'Forging new ground': Squamish Nation planning 11 towers next to Burrard Bridge

The Squamish Nation has doubled the size of a proposed development it is planning to build on reserve land in the centre of Vancouver.

In April, the nation announced plans to construct 3,000 housing units on land it owns alongside the Burrard Street Bridge in the city's Kitsilano neighbourhood. Now, the nation says it intends to build 11 towers and a total of 6,000 mostly rental units on its 11 acres of land.

The project, known as the Senakw development, does not need city approval to move ahead. 

Khelsilem, a Squamish Nation councillor who uses a singular name, said council determined collectively this was the best use of the land.

"Looking at the needs in the city around providing rentals, providing more housing just made more sense for us," said Khelsilem in a phone interview on CBC's The Early Edition Tuesday.

"It presents an opportunity for us to do things a little bit different, perhaps be a little bit more progressive than even the city is allowed to be," he said, adding because the project is on federal reserve land, the nation will not have to follow the city's bylaws or building policies.

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Vancouver Coun. Sarah Kirby-Yung said she is excited to hear about new rental units which the city desperately needs but is concerned about the density of the project and the pressures on transit infrastructure in the area. 

Kirby-Yung also has concerns about the expense of delivering city services such as sewage to the development's future residents, noting this is a precedent-setting project.

"We are forging new ground if you will," she said.

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The Squamish Nation has the power to collect taxes on its land, and Khelsilem said about 20 per cent of the units will be strata-owned, and property taxes will be comparable to the City of Vancouver. That revenue, he said, will offset service costs such as sewage and hydro.

Khelsilem said the nation is planning to follow some city policies, such as striving to be as energy efficient as possible, which includes limited parking to encourage a shift away from car ownership.

The nation also intends to follow the city's model of engaging with the public on the development plan, which Khelsilem said is still in the design stage.

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Larry Benge, co-chair of the Coalition of Vancouver Neighbourhoods and a Kitsilano resident, said he worries the tower development will inspire other building owners in the area to "get stars in their eyes" and want to level older buildings and build higher as well.

"There's a lot of low-rise, older, affordable rental accommodation that probably will be toast," he said. "I hope all parties concerned will look at the effects, not just of the creation of a project that gives return to the Squamish Nation on their investment, but also the effects of such development on the surrounding areas which will be extensive."

The tallest proposed tower in the development is 56-stories high.

Ben Nelms/CBC

"I can only imagine the uproar of residents," said Jane McFadden, executive director of the Kitsilano West 4th Avenue Business Association when asked about public consultation. 

McFadden said from an economic standpoint, she is happy to hear there will be more shoppers and diners in the neighbourhood but has concerns about the years of construction and the impact on traffic congestion the project could have. 

The current development plans only provide parking for 10 per cent of residents.

The project must be approved by members of the Squamish Nation on Dec. 10. Approval will mean partnering with Vancouver developer Ian Gillespie of Westbank Corp. which would build it.

In a statement, the city said if the project proceeds, it looks forward to continuing a longstanding relationship with the Squamish Nation and will work with it to support their integration with the existing community and city service connections.