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Murray Hendren and Susan Fisher are part of the Jericho Coalition who are concerned about the debate around development on the Jericho Lands in Vancouver.Jimmy Jeong/The Globe and Mail

Imagine a new 35-hectare community of midrises built out of mass timber – a place that restricts cars and has a significant share of truly affordable housing for low to moderate incomes.

That’s the vision put forward by a citizens’ group that wants the City of Vancouver and a First Nations-owned developer to come up with a new plan for Vancouver’s Jericho Lands, located in West Point Grey. They want a guarantee that housing would be truly affordable and sustainable, as opposed to concrete luxury view condos that sell at $2,400 per square foot and create gloomy corridors, which was their take-away after seeing the early conceptual plans released by the city last fall.

“It’s sort of like the old saw about generals always fighting the last war,” says resident Susan Fisher, a member of the Jericho Coalition, which formed to oppose the current plans for the area. “Instead of looking forward to seeing what we need to do to be viable and sustainable 10 or 20 years down the line, they are building the way they have since the 1990s. They don’t recognize the world is changing very quickly and surely it would be prudent for city staff to take a forward perspective on this.”

Jericho Lands, the site of a long-time military base, is a spectacular, massive and under-utilized piece of real estate that, once developed, will transform the west side of the city. Vancouver’s west side feels empty, and the redevelopment of Jericho Lands is a golden opportunity to create a community that doesn’t have a lot of underground parking and luxury housing that the majority of workers will not be able to afford, the coalition says.

The conceptual plans were created by the MST Development Corp., a partnership of three First Nations; Canada Lands Co., a Crown corporation that co-owns part of the proposed development land; and the City of Vancouver. The city released the conceptual plans for the site last fall that showed three 38-storey towers amid many more midrise buildings and about 10 million square feet of floor space (about double the size of Oakridge, a massive mixed-use development in the south-central Vancouver built around what was Oakridge Centre mall).

The next phase in the city’s process is to refine the concept and draft a policy statement, so there is still time to hammer out the details of such an important site. In an e-mail, city staff said no dates have been set and the next phase of public engagement will be after the election in October.

The conceptual plans put forward last fall would certainly transform the area bordered by Fourth Avenue, Highbury Street, West 8th Avenue and Discovery Street. The area is adjacent to a seaside park with a large bird habitat that is a draw for residents throughout the Lower Mainland.

Jericho Coalition residents have mounted a petition that has more than 1,000 signatures that asks the city to go back to the drawing board.

Ms. Fisher said she supports midrise buildings and alternative types of non-market housing, such as co-ops and co-housing, as opposed to a concentration of high-rise condos that she argues drive land prices up. City policy requires a minimum of 20 per cent below-market housing and 10 per cent rental housing.

Jericho Lands, the site of a long-time military base, is a spectacular, massive and under-utilized piece of real estate that, once developed, will transform the west side of the city.Jimmy Jeong/The Globe and Mail

“We spent two-and-a-half years talking about sustainability, affordability and respect for biodiversity in the land, and we thought we were being engaged in a way that some of these concerns would be reflected in the final plan,” says Ms. Fisher. “At the very end, we were shown many would-be towers. I think a lot of people in the working group felt we were blindsided in the end by this extremely dense highrise development, which was not at all what we thought the developers and the city had in mind.”

There is talk about building a SkyTrain station at Jericho Lands as part of an extension to the University of British Columbia after completion of the Broadway line. Rapid transit costs taxpayers billions of dollars, and significant density around transit stations makes sense. But if the goal is to build a new neighbourhood for local income-earners who will use rapid transit to get to work, then expensive housing isn’t going to attract those workers. Costly high-end condos do not justify a new transit station, the Jericho Coalition says.

“There just seems to be a default to big towers everywhere to solve the problems, and Jericho didn’t seem to be any exception to that,” says Murray Hendren, an engineer with an environmental background, who lives in a condo across from the site and is a member of the coalition.

Jericho Lands are privately owned by MST Development Corp., a partnership between the Musqueam Indian Band, Squamish Nation and Tsleil-Waututh Nation, and the Canada Lands Co., a Crown corporation that specializes in real estate and development. They purchased the land in 2014, and MST and CLC each own 50 per cent.

MST later purchased the western part of the site from the province for almost a half-billion dollars. The two parcels are being planned as one community, designed in a way that pays respect to the ancestral land. MST and CLC have been working with nearby residents and the City of Vancouver in planning the site. Unlike the proposed Senakw development, which is on Squamish Nation reserve land on the edge of the Kitsilano neighbourhood, Jericho Lands fall within city guidelines and policies.

Last fall, the public was presented with two conceptual plan options, both consisting of about 10 million square feet of floor space, three 38-storey condo towers, with about 10,000 homes, for about 20,000 residents. The population of West Point Grey is only about 13,000 residents, so it’s a game-changer.

After city council approves the policy statement for the new neighbourhood, then the owners will apply for rezoning, which is likely a 10-year process. The total build out of Jericho Lands is about 25 to 30 years. The three First Nations will retain ownership and sell units as leasehold properties.

One of the planning priorities for Jericho Lands is reconciliation. MST oversees six major properties within Metro Vancouver worth more than $1-billion, including Jericho Lands. Two of the properties are co-owned with Aquilini Investment Group.

Tsleil-Waututh councillor Dennis Thomas, who is a cultural liaison for MST, says it’s a pivotal time for Indigenous communities as they take economic control of ancestral lands. The Tsleil-Waututh own real estate business ventures of their own worth more than $1-billion. They’ve gone from “managing poverty to managing wealth,” says Mr. Thomas.

“We can actually control our own destiny. We can control our economic opportunities ourselves,” he says. “It’s a cool time to be in right now, and I’m very humbled and respectful of Indigenous knowledge holders before me, and what they have been able to do for me to enjoy this moment right now.”

In terms of planning any community, he’s keen on self-contained live-work-play communities and less sprawl. Regarding Jericho, they will follow the city’s guidelines, he says, but he’d also like go beyond the requirements for non-market or social housing.

“I think it depends on the official community plan within the city of Vancouver and we are trying to really participate in the policies that they have. If it means higher density, then it’s higher density. If it means middle density, then it means middle density,” he says.

“With fee simple properties, we do have to follow the guidelines of the City of Vancouver and the environmental goals. We have to follow everything. But we also want to be above and beyond, and be leaders in that.”

MST vice-president Brennan Cook, former vice-president at Aquilini Group, says that MST is poised to become the region’s largest developer of housing. Down the road, they will also likely become leaders in social housing.

In order to include so much green space, they needed to include towers, says Mr. Cook, who argues that highrises create significant density at a time when supply can work to bring down or stabilize home prices.

“If we say we want to have transit out to UBC, and we want to have density along those transit corridors, and we want to provide sustainable development practices, and we want to have great community benefit and amenities, including parks, open space and green space, then you start layering all these things together,” he said.

“For us, height was the place to make the equation work. I’m respectful and understand that not everybody is going to appreciate that, but what we don’t often hear in the media is there are a lot of people who do support that.”

As for going far beyond the city’s 20 per cent below-market housing requirement, they are looking into a “fuller spectrum of housing types,” he said, including the possibility of attainable home ownership. He couldn’t get into details, but he said requests to deliver substantially below-market housing is an unreasonable request.

The price tag to develop Jericho is hundreds of millions of dollars. What’s needed to reduce prices is more supply, argues Mr. Cook, such as the density offered in the plan.

“Asking the Nations to deliver units at a higher percentage that is not financially viable is an unfair request. You don’t ask the other big developers in town to deliver more. So why pin that on the three Nations?” said Mr. Cook.

“If you are renting social housing at, pick a number, $2 per square foot per month, it takes a very, very long time, especially with increased interest rates right now, for that to pay back. It’s unfair to ask that solely of the Nations.”

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