, demographically or economically. Its resident culture and amenities will be depleted and altered beyond repair. What is happening in Chinatown is an example of one-dimensional application of density that does not consider the socio-economic, cultural, and amenity characteristics of this unique neighbourhood.
It all starts with discretionary zoning, which is Vancouver’s unique permit processing system in neighbourhoods, such the HA-1A area of Chinatown South. In simplified terms: the City of Vancouver can reward projects with development incentives and bonuses, such as additional height and density, if the project demonstrates that it has earned or merits them. This feature of zoning was initially created to promote development excellence and innovation. Contrary to public misconception, although a property owner has a right to develop on their land, in discretionary zoning, it is not their right to obtain development bonuses outright. In Vancouver, such bonuses must be earned.
Densification alone is a crude and inadequate planning tool in every established neighbourhood, and especially within the complex socio-economic, cultural and heritage objectives of Chinatown. Discretionary zoning is designed so that the context, character and land use help shape and inform a development, not policy-approved height and density filled up through a pro-forma exercise or via a housing agreement with another government agency.