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New rendition of the proposed Squamish development by Burrard Bridge, Vancouver.Handout

When the Squamish Nation announced its ambitious plan to add 11 residential towers to the south end of Burrard Bridge, adding 6,000 extra units of housing to the area, more than a few eyebrows were raised.

The high-density Senakw project, on a boomerang-shaped 11.6 acres that stretches east and west from the bridge, will be built quickly because the First Nation does not have to go through the gauntlet of the city zoning and permitting process.

The acreage is federal land for Indigenous use and benefit, and for more than a decade, the Squamish had planned to develop it. Now, with Westbank as partners, the Squamish will play a key role in providing thousands of units of rental housing for Vancouver in the next few years. The five-phase plan is for towers ranging from 32 to 56 storeys. At least 70 per cent of the 6,000 units will be rental. The remainder will be sold as market-rate condos on leasehold land. Although the project won’t be marketed as “luxury,” it will likely fall into that category, says Squamish spokesperson and council member Khelsilem, who uses one name.

The location and views alone would make it pricey housing.

Dustin Rivers or Khelsilem stands on the land next to the Burrard Street bridge where the Squamish Nation is proposing a massive housing project in Vancouver, on May 1, 2019.JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

Rental has proved to be a challenge to most developers because of high land values and costs, a lot of red tape and tight margins. But for the Squamish, they own the land and have full control of whatever gets developed, so construction of the first two towers will start as soon as next year, Councillor Khelsilem says.

Originally, the plan had only been for 3,000 units, but the Squamish pushed to double the density, he says.

“Really that’s where the profit angle is important for us, because we are trying to create a long-term revenue stream for the nation,” he says, seated at a coffee shop in Chinatown. “So it was the nation pushing for an exploration of increased density on it, not the developer.”

There had been a much lower density project planned for the site in 2007, but then the economic downturn of 2008 happened, and the plan was shelved. The delay was fortuitous because rampant speculation drove land values up, reaching record prices a couple of years ago.

“We are a little bit late to the game if we see it through that lens,” he says. “Mind you, a lot of that was condo and a lot of it was speculation. So building 4,800 rental as the tech industry comes to town might be also seizing that moment.”

The project is just the start of a new development venture for the Squamish, which aims to generate revenue to cover programs and services for its community of 4,100 members. Most of their current revenue comes from passive lease arrangements, but that’s become old school, Khelsilem says. The new plan is for the nation to become developer of properties that can generate long-term revenues and maximize profits, Khelsilem says.

The Squamish Nation plans to build 11 towers and 6,000 units of housing, including one 50 stories tall, on land they own and control at the foot of the Burrard Street bridge.Handout

“We have a small team, but we will be scaling up. Instead of having a bunch of non-Squamish people running the company, we could have our own people running the company. But how many people are trained and educated to take on the jobs? The answer is next to none. So I’m thinking about how to prepare our community members to take advantage of those careers.”

Because they don’t have the financing to go it alone, so far they’ve been entering into 50-50 profit sharing deals with established developers. They put up the land; the developer puts up the financing.

“We are still figuring it out, but we are learning a lot,” he says. “Financing is a big one. We are at the early stage, because we don’t have access to financing the same way that a normal developer would.”

He says they’ve received a surprising amount of support for the Senakw project, which could draw 10,000 to 12,000 residents to the area. Supporters have included all levels of government, and government agencies and neighbourhood groups that want to work with the Squamish.

Khelsilem spoke about the project at a recent Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. conference on the issue of housing and supply. At the conference, Mayor Stewart Kennedy also spoke, and, as he has done before in media interviews, he praised the project.

But not everyone is as open to the idea, Khelsilem concedes.

The Squamish Nation has been entering into 50-50 profit sharing deals with established developers for the project. They put up the land; the developer puts up the financing.

Former chief planner for the city of Vancouver, Ray Spaxman, has been an outspoken opponent of the project. He says there is an absence of crucial information for so much added density, and nobody can offer him answers.

“All that we’ve got is the propaganda,” Mr. Spaxman says. “I don’t think it’s going to be especially livable, at that density. I can’t quite understand the design.

“If you talk to people in [neighbouring] False Creek South and Kits Point, who worry about what this is going to mean, there’s nothing that says, ‘this is where the schools are going to go, where the transit is going, and the sewers, and the water, and open space. Here’s the way to walk from one part of town to another. The towers will be arranged this way around these corridors with these views and all that sort of stuff.’

“Normally you are able to look at that and it’s explained. There isn’t enough information to make your mind up.”

Others have questioned the effect such density will have on current transit, schools, infrastructure and amenities. Because the project is mostly rental, the developers are not including much parking, because renters typically use transit. So far, it’s unknown whether financing will allow for affordable housing at Senakw, other than for Indigenous members.

Others have wondered whether the project will adhere to the provincial speculation and vacancy tax, and the foreign-buyers tax. Khelsilem says that leasehold land doesn’t typically attract speculators, but they could find a mechanism to apply such taxes. And because the nation collects all taxes, it would be in their interests to do so. They’d similarly find a mechanism to mirror the Residential Tenancy Act, to protect both tenants and themselves, in the event a tenant matter has to go to arbitration.

“I see comments, some funny stuff, about how the First Nation are just wanting to be greedy like everybody else now,” Khelsilem says. “I would say there are people who are genuinely, in their heart, opposed to anyone making a profit off of housing, and politically they disagree with it.

“But the other side of it, too, is there are also people who might normally be opposed to a tower by a private developer, but because it’s a First Nation doing it, they are actually less opposed, because fundamentally our interest isn’t to make money for one individual or anything like that. It’s not like most of the developers, where it’s a family that’s going to become billionaires off of it. With this, all the profit is going to go back into [the Squamish] community, services for housing, education, health care et cetera."