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Squamish Nation sees development of Burrard site as crucial to address long-term needs of community

Preliminary plans envision dense, 3,000-unit development at foot of Burrard Bridge

The development envisioned for Squamish land at the south end of Burrard Street Bridge is “overdue,” says Khelsilem, a Squamish Nation councillor who’s been speaking about the project since news of it broke April 10.

Preliminary plans envision as many as 3,000 housing units, possibly largely rental, on the 11.7-acre irregularly shaped site near Vanier Park.

The land was the ancestral village of the Squamish Nation. Squamish band members were forcibly removed in 1913 and transported to the North Shore and Squamish Valley. Their homes were burned.

The Nation reclaimed the land in 2003 after the B.C. Court of Appeal ruled, in 2002, that Canadian Pacific, which had been granted the land for the railway, should return it to the band.

The City of Vancouver has no say in what happens to the property although a service agreement will have to be negotiated to address details such as roads, fire and police services.

(Read reaction from City of Vancouver manager Sadhu Johnston HERE)

Khelsilem said while the Squamish people have lived here for thousands of years, they’ve watched the city being built around them, generating wealth for all levels of government, individuals and corporations.

“Meanwhile, our own people are still in poverty. We have a lot of working poor. We have a lower average income than the rest of the average Canadian. We have all kinds of other challenges around health, around elder care, and around housing needs,” he said.

“And, of course, the Squamish Nation prides itself in not waiting for the government to do this for us. We’ll do it on our own. For our people, this is overdue in some ways. They’re wanting us to move forward and take advantage of these opportunities so that we can create that wealth and return it to our community. That’s the excitement that this presents to us.”

squamish nation land
Squamish Nation owns 11.7 acres of land at the south end of Burrard Bridge.

Numerous details about the development need to be ironed out before a concrete plan is formed and released publicly. A referendum dealing with the zoning of the land and business terms will be presented to Squamish Nation members, likely sometime in the next six months. The band is in the process of selecting a developer with whom to partner.

Considering the Burrard Bridge cuts through the site overhead, and the land is an unusual shape, it will be a complex development in terms of transportation planning, engineering and infrastructure, but Khelsilem said the location also presents advantages because of its proximity to downtown and transit.

“There’s also opportunities to look underneath the bridge and turn that into a vibrant space as well,” he said. “So it’s good and bad, but it is what it is and we have ways of working around it or working with it.”

There will be towers, but Khelsilem isn’t sure yet how many or what height. He said a dense development focused largely on rental is being considered based on several factors.

“When the land was returned to us in 2003, given its proximity and location, it was always seen as a potential site for economic development. The Squamish Nation can see, and our people definitely feel, there’s a housing crisis going on and there’s a need to build more housing for the city,” he said.

“We’re proposing to build mostly rental because, for our Nation, we have a lot of long-term needs for our community, whether it’s education or health care or social programs or housing. Rental really fits in line with our objectives of long-term annual, sustainable revenue.”

The Squamish Nation is also involved with two other large-scale development projects in Vancouver as part of the Musqueam Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Development Corporation, which is working with Canada Lands Company on projects on the Heather Lands and Jericho Lands.

Khelsilem said plans for those properties offer inspiration for the Burrard site, but they are quite different in terms of location and transportation opportunities.

“[It] makes sense from a location standpoint that [the Burrard site] would be a highly dense development,” he said, while noting it also benefits from being beside Vanier Park, which he said is under-utilized.

“And there’s the ability, when you do a dense development, to think about community amenity spaces — park space, communal spaces — in a way that you wouldn’t if it was lower density but a larger footprint.”

Khelsilem said Squamish Nation is planning to “have a conversation” with the City of Vancouver in terms of what kind of process would make sense and it’s “definitely open” to having a conversation with the broader public “because there’s also a benefit to that in terms of including feedback and input.”

“There’s also something to be said around some of the regional issues that the city has been dealing with around housing and the inability to get housing built in the city because of local opposition,” he added, pointing out over 29 years, only about 4,000 rental units have been built in Vancouver, while Squamish Nation envisions building 3,000 units in a single project.

“It really speaks to the opportunity that we have to do something for the city in providing much-needed housing that otherwise has had a real challenge being built.”

A lot of reaction to the project has been positive over the past 24 hours, according to Khelsilem, which he finds “quite encouraging.”

“Our community, we have lots of aspirations. We want our students to go to post-secondary, we want to create good paying jobs for our people, we want to revitalize our language, we want to provide quality health care,” he said.

“We have a huge housing crisis in our community, and a lot of this revenue is going to go directly to providing social and affordable housing for our people. There’s a lot of need, and this is really exciting that we have these opportunities now. It’s going to take some hard work, it’s going to take some time, and take some support, but we’re very fortunate to have these kinds of opportunities.”

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— with files from Mike Howell

This story has been corrected since first posted.