Could the University Endowment Lands become a part of Vancouver?

May 8 2023, 10:35 pm

With a growing population and changing municipal service needs, the Government of British Columbia is pondering the governance future of the University Endowment Lands (UEL) at the westernmost of the Burrard Peninsula — wedged between the separate jurisdictions of the City of Vancouver and the University of British Columbia (UBC).

A newly released report by the provincial government ponders the tradeoffs of four options for the future of the UEL, but it comes short of making a recommendation.

The UEL spans 12 sq km (2,965 acres) — equivalent to three times the size of Stanley Park and comparable to the 15.6 sq km that make up the City of New Westminster. Pacific Spirit Regional Park’s forested area of 7.7 sq km (2,160 sq km) accounts for 73% of the UEL’s total land area. The University Golf Course is also included in this land area calculation, making up about 0.5 sq km (120 acres) or 4% of the UEL.

About 3,200 people in about 1,500 households live within the UEL, which has been uniquely managed by the provincial government for nearly a century. Property taxes are paid to the provincial government, and residents are only able to vote for the Vancouver School Board trustees in the City of Vancouver’s municipal elections.

By 2050, the UEL’s population is expected to more than double to 7,300 people, which will “likely exacerbate issues the community is currently facing through increased demands for improved levels of service delivery, robust plans and policies, and good decision-making processes.” There is also a clear lack of elected representation and governance.

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Map highlighting the University Endowment Lands (Government of BC)

The provincial government suggests the options of maintaining the status quo of provincial governance or transitioning to the jurisdiction of Metro Vancouver Regional District could lead to local service improvements, but they would not provide local representation. The status quo would also be “inequitable” as it provides the UEL with privileges not given to other communities and maintains an “inappropriate level of involvement of the province in local matters.”

A different model of falling under the regional district’s jurisdiction comes with other challenges, as the regional government would need to ramp up its administration and staffing to provide specific local services akin to a municipal government. It is noted the regional district would be more suitable for overseeing rural areas, not complex, growing urban areas like the UEL.

This then leads to two other municipal options where the UEL joins the City of Vancouver or becomes its own municipality. Both options provide locally elected representation.

In the scenario where it joins the City of Vancouver, it would grow the municipality’s population by 0.5% and increase its land area by 8% to 127 sq km.

The provincial government states there is economies of scale from the UEL joining Vancouver in terms of absorbing new costs for infrastructure and using the existing administrative systems, and some existing services are already provided by Vancouver, such as Vancouver Fire Rescue Services. It is assumed that the UEL would switch its police services from the University RCMP to the Vancouver Police Department, with University RCMP likely retained and downsized to serve the needs of the UBC campus only.

As of 2021, the UEL and Vancouver had similar total property tax rates, with the UEL at $2.79 per $1,000 of assessed value and Vancouver at $2.92 per $1,000 of assessed value. This includes the property taxes for the provincial school tax, TransLink, BC Assessment, Municipal Finance Authority, and the regional district. The total net worth of all of the properties within the UEL is about $4 billion.

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Aerial of UBC and the University Endowment Lands (UEL) (Google Maps)

The other municipal option would be to have the UEL become its own small municipal government, providing Metro Vancouver with its 22nd municipality. In terms of population, the UEL would be the fourth smallest municipality in the region — ahead of Belcarra, Lions Bay, and Anmore.

But there are some clear challenges with becoming a small municipality, such as increased costs for creating an entirely new administration, governance structure, policies, and regulations, and the small taxable land area to cover costs. For this reason, according to the study, joining Vancouver is generally an easier transition than creating a new municipality.

This is not the first time UEL residents have been asked to seriously consider this possibility. A referendum was held in 1995 on whether the UEL should become its own municipality, but it was rejected with 599 of 917 (65%) ballots cast against incorporation, based on a 33% voter turnout.

In all scenarios, UBC would continue to be self-governed, as this model is “working relatively well,” and they are improving their services and are working closely with the University Neighbourhoods Association. With the expectation of the future SkyTrain extension, UBC is planning to densify its campus significantly, adding up to 24,000 more residents — student housing, rentals, and strata housing — and growing academic spaces by 20% through 2050.

To date, the largest development within the UEL is Musqueam First Nation’s 21-acre Lelem development, where buildings up to 18 storeys contain about 1,200 homes and a small retail village, which is anchored by the newly opened Urban Fare grocery store. Over the long term, it is expected the Musqueam will also develop University Golf Course, which has a covenant that maintains the property must remain for golf course uses through 2083.

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Lelem residential buildings on University Boulevard within the University Endowment Lands (Google Maps)

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