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Squamish look for way to maximize their land and Vancouver the first big project

May 24th, 2010 · 8 Comments

The 10 acres of land that the Squamish own near Burrard Bridge became an object of curiosity this week, with much talk about the development that they have planned there for some time in the future.

Don’t expect anything soon. I talked to other municipalities who have worked with the Squamish and they say things proceed with caution after lengthy internal processes about the right way to go. But it is interesting to see what their preliminary thoughts are — and who is advising them, like one-time Stephen Harper ally Tom Flanagan. His paper for the band is here.

I wrote a story for the Globe on this Friday, which somehow isn’t on the website, but here it is.

Much is at stake for Squamish in launching ambitious project, on a site big enough to house another Olympic village
Vancouver has a history of experimental megaproject developments on former industrial waterfront that have changed the city.

South False Creek brought housing and families back to the inner city in the 1970s. Coal Harbour and North False Creek were showcases for high-rise development surrounded by such benefits as parks, community centres and a ribbon of seawall. The Olympic village in Southeast False Creek included all of the above, while adding a new layer of super-green elements, from rooftop gardens to condos heated through a district energy system.

But the newest waterfront project to emerge will present Vancouver and its developer with the biggest challenge to date.

That’s the 11 acres that the Squamish Nation plans to develop on the reserve lands it won back in 2002 on the south shore of False Creek near the Burrard Bridge.

For the city, it’s going to require a new kind of negotiation, since the Squamish have no obligation to abide by any of the city’s community plans or zoning.

“We will have to explain why we do development in Vancouver the way we do, and that if projects are well designed, people will want to live there,” said Councillor Raymond Louie, acknowledging that the city will have to spend a lot of time talking in order to sell the Squamish on guidelines that it can simply impose on others.

So far, he and others say, talks have been going well, culminating in the two groups signing a formal agreement this week to co-operate on a wide range of issues.

But for the Squamish, the project is equally daunting for other reasons. The land – in the heart of Vancouver, and big enough to house another Olympic village – will be the setting for the most ambitious development project they have undertaken since moving more aggressively into business ventures in recent years.

“There’s a lot of things we need to do to make that project work,” Chief Gibby Jacob said.

Those things include all the standard questions for any development: Should it be commercial or residential? That’s not decided yet, Mr. Jacob said, though plans that the band worked on with the firm Kasian Architecture indicate a hyper-urban, Coal Harbour-style development. What is missing in the local market? “We see there’s a very large shortage of rental,” Mr. Jacob said.

Should the project be developed with a partner? Although the band has worked with Concord Pacific to develop land at Porteau Cove on Howe Sound, Mr. Jacob said the Squamish may develop this project on their own. “We give a lot away in a partnership,” he said.

One of the biggest hurdles is figuring out what kind of land-ownership scheme to use for the development, to get the best returns.

The band commissioned a paper last year from Stephen Harper’s one-time policy adviser, University of Calgary professor Tom Flanagan, on what to do about land development.

In that paper, he urged the band to buy out leases from existing tenants and find the most profitable use for band land – including outright sale, something that’s not currently allowed.

Prof. Flanagan also noted that the Squamish reserves constitute some of the best land for development in the central Vancouver region, land that could be the site of housing for tens of thousands.

Mr. Jacob agrees with Prof. Flanagan. He said the band is awaiting the outcome of proposed federal legislation that would allow it to change the way property can be owned.

“It’s just a logical area for us to be moving into,” Mr. Jacob said. “It’s a daunting task to try to house our people. Without new revenue, we can’t do it.”

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