FRANCES BULA (GLOBE & MAIL) - The Squamish Nation got overwhelming approval from its more than 800 voting members to move forward with a massive rental-apartment development on Vancouver’s central-city waterfront – a project the nation is saying is a first of this magnitude for any Indigenous group in the world.
They say the 11-tower, 6,000-unit Senakw project on Kits Point will provide a model for other developments on reserve lands the nation holds throughout North Vancouver, as the Squamish aim for as much economic return as they can possibly get from their land.
“We went in with a clear conscience to maximize the profit,” said the nation’s CEO, Toby Baker, as a group from the Squamish council and nation announced the results Wednesday. “This is designed to be a cash-flow stream for multiple generations.”
Of the 827 Squamish voting members, 718 were in favour of changing the land designation to a long-term lease for development; 665 were in favour of the business terms, which means a 50-50 split of profits and investment with developer Ian Gillespie’s Westbank Corp.
“The Squamish Nation is elated and happy and thankful … with this resounding mandate,” said Squamish Councillor Khelsilem, who uses only one name.
“This is the beginning of a new type of leadership that the Squamish Nation wishes to develop.”
The nation wants to start construction on a first phase as early as 18 months from now, which will mean intensive negotiations to ensure the land that stretches to both sides of the south end of the Burrard Bridge gets necessary infrastructure such as sewer, water and power connected to it.
Khelsilem estimated the construction costs will be $3-billion, while the profits will be $8-billion to $10-billion for each of the two partners over the term of the land’s 120-year lease.
The planning team for the project has not determined yet how much of the project will be rental and how much will be leasehold condos, other than saying condos won’t be more than 30 per cent of the total. They also don’t know what the mix of rents might be yet.
That will all depend on market conditions, the cash-flow needs of the nation, and the partnerships the Squamish and Westbank are able to forge with both the provincial and federal housing agencies to access money that might be available for below-market housing or sustainability goals, said Khelsilem.
But the partners will have some advantages when it comes to building costs.
The nation is not required to go through any city planning or permitting processes, which could save years of waiting. It is talking about providing parking for only 10 per cent of the units, which could be another massive saving since a single underground stall can cost as much as $80,000.
Khelsilem said affordable rents are more possible in a situation where all the land cost doesn’t have to be covered right at the beginning, the way most development projects work.
Instead, the payment for the land will be done gradually over the term of the lease.
The nation expects to see 100 to 200 units reserved for its members, which could mean 300 or 400 people from the nation living in the development.
That means Indigenous students could become a significant new population in the school system, Khelselim said.
Squamish planners have already contacted the Vancouver school board and provincial Education Ministry to talk about a possible expansion of nearby Henry Hudson Elementary School.
Vancouver’s school board has had a difficult time in recent years getting the ministry to agree to build new schools in the big new residential developments that have gone onto former industrial land around False Creek, many of them near the planned Squamish development.
Henry Hudson, which is supposed to have 317 students but has close to 400, is due to be replaced with a new school built to contemporary seismic standards.
Prior to the Squamish announcement, the ministry had been talking about funding a new school with fewer spaces than the current one.
Khelsilem said the Squamish representatives are making the province aware that it has “some obligations to uphold our rights when it comes to the education of our children.”
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