Frances Bula header image 2

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.



The development will be built on part of the traditional land of the Squamish Nation in the neighbourhood known as Kitsilano.

A First Nations-led development proposal in the heart of Vancouver has doubled in size from its original plans to include 6,000 units of mostly rental apartments in 11 towers, a project expected to be worth billions of dollars.

The Senakw development, to be built on part of the traditional land of the Squamish Nation in the neighbourhood now known as Kitsilano, across the False Creek inlet west of downtown Vancouver, will bring a level of density and building style to the area unlike anything there now.

In April, the Squamish announced a plan for 3,000 units on the site. Squamish councillor Khelsilem told The Globe and Mail Monday that the nation’s planning group has decided to double the size and potential value. Residents of Kitsilano have traditionally opposed buildings of more than a few storeys, and community activists earlier in the year said they hoped the Squamish would consult them on the project.

“The reasonable expectation my people have is they’ve seen this whole city built up around them with very little benefit. Now they are wanting us to go this far,” said Khelsilem, who uses one name. “We as council have a responsibility to make sure the highest value is created on an asset they own.”


The planned development would be one of the largest private First Nations investment projects in the country.

The City of Vancouver would have very little influence on the plan, because the land is owned by the Squamish Nation and not subject to local zoning or bylaws. Mayor Kennedy Stewart has called the housing project an opportunity to demonstrate the city’s commitment to reconciliation with Indigenous communities.

It would be one of the largest private First Nations investment projects in the country, expected by the Squamish to be in the billions of dollars, and turn the First Nation into a major developer in Vancouver’s lucrative housing market.

The 4.7-hectare project must be approved by the Squamish Nation’s approximately 3,000 members in a referendum on Dec. 10.

They’ll have to decide if they are comfortable with the idea of a 50-50 profit-sharing partnership with Vancouver developer Ian Gillespie of Westbank Corp. The Squamish would provide the land, and Westbank would do the construction.

Mr. Gillespie’s company is just finishing the Vancouver House project across the inlet, which, at 56 storeys, will be the same height as the tallest tower of Senakw.

A letter from the council to nation members says that, through a formal request for proposals and an assessment by the accounting firm Ernst & Young, “council concluded that a partnership with Westbank … will generate highest [financial value] and best-use leasing opportunities at Senakw.”

The project is relatively free from city constraints because it is on Indigenous land.

The letter notes that, under regulations from the federal department Indigenous Services Canada, members’ approval is needed to allow the nation to enter a business relationship with Westbank.

Squamish Nation members are also being asked to approve the idea of having as many as 30 per cent of the units potentially sold on a leasehold basis, with a maximum 120-year lease. This is a new idea for the Squamish, who have typically done traditional rentals, such as their arrangements with a mall in West Vancouver.

In a referendum 10 years ago, the nation approved a much smaller development on the land, which is near Burrard Bridge, with only two towers. Those never went ahead because of a downturn in the housing market.

The firm Revery Architecture has designed the towers to echo elements of totem poles and reflect the mountains and sky of the North Shore, Khelsilem said.

Because it is on Indigenous land, the project is relatively free from city constraints.

As a result, planners are looking at providing parking for only 10 per cent of the apartments, far below the usual minimum, and abandoning the city’s preference for towers that sit on podiums of townhouses.

The project will be marketed to people who don’t own cars or are willing to sell them to live downtown.

Instead, the 11 towers will rise straight up. That will leave 80 per cent of the land available for publicly accessible space, some of which will be parks.

Khelselim said reducing the amount of parking so significantly will result in huge cost savings for everyone who eventually lives there, since an individual car stall would cost $80,000 to $120,000 to build.

Instead, the project will be marketed to those who don’t own cars or are willing to sell them to live downtown. The nation’s planning team is also looking at how to get a streetcar running on a former rail line that borders the Squamish land.

The team still has to negotiate with the city over water, sewer and waste-removal services, but the general idea is that the Squamish will collect taxes on all of the units, including the half owned by Westbank, and pay for services with that.

Khelselim said the project will provide a lot of opportunities for work for Squamish members in the expected six-year construction period.

Building could begin in 2021 if the project is approved in the referendum.



The current plan for the Senakw project by the Squamish makes it potentially the densest development in Metro Vancouver.

Major developments in Vancouver normally generate tens of millions of dollars’ worth of amenities for the community, including affordable housing. But the city will have almost no leverage to get any of that from a massive new project planned by the Squamish Nation.

The 11-tower project, which has doubled in size since it was first proposed, will dramatically alter a swath of Vancouver’s downtown waterfront.

The project is to have 6,000 mostly rental units and is planned in partnership with Vancouver developer Ian Gillespie of Westbank Corp. Any other project like it would typically generate an automatic requirement for 20 per cent of the units to be affordable, along with other amenities such as child-care buildings, heritage and social programs.

But Mayor Kennedy Stewart said repeatedly Tuesday that the city has little power to ask for anything like that.

“The only real say we have is on the [infrastructure] service agreement,” said the mayor, who stressed that he is 100-per-cent supportive of the development and believes it will help with the city’s efforts at reconciliation with First Nations groups.

“There’s a constitutional issue here because those are reserve lands and they are not subject to city processes.”

When the former 1986 Expo lands were being planned for development in the 1990s, former mayor Gordon Campbell introduced a policy requiring developers to contribute amenities for the whole community in exchange for getting significant density and, therefore, condo space to sell.

The current plan, reported by The Globe and Mail on Tuesday, for the Senakw project by the Squamish makes it potentially the densest development in Metro Vancouver, at 1,277 units per hectare. Condo towers in the most dense section of downtown – the 1300-block Richards, 900- and 1000-block Seymour – come in at 1,058 and 833 per hectare, respectively.

But because this development is taking place on Squamish reserve lands, the city’s only negotiating tool is its control of the significant new services that will be needed in the area – water, sewer, roads, police and fire protection. Currently, the land is little-used, sitting next to Vanier Park on Kitsilano Point.

In comparison, when Mr. Gillespie got approval for a massive condo project at the Oakridge Centre mall that he is developing with QuadReal Property Group, the team was asked to provide about $148.8-million in community amenities, including 290 units of social housing, a nine-acre park and a 100,000-square-foot civic centre that will include a seniors’ centre, library and child-care space. As well, they had to provide another 290 units of market rental housing.

On Tuesday, Mr. Stewart said the huge increase in rental supply from the Squamish project will benefit the city.

However, the city cannot impose any requirements about the type or cost of the housing.

Mr. Stewart said he had early discussions with Squamish members about the possibility of some lower-cost housing in the project. But those speaking for the nation have made it clear that it’s not the responsibility of the Squamish to provide subsidies for Vancouver residents’ housing.

Khelsilem, the Squamish Nation councillor who has been the main spokesperson for the project, said the planning team at the council is considering how to provide some below-market apartments for Squamish members.

The inability of the city to have much control over the project is concerning to at least one city councillor.

While some, such as OneCity’s Christine Boyle, say the nation has the right to do whatever it wants with its own land, Non-Partisan Association Councillor Colleen Hardwick said it’s concerning there is no ability to impose any rules.

“There’s no oversight. I have big concerns about that,” said Ms. Hardwick, who called the project oversized, over-the-top and “inconsistent with the values of a livable city.”

Categories: Uncategorized