The Globe and Mail

August 16, 2022

Good morning. Wendy Cox in Vancouver this morning.

Right now, the T-shape plot of Squamish Nation land at the foot of the Burrard Bridge is virtually indistinguishable – but for a blue wire fence – from the expansive oceanside park and the parking lot of the distinctive and somewhat shabby apartment building it abuts.

But by 2029, on the 4.7 hectares behind the blue fence, will rise 11 towers, providing 6,000 apartment units for some 10,000 people. It will become the densest neighbourhood in the city, packing the same number of people as the Olympic Village in one-sixth of the space.

How those 10,000 new residents get anywhere once outside their building is a question with an answer that could help shape Vancouver’s efforts to turn its back on the car.

The Squamish say the development is a slice of the city of the future. The 150-year, 250-page services agreement signed in May between the Nation and the City of Vancouver and released earlier this month indicates the development will have only 886 parking spots for cars and 4,477 spots for bikes.

“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,” Squamish Nation spokesman Wilson Williams told Frances Bula.

But the plan’s outline for alternative transportation options is vague. The agreement stipulates that 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 is committed to upgrade cycling and walking connections and $4.7-million will be spent to upgrade an intersection that will be the entrance to the development. It’s not clear what those upgrades will entail.

The Nation, which is working with developer Ian Gillespie and his Westbank company, has agreed to take “reasonable steps to catalyze” – whatever that means – a streetcar in the area and the same for a water-taxi stop at the development.

In addition, the Nation will spend $6.27-million to build a new road through federally owned Vanier Park, a decision that has particularly inflamed neighbours already uncomfortable with the size of the development and cut out of any of the planning because the project is on wholly owned Indigenous land.

But Gordon Price, a former Vancouver city councillor who has been a transit and cycling advocate for decades, told Frances the agreement has 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.

A commercial broker who specializes in Indigenous developments also said he saw the transportation issues as the biggest challenge the services agreement has brought to light.

The Senakw development is 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.”

Senakw, as the project is called, is one of the most unique developments in North America. 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.

It means the usual imbroglio that confronts developers, who must navigate sometimes byzantine zoning issues and polarized community consultation meetings, making compromises to their vision along the way, doesn’t apply. Rather, the Squamish have seized on their unique ability to build a neighbourhood they maintain will address the housing needs of their own community, contribute to the rental stock in a city sorely in need of it, and force an entire neighbourhood away from reliance on the car.

Whether that all works out successfully without any major downsides isn’t a problem the Squamish are worried about.

“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,” Mr. Williams said.

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This is the weekly Western Canada newsletter written by B.C. Editor Wendy Cox and Alberta Bureau Chief James Keller. If you’re reading this on the web, or it was forwarded to you from someone else, you can sign up for it and all Globe newsletters here.

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