Squamish Nation's Kitsilano housing proposal sees "overwhelmingly positive" response

Nov 12 2019, 1:31 pm

An exceedingly few number of major development projects in Metro Vancouver have seen such a positive public reaction as Squamish First Nation’s proposal to develop their Kitsilano reserve.

The First Nation announced its $3-billion Senakw proposal to its 3,000 members and the public a week ago, and the feedback so far has been astoundingly positive.

Many have expressed that the development is well-sized for its central prime waterfront location next to downtown, a game-changing development that could set a precedent for a new direction in city building, and that this is the volume of housing supply needed to create a dent in housing affordability, especially with the City of Vancouver falling far short of its housing goals.

Without having to follow the municipal government’s strict zoning regulations and drawn-out application process, the development maximizes on the potential of the irregularly shaped 12-acre property at the south end of the Burrard Street Bridge, while also providing ample park space and community amenities.

There could be as many as 11 towers containing about 6,000 homes, with the vast majority of these units as market rental units. According to Squamish First Nation Councillor Khelsilem, the tallest of the towers will have a height of 56 storeys — a height that he says will be more comparable to the newly completed Vancouver House tower than the city’s tallest buildings, Living Shangri-La and Trump International Hotel & Tower Vancouver.

“The reaction from the public has actually been overwhelmingly positive considering we’re proposing a major city neighbourhood with a significant amount of density. This is unique compared to a lot of projects that get proposed,” Khelsilem told Daily Hive in a follow-up interview on Friday.

Senakw Squamish First Nation Vancouver Kitsilano

Site plan of the Senakw redevelopment at the south end of the Burrard Bridge in Vancouver. (Revery Architecture / Westbank / Squamish Nation)

But he also wanted to temper some of the expectations that he has seen over the idea that the First Nation will provide below-market rental homes to the general public.

Their first and foremost priority is to provide long-term economic security and prosperity to the First Nation from the long-term revenue generated from the project, along with the potential for hundreds of units of subsidized rental homes for their own members.

He says the precise unit mix has not been decided on, but the market condominium portion of the project could account for between 10% and 30% — 600 to 1,800 units — of the total number of the units.

The remaining units will mostly be rental homes — a substantial quantity that could potentially fulfill as much as a quarter of the City of Vancouver’s 10-year housing strategy of catalyzing 20,000 purpose-built market rental homes between 2018 and 2027.

This is the right type of housing needed for middle-class working professionals, especially with the city’s booming tech industry.

“There is sometimes an unreasonable expectation that the Squamish First Nation is going to provide affordable housing for everybody, as well as what I think people have their own definitions of what affordable means,” explained Khelsilem.

“It is very subjective to a lot of circumstances when you compare a market rental unit, which some people would consider very unaffordable. It is much more affordable to some people compared to buying a detached house in Vancouver. There is a spectrum of affordability, depending on your own income status and access to wealth. I think people might want to be conscious that we are planning this as a market rental project.”

Senakw Squamish First Nation Vancouver Kitsilano

Artistic rendering of the Senakw redevelopment at the south end of the Burrard Bridge in Vancouver. (Revery Architecture / Westbank / Squamish Nation)

All of this hinges on members approving the First Nation’s 50-50 partnership with local developer Westbank to fulfill the project, which could begin construction in early 2021 for a full completion within just five years. The critical vote is scheduled for December 10, 2019.

He says the First Nation received significant interest from the development community about five years ago, which led to a request for proposals “to engage the development community to find what the market actually says about the value of our land and who is willing to do what on our terms.”

Their bidding process culminated with the selection of Westbank’s proposal of providing the best value.

The First Nation reclaimed this parcel of their traditional lands in 2003 when the BC Court of Appeal ruled that Canadian Pacific Railway should return the property.

There was an attempt to move quickly with extrapolating the value of the property between 2006 and 2009, when the First Nation had eyed on a far more smaller redevelopment on the site — a pair of 35-storey and 28-storey condominium towers, along with a handful of mid-rise office buildings providing workspace for thousands of people.

It would also be supported by about 2,000 vehicle parking stalls, while the latest 2019 proposal only envisions providing about 10% of the 6,000 homes with parking — possibly as little as 600 vehicle parking stalls with significantly more density.

squamish first nation kitsilano 2009

Artistic rendering of the cancelled design for the development of Squamish First Nation’s Kitsilano reserve. From the late 2000s. (Kitsilano.ca)

squamish first nation kitsilano 2009

Site plan of the cancelled design for the development of Squamish First Nation’s Kitsilano reserve. From the late 2000s. (Kitsilano.ca)

Although it was not necessary, this original project also had the support of the City of Vancouver, which signed a memorandum of understanding and protocol agreement with the First Nation. But progress on redeveloping this reserve came to a stall as a result of the 2008 financial crisis.

Aside from Senakw, the Squamish First Nation has two other major real estate plays that are amongst the largest redevelopments set for the city over the coming years.

In partnership with two other local First Nations, the Musqueam and the Tsleil-Waututh, and federal crown corporation Canada Lands Company, they are also behind the future redevelopments of the 21-acre former RCMP headquarters on the Heather Lands in the Cambie Corridor and the 90-acre Jericho Lands — the former Jericho Garrison and West Point Grey Academy site — in West Point Grey.

But these projects are not reserve lands, as they were acquired earlier in the decade by the consortium, with the Jericho Lands acquired from the federal and provincial governments in two separate deals totalling $717 million. Both projects are following the municipal government’s lengthy standard application processes.

Vancouver Heather Lands

Site plan for Vancouver’s Heather Lands. (Canada Lands Company)

In 2018, after a multi-phase public-engagement process, city council approved the Heather Lands’ redevelopment policy statement, which will guide the project’s future rezoning applications.

The policy statement outlines a plan for 2,300 new homes in a variety of building forms, including tower heights of up to 24 storeys, with 20% of the units set aside as social housing and another 20% as affordable market housing. There are also a number of community amenity contributions and public amenities.

Jericho Lands Vancouver

Site of the Jericho Lands in the Vancouver Westside. (City of Vancouver)

As for the Jericho Lands, city staff and the consortium informally began discussions on redevelopment property shortly after the properties were purchased.

Formal planning began in July 2018, when city council approved the planning program to develop a policy statement to guide the Jericho Lands’ future rezoning — the same process underwent for the Heather Lands project.

The first public consultation on the policy statement was held in March 2019, with planning work now in the second phase of developing draft-guiding principles and site plan concepts. Each of the four planning phases for the policy statement are paired with public consultation. A draft Jericho Lands policy statement for city council’s decision is not expected until 2021, the same year the Squamish First Nation are aiming to start construction on Senakw.

The Squamish First Nation have dozens of reserves, with most of these lands located in rural locations.

But one of their other major reserves located on prime waterfront property is their Capilano Indian Reserve No. 5 on the north end of the Lions Gate Bridge. This 384-acre property spans an area west of the bridge that includes Park Royal shopping centre and a portion of Ambleside Park, and an area east of the bridge that has hundreds of single-family homes but can be considered largely undeveloped.

Capilano Indian Reserve No. 5

Squamish First Nation’s Capilano Indian Reserve No. 5 on the north end of the Lions Gate Bridge. (Google Maps)

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