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Budget angst hitting cities across the land as taxes go up to pay for things other governments skipping

December 5th, 2019 · No Comments

Budget and property-tax-increase time is never a fun period in the year.

But it’s feeling especially fraught this year, as there are big debates and objections and announcements about big new hikes in various cities. It seems to me that it’s all a product of the secret burden cities have been carrying for years, where they are being left to absorb the financial cost of many social issues that the provinces and federal government used to be responsible for. Housing, especially, but all kinds of other issues, including mental health, drug addiction, immigrations, transit support and more.

Vancouverites are setting their hair on fire over a proposed 9.3-per-cent increase, which would come on top of 4.5 per cent last year. My story here and various takes here, here, and here. (The CBC story says it’s the biggest in a decade but City Hall Granny here, aka me, has been covering budgets for 25 years and I don’t recall one that high in all that time.)

You’ll notice that in the last of these, a former city employee, is about how the tax hikes are related to how much the city is now spending to try to create affordable housing. Yes, people, been saying this for years, that, as much as many support the construction of new affordable housing, it is putting a huge load on cities, which have nothing but property taxes to pay for it.

Opinionators everywhere are weighing in on whether Vancouver property taxes are higher than other cities, lower than other cities, or what.

Toronto is about to go through the same, as conservative-leaning Mayor John Tory, after resisting the idea for years, has now come out proposing big tax increases to pay for more housing and transit.

Calgary is having its own struggles over property-tax increases after giving a big chunk of money for a stadium and now having to deal with the predictable backlash as taxes rise for basic services.

And, in Surrey, it’s kind of a reverse problem, where longtime zero-tax-increase advocate Mayor Doug McCallum and his remaining band of supporting councillors have passed a very tight budget, with only a 2.9-per-cent increase, which means no new police or firefighters and a restricted menu of community-service improvements. That is producing its own community backlash.

 

 

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Plan by Squamish Nation for unique, super-dense development on False Creek sets off wave of praise

November 12th, 2019 · No Comments

So, we kicked off last week with the story that the Squamish Nation has updated its plans for the land it owns around the south end of the Burrard Bridge, with a project that would have 6,000 units in 11 towers, one of them 56 storeys.

My story in the Globe and the follow-up story are here and here. Text below.

There’s been a huge wave of interest and response to the story, with calls coming in to Squamish Nation councillor Khelsilem from across Canada and even Britain.

For some people exasperated with city rules, the plan is being welcomed almost vengefully, like a giant middle finger to the city’s planning department.

Others are simply fascinated by the architectural design, which has echoes of First Nations themes, and the unusual approach.

I should note that not everyone is thrilled, like Vancouver Councillor Colleen Hardwick. Apparently there are also a lot of exchanges on various Facebook pages that express a lot less enthusiasm for the project than what is being heard more publicly.

As I noted in a series of tweets later in the week, there are many questions still to be answered. But it’s going to be a fascinating ride.

BTW, for the many of you asking, the other big pieces of Vancouver land under First Nations control will not have the same freedom as this piece of Squamish land. I triple-checked with the city on this and they said:

Hi Frances, here’s the info on this.

The three projects you had asked about (Jericho lands, Heather lands, Liquor Distribution branch site at Broadway/Renfrew) which are being led by MST Development Corporation (“MST DC”) on behalf of the MST partnership, are owned by corporations and are not on federal or reserve lands.  As such, the development of those lands will be subject to all municipal laws and by-laws in respect of use and development of land.  For developments of this scale, the normal process would be a high level policy statement, rezoning and then the development permit and building permit process.  There will be extensive public engagement in this process and public hearings in front of Vancouver City Council for the rezonings.  This is unlike the proposed Senakw project which is on Squamish Nation reserve land and as such Squamish Nation’s land use planning jurisdiction applies and not the City of Vancouver’s.

 

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Cities say they’re making big changes by allowing duplexes, triplexes in former single-detached-only homes. But how is that working out?

November 5th, 2019 · No Comments

Cities like Minneapolis and Portland are getting huge coverage in the U.S. for saying that they are ending the restriction of single-detached-only homes in large areas of their cities. Vancouver is part of that movement in Canada.

But, as I discovered when I went to do a follow-up story on how this is all working out, the duplex “revolution” is still very constrained by the fact that planners and politicians don’t want too much change to be visible to existing neighbours. So these new forms of housing are being restricted in size, which means the units are significantly smaller than what most people say is needed for real family-sized housing.

My story from the Globe is here and in text below.

As I mentioned also in my tweets, one of my small side discoveries in doing this story was how accessible land records were for Minneapolis.

While I was there a couple of weeks ago, I asked for an example of a triplex that’s been built. I was pointed to 3450 Grand (although it’s technically not legal yet, since the council there is only just finalizing all the motions/bylaws needed to change the zoning.)

While I was walking down the street to get pictures, I noticed that there was actually a small apartment building just two doors down.

Here are a couple of pictures, one of the triplex under construction, one of the apartment down the street, courtesy of Google.

 

It took me about three minutes to get all kinds of details on both of them, so I could include sizes in my story. If only we had that here in B.C., where it costs $10 per search if you are looking electronically. (Yes, it is free if you go down to a B.C. Assessment Authority office and look on one of their three computers, as long as you are retired and have all the time in the world.)

Here are some shots of what I found for the Minneapolis properties, the triplex and the apartment building down the street.

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In honour of the Internet’s birthday: The time I discovered the Internet in 1993

October 30th, 2019 · No Comments

Way back when, I was a social-issues reporter at The Vancouver Sun. No one really knew what that meant. It wasn’t supposed to be traditional social issues, but more like trends and social-science research.

I can’t remember how I got started on this talking through computers network thing. I believe it might have been Larry Kuehn of the B.C. Teachers Federation who got me interested in it.

At any rate, I worked for a couple of weeks on a feature in the fall/winter of 1992 that was hundreds of words long. My editors clearly thought I was embroiled in one of my kooky obsessions with the obscure. They cut it down considerably and finally ran it in January 1993, just to humour me, I think.

That was my first dip into the world of the internet. Interesting now to see how it seemed like such a force for good back then. I thought of it again when I heard the radio interviews and read the stories yesterday about the Internet’s “birthday.”

THE INVISIBLE CITY OF COMPUTER NETWORKING: Social activists discover networks offer a sense of power, solidarity: [1* Edition]

 

Bula, Frances.The Vancouver Sun; Vancouver, B.C. [Vancouver, B.C]02 Jan 1993: B3.

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Vancouver’s big suburb to the east makes plans to create a downtown

October 29th, 2019 · No Comments

Apparently Google loved my story about Burnaby, Vancouver’s beloved neighbour that has served as its bedroom community for decades, is going to create a downtown at the mega-fortress-mall of Metrotown. (Full text attached below)

Burnaby did originally have a kind of town centre at Edmonds, but that sort of disappeared in the 1970s, as the city moved to a “four town centres” approach to planning as part of the big strategy to develop a set of interlinked regional town centres so that everyone wouldn’t have to jam into downtown.

As I discovered when I wrote the story, there were dreams back then, though, that Metrotown would be more than just a sprawling mall when it was redeveloped from what it had been, an industrial area of grocery warehouse and distribution buildings like those of Kelly Douglas. See this lovely report from Norm Hotson, back in the day.

It’s going to take 40 years or more for this re-make of Metrotown to be completed, so not holding my breath for an instant transformation, but it will be a pleasant difference to see more effort go into making an attractive public area in and around there over the years.

It was always puzzling to me and others how Burnaby seemed to require nothing from developers, who put up towers next to Lougheed or around Metrotown with apparently zero requirement to try to make the immediate precinct attractive or walkable. Gilmore Station, gah. Former mayor Derek Corrigan, who could be so assertive (ahem) on other issues, didn’t appear to want to push them on it. And, of course, developers loved it, talking about how easy it was to do business in Burnaby.

But, as this report approved Monday by council demonstrates, it looks as though there’s going to be a different approach now.

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Metro Vancouverites on the move: Walking more, taking more car trips to shop, car-pooling more

October 10th, 2019 · No Comments

Like many reporters, I just love census data and census-like data. So it was Christmas Day when TransLink released its big set of data from its 2017 “trip diary,” a massive study the agency does every five years to monitor how people are getting around in the region.

Lots of great info to ponder. Their data is here if you want to check out your own municipality. My story is linked here and text is pasted below.

One thing I was curious about was how this data matched the data that Vancouver, the city, collects. Vancouver also does a trip diary but uses a different methodology. While TransLink has 28,000 different households doing one day each, Vancouver tries to follow the same 2,000 households year after year to see how their patterns are changing. (Because Vancouverites are so mobile, they lose quite a few every year.)

The two sets of numbers showed a lot of similarities: the lowered share of the pie for solo car-driving is about the same, as is the increase in walking. But Vancouver data has noticeably higher numbers for walking and biking (Vancouver has 28.5 per cent of the share is walking; 7.3 per cent for biking. TransLink’s diary has 23.4 for walking, 3.8 for biking) and lower numbers for car passengers, i.e. car-pooling. TransLink has it as 12.4 per cent of total trips; Vancouver data is only at 4.9.

Transportation planner Winston Chou says that may be because Vancouver is still relying on people responding by landline, which skews their numbers older. They try to compensate by weighting their results, but he said they likely need to move to a different contact methods to get more young people in their sample.

In the meantime, story below.

Raphael Titsworth-Morin walks everywhere from his Fairview apartment: To work downtown, to shopping nearby, to movies or restaurants, to business meetings as far away as the University of B.C. – a 90-minute walk even at his brisk pace.

“Some of my friends find it comical the extent to which I’m willing to walk around the city,” says Mr. Titsworth-Morin, a 29-year-old web developer who moved to Vancouver four years ago from Halifax.

But he has found he prefers walking over crowded buses and rapid-transit car lines or biking. He used to commute a lot that way in Nova Scotia, but found he didn’t enjoy it so much in Vancouver when the rain is pouring and his workplace has no bike facilities. And, he mentions, his girlfriend has started walking more, too, in spite of bad knees, also because of the crowds on transit.

Mr. Titsworth-Morin is a living illustration of one of a number of trends emerging in Metro Vancouver, when it comes to how people get around the region, that were underscored when the region’s transportation agency, TransLink, released preliminary results recently of its massive “trip diary” count.

That census-like diary got people in 28,000 households over three months in the fall of 2017 to record for a day every trip they made, for what purpose and how. It was the first “trip diary” conducted in the region since 2011. The results showed the number of people walking for work, shopping, entertainment and school is up by an amount that surprised even veteran transportation planners.

“We saw very significant gains that we did not anticipate,” said Geoff Cross, TransLink’s vice-president of planning.

Walking trips went from an average of about 650,000 a day in 2011 to 1.1 million in the region. The propensity for walking is particularly high among 25- to 34-year-olds, at 100,000 trips a day, with the 35-44 group just a hair behind.

They include people such as Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart, 52, who walks many days from his condo near the Granville Bridge to city hall in Mount Pleasant, graphic designer James Gemmill, 50 (South False Creek to everywhere), non-profit founder Heather Piwowar (Fairview to the West End and back), downtown office worker Karen Ho (walks home to Mount Pleasant regularly) and former city councillor Andrea Reimer (Mount Pleasant to all over the city), who said she now walks more than she used to. Like Mr. Titsworth-Morin and his girlfriend, it’s partly because the transit lines are so crowded.

“It’s gotten pretty crazy and pretty much all the major lines,” she observes ruefully.

And, while the increase in Vancouver was notable (283,000 walks a day in 2011 to 484,000 in 2017), the numbers also more than doubled in West Vancouver (7,000 to 16,000), Coquitlam (20,000 to 48,000), and Richmond (40,000 to 80,000). Even sprawling and suburban Surrey, often seen as the place of unavoidable car travel, saw walking increasing from 89,000 trips to 158,000 trips a day.

Mr. Cross said some of those gains reflect the changes many suburbs are seeing as they work to create new walkable neighbourhoods.

“There’s a lot to be said for their land-use policies and the growth around transit.”

The TransLink trip-diary study acts as a kind of vascular ultrasound done every five years on the region’s transportation veins and arteries. It allows planners to see what is working and what is not in terms of getting people out of single-occupancy cars, and showed a wealth of other trends that planners are just starting to interpret.

The share of people making trips by car went down from 59 per cent to a previously unheard-of 55 per cent – a change that prompted many initial interpretations that traffic had declined in the region.

But the absolute number of car trips and kilometres travelled soared as the region’s population increased by about 200,000 to 2.5 million. The number of people driving solo around the region jumped 14 per cent from 2011. In 2017, solo drivers made 4.4 million trips a day out of a total 7.9-million daily average in the region.

However, the number of people riding as passengers in cars increased by about 30 per cent, another surprising finding. For years before that, there had been a steady decline in car-pooling since 1994, when it accounted for a fifth of all trips. The drop led planners to discount it as a long-term factor. Current TransLink plans don’t even mention car-pooling as a strategy for reducing congestion.

The share of transit trips remained about the same, which meant about 130,000 more transit trips than in 2011, but the increase barely kept up with population growth. (Mr. Cross said the results from 2017 don’t show the huge increase in ridership TransLink has experienced the past two years as service has improved significantly.)

Biking was also flat.

The numbers reflect changes in Vancouver’s economy, as the region went from mid-recession in 2011 to booming in 2017, said Mr. Cross.

Online shopping, it appears, has not killed off anyone’s propensity for going to stores. Shopping trips increased by almost 50 per cent over those years, going from about 950,000 a day to 1.4-million. So did having-fun trips. They went up 30 per cent, to just more than a million a day.

And people are travelling more in general, for more kilometres.

Jasmine Garcha is a typical example.

Ms. Garcha, 29, is a Simon Fraser University grad and nutritionist with her own business. So she travels all over the place from where she lives in Cloverdale to meet clients or teach, including faraway Kitsilano.

Her family also owns a construction business and is doing a lot of work in North Vancouver, so she goes there sometimes to help out her father and brother. And she schedules some medical appointments there.

She can walk to one grocery store and one drugstore near her home, but, for anything more, has to go to Langley.

All of that means many trips and a lot of driving.

Ms. Garcha lived in Brisbane, Australia, recently and took transit everywhere there, because even the suburban transit lines were so numerous and so fast. But it’s nearly impossible for her to even consider transit where she is, she says.

“When I did trips into Vancouver, I used to take SkyTrain, but if I was coming back late, I didn’t want to get off and have to wait for the 502 [bus] at night.”

She – and transit planners everywhere – are hopeful that an eventual SkyTrain link to Langley might help commuters such as her and create a big jump in transit ridership. But that’s many years away.

For now, she drives everywhere, mostly by herself – as more than half of people in the region still do.

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The search for what to do about dog poop, Vancouver edition

September 3rd, 2019 · No Comments

Engineers at Metro Vancouver tell me that they get asked about this topic by reporters more often than any other issue, including sea-level rise or drugs in sewage.

What to do about the by-products of the tens of thousands of dogs in the region seems to endless fascinate people. The breaking on news on this? Vancouver is putting out an official request for innovative solutions. My story in the Globe here. Full text also posted below.

Naturally, we’re not the only city concerned about this. It’s been suggested that Toronto condo owners have their pets’ DNA tested to find out who is behind poop problems there, while there’s also a search for solutions in Ontario generally.

In the meantime, still no word on what to do about all the cat poop (it can’t have the same treatment as dog stuff because of the toxoplasmosis in cat feces) and the goose poop (one of my faithful readers was more concerned about that the dogs, according to an email I got today) in the city.

By the way, you may all thank me now for my refusal to include any terrible dog-related puns in my story, which is something that seems to be a near-fatal affliction among newsies.

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Two-thirds say our housing crisis the result of “basic flaws of capitalism,” others say cheaters; critics say false choice

June 13th, 2019 · No Comments

Okay, 361 people voted in my silly little poll asking if our housing crisis is the result of “basic flaws of capitalism” or cheaters taking advantages of a basically good system. And 64 per cent picked door number 1, although I have to note that a number of Twitter commenters said I was posing a false-choice question. I agree this may say more about my followers than about housing.

A sample:

One person had so much to say, it couldn’t fit into a tweet, so here are his thoughts in full. Please continue piling on.

Supply side:
    • Land use and zoning: 90+ years of highly restrictive zoning on a majority of our residential land. The city planners and leaders of the day were at least honest enough to clearly state that Single Family zoning was most definitely about preservation of property values, as well as segregation of classes/races. The City’s early money, having built their mansions in the West End, became upset when developers came along in the 1920s, bought up some of the earliest ones, and replaced them with economically more advantageous apartment buildings (right beside remaining mansions). Basically, natural urban economics at work. The result of their displeasure at this natural phenomenon, especially the resulting mixing of classes and races, became First Shaughnessy and the City’s first zoning plan in the late 1920s/early 1930s. There’s a rich irony that those who likely earned their wealth from unbridled colonial capitalism then turned around and used government power to both heavily restrict it and skew it mightily in their favour when it came to their own homes.
    • Of course, it must be mentioned that all this took place in a city wiped clean of its original First Nations inhabitants, and that many of Vancouver’s first 1%ers earned their wealth thanks to Lt. Gov. Trutch’s earlier actions, who believed “that British Columbia’s future lay in taking land from native people and making it available to developers such as railway companies.” BC, from its earliest days of violently erasing First Nations from their lands, has always been about development and speculation.
    • Since the first city plan established the dominance of single family zones, we’ve seen a few formerly SFH areas upzoned to multi-family, mostly in the 1960s (a small portion of Kerrisdale, along with portions of Kistilano and Marpole), and less so in the 1970s (Fairview). Other than that, and the already mixed zoned West End of the 1960s, most of our density has gone into formerly industrial areas (thanks largely to the anti-development changes brought in by Art Phillips and TEAM): False Creek south in the 1970s on old industrial wasteland, Champlain Heights in the 1970s on the old city landfill, Yaletown/downtown/False Creek North on post-Expo industrial/warehouse land from the 1980s-2000s, Arbutus Walk on old brewery lands, and finally River District on old industrial land. I don’t know the history of Joyce/Collingwood, but I’m guessing it was similar to Fairview in the 1970s: one of the poorest areas of Vancouver (after the DTES) and not wealthy/organized enough to argue against upzoning.
  • Any other density has gone in on a few select arterial roads (Cambie/Oak), where the 90 year old policy/philosophy of placing multi-family housing closer to pollution (noise and air) continues.
  • ALR: we can argue about the merits of the Agricultural Land Reserve, but it has clearly restricted the supply of land for development, whether residential or commercial/industrial, in Metro Vancouver.
  • Transportation: roughly 30% of our land is given over to roads and on-street parking. That seems…sub-optimal, in terms of land-use economics. That figure hasn’t changed since the first City Plan of 1927/28.
Demand side:
  • 1940s/50s: creation of CMHC to support housing construction via subsidized government-backed loans. By the mid 1950s CMHC provided mortgage loan insurance for all mortgages with a 25% downpayment, a substantial form of subsidy backed by all taxpayers.
  • 1970s: capital gains tax exemption is allowed for the primary residence (after capital gains taxes are brought in by Trudeau Sr. on other investments). This is now a subsidy worth $7-8 billion per year.
  • Accommodative central bank policy, especially over the past decade: the Bank of Canada tracks the housing market closely, and adjusts interest rate policy accordingly. Similar to with the ALR, one can argue the pro/cons of the past decade of record low interest rates, but access to capital in Canada has been very easy for most of the past decade. Canada has happily claimed its place near the top of the global debt to income charts over the past decade. That has changed to an extent over the past 12 months (B20 rules and a slight increase in interest rates), but these kinds of moves take time to have an impact on house prices.
  • On a smaller scale, there are other direct and indirect subsidies below the federal level: provincial home owner grants that reduce an already low property tax rate, along with some of the lowest municipal property taxes in North America (thanks to an outdated Vancouver Charter restriction).
  • Finally: zoning is also a large subsidy for property owners, especially single family homeowners:
Foreign capital:
  • with the above structures in place, in some cases for decades, I’d argue that the influx of foreign capital (both legal and illicit) simply added fuel to a fire that had long been burning. Vancouver has had a housing crisis for decades, if you were low to middle income. It just so happened that certain upper middle income and upper income classes (engineers, lawyers, doctors, and other professionals) got burned by that fire in the past 5-6 years, and were far more effective in complaining loudly about it.
  • we’ve been looking for an easy bogeyman to blame for our crisis, and most of us are looking everywhere else but in the mirror. So, foreign capital it is, and let’s conflate legal and illegal sources to boot.
I’m certainly happy to see the provincial government put demand taxes in place (FBT, School Tax, Speculation Tax), and launch inquiries into money laundering (long past due). But if we think focusing only on demand measures and illegal capital will solve our crisis, I think we are sorely mistaken. When our provincial housing minister argues that townhouses and duplexes are legal in BC…
…without acknowledging that municipal zoning restrictions make both illegal on most residential land, then I’m not confident that we will sort this out.
We’ve placed significant restrictions on supply for most of a century, at the same time as we’ve subsidized demand at all levels of government for 70 years or so. No wonder we have a crisis.
To answer your question: the system is not OK, we should definitely curb cheaters, and what we’re dealing with is typically what happens when government policies mix with subsidized capitalism: a bastard hybrid that benefits a chosen subset of the population. It just so happens that that subset forgot about its children…and they’re pissed, along with some of the upper classes who were hoping/expecting to join them in single family house land. Will the rest of the city’s residents be happy with any proposed solutions? Will we be honest enough with ourselves to properly diagnose the various, complicated reasons behind how we got into this mess? Based on discussions with friends and acquaintances, and reading media and Twitter threads, I have my doubts…

 

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The Vancouver dilemma: How to build new apartments without displacing tenants.

May 16th, 2019 · No Comments

I had a story in Tuesday’s Globe about a couple of old and very inexpensive apartment buildings on Oak Street in the heart of Marpole, which are up for redevelopment. (Full text of story after the break.)

The owner wants to build 91 new units to replace the 1959 and 1964 buildings on site with 43 units between them. The problem: Even though the owner is offering 30 per cent off of whatever the new rents will be to existing tenants (which is more than the 20 per cent the city requires), it’s unlikely that any of them will be able to afford such a jump. So many will be forced out of the area and possibly even Vancouver.

That’s the Sophie’s choice that Vancouver is going to be facing multiple times in coming years, as apartment owners holding 50- and 60-year-old buildings decide whether to redevelop, upgrade, or simply let things deteriorate.

The applicant pulled this project from the public-hearing line-up Tuesday, after a suggestion from the city that it might be better to wait until after June 11, when council will be hearing a report on even more protections for “vulnerable tenants” in these kinds of buildings.

Unknown whether this project will go ahead if council asks for a lot more compensation or guarantees. It’s a case many are watching closely to understand where this council will land on projects like this.

Of course, some might say that the real problem here is that so much (needed) new rental is forced into a limited number of areas, most of which are the sites of old and cheap rental. If some single-family (really, triplex) zones could be switched over to apartments, that could alleviate some of these awful choices, they’d argue.

But there’s also the issue that many of these older apartments need loads of maintenance. Even if they aren’t redeveloped, any number of landlords are looking at significant upgrades which, guess what, frequently entail kicking out all the tenants, doing the renos, and then renting at higher prices.

I await the sophisticated solutions to this, but don’t see any in sight yet.

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Squamish plan for massive development by Burrard Bridge gets a surprisingly warm welcome

April 14th, 2019 · No Comments

So my big story for the week was the news that the Squamish are moving ahead with plans to create a huge new development by the Burrard Bridge. My story was in the Globe Thursday, with a follow-up including the mayor’s comments on Friday. (I’ll post the full stories below.)

The reaction on often-toxic Twitter was very positive, with people (at least in my stream) very excited about the thought of a lot of new housing in an area where there’s a huge demand, as well as the news that the Squamish are seriously considering making the units all rental.

I’d advise people not to break open the champagne just yet, as some members apparently are arguing in favour of the early money that some condo development would provide. As well, no one is saying what prices the units might rent for yet.

Some people are also dubious about the idea of having Westbank/Ian Gillespie as the partner, given his penchant lately (Vancouver House, Butterfly, Oakridge, Kengo Kuma tower) to build for the ultra high end. He did do the Woodward’s building, granted, with its two social-housing components, but that’s quite different from trying to figure out a market approach to providing affordable rental. CHMC people sound very excited by the project and say there’s money available (cheap financing, etc.) if the Squamish do decide to make some or all of it lower-cost.

In the meantime, the really interesting story behind all this is how the Squamish were slowly pushed off their land, which was a permanent settlement, not just a summer camp for them.

This timeline from UBC provides some excellent information and mapping of what happened over time.

As I said earlier, I’ve posted the full stories below

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