British Columbia

Vancouver mayor calls massive First Nation development a 'gift to the city'

Mayor Kennedy Stewart says he supports the Squamish Nation's plan to build 11 housing towers on reserve land at the the south end of the Burrard Street Bridge, despite concerns about the pressures it will have on city services and infrastructure.

Squamish Nation plans to build 11 housing towers on reserve land in the heart of the city

An architectural drawing of the Senakw development.
The 11 towers planned for the Senakw development project will have approximate 6,000 housing units. (Submitted/Revery Architecture)

Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart says he supports a local First Nation's plan to build a large-scale housing project in the centre of the city that is raising concerns about the pressures it will place on city infrastructure and services.

The Squamish Nation is planning to construct 11 housing towers with 6,000 housing units on 11 acres of property it owns at the south end of the Burrard Street Bridge. The Senakw development will be on federal reserve land, meaning the nation does not need permission from the city to forge ahead.

With about 10,000 residents expected to occupy those towers, it has some people asking if the neighbourhood is ready for the influx.

"I'm thinking of it as a golden opportunity, both in terms of reconciliation and in providing much needed rental housing for the city," said Stewart Thursday on CBC's The Early Editionadding that while there are no requirements for the nation to adhere to city policies, it is communicating in good faith with the city to make the project as successful and mutually advantageous as possible. 

Coun. Sarah Kirby-Yung shares Stewart's excitement about new rental units but told CBC Tuesday she has concerns about the pressures on transit infrastructure in the area.

Only about 10 per cent of the units will have parking availability, meaning many residents will likely rely on transit. She also noted the expense of connecting to sewage and other services.

Stewart said the city will have to get TransLink on board right away but sees the challenge as "less of an inconvenience and more of an opportunity" to look at options like connecting Senakw to the SkyTrain using light rail.

He said the city has in the past negotiated agreements with the Musqueam First Nation for policing and fire services and can do something similar with the Squamish Nation.

The nation also has the power to collect property tax to pay for those services.

The units will be built as energy-efficient as possible and will feature green roofs, according to current project renderings. (Submitted/Revery Architecture)

'This is a game changer'

Larry Benge, co-chair of the Coalition of Vancouver Neighbourhoods, is concerned about the density and scale of the project and worries it could overwhelm the aesthetic of the "iconic" Burrard Street Bridge.

"It would be good if all parties involved or affected could discuss what's going on," said Benge.

Ginger Gosnell-Myers, Vancouver's  first Aboriginal relations manager, said she finds it almost funny that people are asking to be consulted about a small sliver of land on traditional Squamish territory.

"This city is essentially built on stolen Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh land," said  Gosnell-Myers Wednesday on The Early Edition"This is a game changer for this city. It's a game changer for First Nation rights."

Gosnell-Myers said Senakw will give future Vancouverites the chance to live in the city and it's up to the city to respond to concerns about infrastructure and capacity.

Stewart say he is up to the challenge, including working with the park board, the school board and the province to ensure community services are available when the neighbourhood's new residents arrive. 

The Vancouver School Board is currently considering a motion to align  its policies and decisions with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

"I really think this is a real gift to the city," said Stewart. "Everything we can do to make this project be successful is at the top of my list."

'Unprecedented' potential for development

Together, the Squamish, Tsleil-Waututh and Musqueam nations hold about 65 hectares of developable land in Metro Vancouver under the banner of MST Development. That includes sites in Burnaby, the North Shore and Vancouver.

"There's no other developer that owns as much land as the three nations here," Squamish Nation Coun. Khelsilem told CBC.

The goal for the nations is to develop real estate and let the profits flow back to their communities.

Urban planner Gordon Price said the development potential is "unprecedented."

"It could well be for the next several decades, First Nations will be the biggest real estate developers providing housing for Vancouver, and maybe a good part of the region," he said.

With files from The Early Edition, Bridgette Watson and Jon Hernandez