In the narrow strip of land bordering Vanier Park on Kitsilano Point, there’s little sign that it’s about to become the entryway to one of the densest neighbourhoods Vancouver will likely ever see.
The western section of the future massive Squamish Nation development – 6,000 apartments, 10,000 people packed into 4.7 hectares around the south end of the Burrard Bridge – is a tangle of blackberry bushes, with a path beaten down in the middle that leads to a small copse next to the bridge.
That piece of Squamish land, currently sitting behind blue wire fencing, runs between the parking lot for the 1970s Parkview Towers building and the parking lot behind the Vancouver Academy of Music.
There is also the unmarked portion of parkland that will become a narrow lane providing the one road in and out of this part of the development. That lane will empty out onto Chestnut Street and then require drivers to make their way through the small neighbourhood of Kits Point in order to get out to the Cornwall Avenue arterial.
The park lane is only a small part of what many observers say is going to be one of the biggest challenges for the massive new Senakw development. Transportation for the thousands living there, along with a cluster of commercial operations, is the central concern, say those who have examined the recently signed services agreement between the nation and the City of Vancouver.
The Senakw development (and its services agreement) are unique, not just to Vancouver but to North America, because it is being built on land designated as First Nations reserve land after the Squamish won back what had been one of their historic settlement sites in a 2002 court case. (They’d had their land taken away and residents had been deported by barge to North Vancouver in 1913.)
That means the nation is not bound by city regulations, zoning, or bylaws, outside of what’s stipulated in the services agreement, unlike almost all the other First Nations major development sites in the Lower Mainland.
The development, which will have the same number of apartments as the area around the Olympic Village but on one-sixth of the land, will only have to comply with what is spelled out in the services agreement.
The nation envisions providing only 886 car-parking spots and 4,477 bike-parking spots for that new neighbourhood.
The recently released 250-page services agreement says the nation will need to pay $15-million to study and build a transit hub on the south end of the bridge; another $5.7-million to upgrade cycling and walking connections; $4.7-million to upgrade an intersection that will be the entrance on the east side of the development at First and Fir; and $6.27-million to build the new road in Vanier Park. There is no price yet assigned to the sanitary-sewer upgrade needed.
The agreement also stipulates that the nation will need to take “reasonable steps to catalyze” a streetcar in the area and the same for a water-taxi stop at the development.
“The Squamish have called our bluff. We’ve said we’ve got to move on from a car-dependent society and they’ve said, ‘Okay, here you are,’ ” observed Gordon Price, a former Vancouver city councillor who has been a transit and cycling advocate for decades.
But he warned that the current agreement seems to have remarkably little data to demonstrate that future residents will be prepared to make such a radical shift in the way they get around.
“Where are the studies?” said Mr. Price, who noted that there is nothing in the service agreement or any other public information about the development to indicate that TransLink has a plan for what’s needed in the area, or that city engineers have closely studied likely travel patterns, including how many delivery vehicles are likely to need to be accommodated.
And he noticed that, although the number of bike-parking spots looks high in comparison with other projects, there is still less than one spot per unit and doesn’t account for the phenomenal recent popularity of bulkier and heavier electric bikes and cargo bikes.
The Senakw development is of similar density to what is being built at the Oakridge mall, said Howie Charters, vice-president of consulting services at Colliers International in Vancouver. But that project is on a subway line and has three major arterials next to it.
“In Kitsilano, it’s just residential streets all around.”
But those planning the Senakw development believe they’re creating the kind of urban neighbourhood many have said they want for Vancouver’s future.
“We’re looking at being more of a green city and we’re looking at less cars on the road. We’re confident in the road we’re down,” said Squamish Nation spokesman Wilson Williams.
Mr. Williams, TransLink and the City of Vancouver all say they are working together on the changes that are going to be needed to transit routes, roadways, nearby intersections, and walking and biking paths.
“City staff will be engaging residents on how best to integrate potential transportation changes into the surrounding community,” said a statement from Vancouver’s communications department.
A TransLink statement said the agency “is working with Sḵwxw̱ ú7mesh Úxwumixw (The Squamish Nation) and the City of Vancouver to ensure that the Sen̓áḵw development is served well by transit and connected to the regional transportation system. We applaud and support the prioritization of efficient green transportation options for the residents of the future development.”
The first phase of the development, the part in Vanier park, is due to start excavation this fall, with occupancy by the end of 2026, according to the services agreement. The next three phases, east of the bridge, will start after that, with the final phase starting construction in 2025 and reaching occupancy by fall 2029.
But local residents, who have been alarmed about the high density of the project from the beginning, say they’re very frustrated with the lack of information and what they fear will become a future transportation nightmare for their small neighbourhood.
One group is particularly concerned, as well, that the federal government just recently signed the licence giving the Squamish permission to use the northern edge of Vanier Park, which it owns, for a road to service the development.
Jeremy Braude is one of 340 people in his No Road Through Vanier Park group. They argue that parkland should never have been given up to what is essentially a sophisticated developer, trying to maximize what it can build while getting free park space for a road.
Mr. Braude and his neighbours are planning a rally to protest the move and are trying to get Vancouver’s many mayoral candidates to take a stand on the issue.
“And our ultimate hope is that the developer will take a break and listen to some of the issues rather than the steamroller approach.”
Besides the transportation issues, the services agreement sets out the annual city taxes the nation will have to pay for the property – which is now planned to be all rentals, 20 per cent of them at below-market rates, with a small amount of commercial space.
The Squamish will have to pay 100 per cent of normal city taxes, based on the land’s assessed value, for police, fire, sewers, engineering and library services.
The development, which has reserved a little less than half of its land for open space, will also pay 50 per cent of the normal taxes for parks, and 75 per cent for arts, culture and community services.
The nation will not have to pay the portion of taxes that typically goes to planning or to city-council support, two items that account for about four per cent of the city’s total budget.
Mr. Williams said everyone in the city is ultimately going to benefit from the project.
The Senakw project, along with the big Jericho Lands development in the west being jointly developed by the Musequeam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations together with Crown corporation Canada Lands, will provide a strong population based for a subway line in the west, he said. And the project will provide a huge amount of needed housing.
“It’s not just the highest and best use here. Some of the apartments will be subsidized. It’s what is best and how we can collaborate with the city.”
We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.