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British Columbia Indigenous-led housing projects aim to transform Vancouver’s west side

Land below the Burrard Bridge in Vancouver, on April 9, 2019. The parcels of land include the 36.5-hectare Jericho Lands in Point Grey and the 4.5-hectare site of the Squamish reserve land next to the bridge.

Jimmy Jeong/The Globe and Mail

The shoreline neighbourhoods that provide Vancouver’s west side with its popular beaches and abundant green space will undergo a notable transformation over the next decade as developers build significant housing projects on land that had previously been off-limits.

Their projects will represent a metamorphosis close to the city’s downtown that will rival the South False Creek development of the 1970s, the first of the central-city housing projects that kicked off Vancouver’s internationally renowned shift to creating residential neighbourhoods in and near its downtown.

But those changes will also challenge Vancouver’s civic politicians and residents, because these won’t be the usual private-sector developments on repurposed industrial land.

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Instead, they’ll be planned and built by Indigenous groups, which will bring in new factors: On top of city zoning matters and the current fierce debate over housing solutions among residents, Vancouver will confront issues of reconciliation, atonement for historical wrongs and a different set of values, including the Indigenous nations’ obligations to their own members.

That is already raising both fears and unrealistic expectations, those who have experience with Indigenous development say.

“There will be a preconceived notion of what will happen because of what people say about Indigenous people being keepers of the land,” says Wade Grant, a former Musqueam councillor and adviser to past premier Christy Clark. Mr. Grant is familiar with Musqueam real estate plans on both city and university-endowment lands.

“We do want to do it in a different way and we don’t want to run roughshod over the land, but people also need to recognize that these lands were taken away from us and we were never able to benefit. [The developments now are] a small price to pay to lift up those communities that have been in the shadow of the city.”

The parcels of land include the 36.5-hectare Jericho Lands in Point Grey and the 4.5-hectare site of the Squamish reserve land next to the Burrard Bridge. They are in an area that currently hosts low-rise apartments in the east and an intense cluster of historic houses in old Kitsilano, many divided into multiple units, and prosperous single-family land in Point Grey.

The new developments include the one at Jericho controlled by the MST Development Corporation of the Squamish, Musqueam and Tsleil-Waututh nations. The other is by the Burrard Bridge and directed only by the Squamish. Both will potentially add massive amounts of new housing, including new types. They will add weight to the case for a subway through the west side, and change the demographics of this part of the city.

Some residents fear it means that Indigenous groups, anxious to cash in on the city’s real estate madness in order to get money for their nations’ members, will pack in as much building as possible. Others have faith that Indigenous groups will do something markedly different from Vancouver’s commercial developers.

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“They will be significant points of change in a broader context,” Vancouver’s former chief planner Brent Toderian says. “But a lot will depend on how well they are done. The worst thing you can do is do something that is dramatically different and then do it badly.”

He noted the Tsawwassen First Nation’s decision to allow a giant mall to be built on its land several years ago. It was seen as a slap in the face to Metro Vancouver’s efforts to concentrate any new development near transit and now remains as an example of how Indigenous development can provoke a backlash.

Those working on Indigenous developments in the city say this time there will be more consultation and more of an effort to develop projects that have Indigenous values.

But they also warn that Vancouverites can’t expect them to solve all of the city’s problems.

“There are things that MST is doing that are a bit different from the typical merchant development,” says Brennan Cook, vice-president of the MST Development Corporation, the entity acting for the three First Nations as they develop key sites. Besides the Jericho site, the others are the old RCMP headquarters in central Vancouver and a site in East Vancouver near Broadway and Rupert.

The Jericho Lands will be governed by city zoning, bylaws and processes, because it’s land that the three nations bought from or are co-developing with the federal government. Since the nations paid almost $720-million for the land, they’ll be under more pressure to get a financial return from their project.

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The Squamish land by the Burrard Bridge, however, is on reserve land, meaning it’s not governed by the city. The Squamish will have more leeway financially because they didn’t purchase the land.

At least one well-known non-Indigenous development company is partnering with the nations. Westbank has been given the nod for the Squamish project at the foot of the bridge; MST has not yet chosen a partner or partners.

Squamish councillor Khelsilem (who uses only one name) has said the nation is considering whether to make a potentially 3,000-unit project on the site all-rental – a move that would provide as much rental housing as what Vancouver has been able to nudge private developers into building over the past three years.

That suggestion, although nowhere near a reality yet, prompted a lot of positive response from housing advocates.

“I think people are excited because they see this bold new project has a chance of happening,” Khelsilem said, adding the nation will likely hold public consultations and open houses, although there is no legal requirement for that.

But, he said, the open houses that the MST group is putting on to get community feedback on the Jericho Lands is showing everyone that public input is worthwhile.

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“From what MST has experienced, the open-house process has the benefit of improving the project.”

It’s still very unclear what will ultimately go on either piece of property.

The school gyms and auditoriums in the area were filled this week with people hoping for information. About 200 showed up to a panel discussion put on by the West Point Grey Residents Association last week, while another 300 turned out at the Kitsilano Secondary School auditorium earlier this week to learn more.

A residents association survey indicated that those in West Point Grey would prefer to see low-rise development on the site – ground-oriented, not too many apartments and, of those allowed, two to four storeys. At most, they’d be in favour of a development similar to the once-controversial, now-popular Arbutus Walk area, where apartments average around six storeys on a former brewery site.

Residents were the most opposed to Yaletown-type developments or an Oakridge-style cluster of supertall towers.

“I think on the major sites like this, where you are starting from scratch, there is some appetite for density. But the big massive things that you see on transit corridors are not supported in the smaller neighbourhoods,” said Elizabeth Murphy, a private-sector project manager, owner of several rental properties and outspoken opponent of many of the densification efforts of Vancouver council and planners.

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But at the “Imagine Jericho” talk Tuesday by charismatic Happy City author Charles Montgomery, the audience heard a lot about the benefits of well-planned density and how it could help the west side.

“I’m not saying ‘Build the towers of Mordor,’” Mr. Montgomery said as he showed slides of happy people interacting with their neighbours in a Yaletown tower-and-townhouse development and clusters of people in a car-free European town. But, he noted, “businesses are failing here. The schools aren’t full.”

Mr. Montgomery also urged audience members to share their part of the city, which has wonderful beaches, parks and bike paths, but is out of reach of many.

Those in the audience were definitely on different pages about that, such as friends Sharon Percival and Alison Izat, who came together and gently debated their views as they filled out city forms afterward.

Ms. Percival would like to see more people in the area to help support the struggling businesses on West 10th. But she doesn’t want high-rises. And she’s dubious about all the happy talk around Indigenous development.

“I don’t see any evidence of an Indigenous developer being more positive, and haven’t seen any non-Indigenous developers do anything positive either.”

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Ms. Izat, meanwhile, was more optimistic about the possibility of something innovative and sensitive on the west-side developments.

“The whole spirit is the transfer of the land. We have to listen. And I’m hopeful that the style of their culture will bring something better.”

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