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episode # 227

11 Towers and 6,000 New Homes Near Burrard Bridge with Khelsilem Tl’aḵwasik̓a̱n

The City of Vancouver is a notoriously difficult place to build homes, with crippling debates occurring at any attempt to add housing. So, it may surprise you to hear that ground is being broken soon for 11 towers – with the tallest being 57 stories! – at the base of the west side of the Burrard Bridge. Wait…in Vancouver? Not exactly. Squamish Nation Councillor and Spokesperson Khelsilem sits down with Adam and Matt to detail the Sen̓áḵw Development, a Squamish Nation/Westbank master planned community that will redefine the Vancouver skyline. Tune in for a fascinating conversation about development & jurisdiction, density & forward-thinking design as well as reconciliation & the rise of a new development company with far reaching goals. Not to be missed!

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Episode Summary


Who is Khelsilem Tl’aḵwasik̓a̱n?

Khelsilem is a Spokesperson and Councillor for the Squamish Nation. He was elected in 2017, serving a four-year term. He is the representative voice for the Squamish Nation to external parties and media. Khelsilem grew up on the North Shore, but he currently resides in Vancouver. Over the last couple of years his role has shifted to the real estate industry, given the significant holdings and opportunities that the Squamish Nation has in real estate. From 2014 to 2016, the Three Nations were able to successfully negotiate for the purchase of Crown Lands at Jericho from the Federal Government of Canada. The government was in the process of a disposition of lands policy in an attempt to build up capital to repay debt. The Three Nations came together to negotiate a purchase, similar to a vendor take back agreement, where the they would own and develop the land and use the funds from the development to repay the purchase price at a later date. Not too long after this, the Three Nations were able to negotiate for the purchase of the lands adjacent to Jericho from the Provincial Government of BC. These purchases, along with previously owned reserve lands, were a huge opportunity for real estate development for the Squamish Nation.  

Can you tell us about the Sen̓áḵw Development?

Sen̓áḵw was a village in the community for many, many generations. In the 1870’s and 1880’s, the Federal Government had their process of creating reserve lands, where they would survey lands where Indigenous People were living and allocate a certain amount of reserve land to these people, relative to the number of people that were living there. At the time, there were a large number of people living at Sen̓áḵw and the Federal Government set aside approximately 80 acres of land as crown owned reserve lands. The process was a systematic way for the Federal Government to provide a small portion of land to the Indigenous People that would be set aside as a reserve, while then appropriating all the remaining land to be carved up for private title. Around 1910, as Vancouver started to expand and grow with the expansion of the railroad, the population of immigrants to the area was on the rise. There was also the formation of a number of colonial governments including the City of Vancouver and the Vancouver Parks Board. In 1913, the Parks Board put in a request to the City of Vancouver and the Province of BC to remove the Indigenous People from Sen̓áḵw area. The Parks Board wanted to privatize the land and use it for public use, and they had the support of the RCMP, the Federal Government and the Province of BC. The Indigenous People were not included in the decision-making process, as they were not considered persons under the law, and a number of families were forcibly evicted from the Sen̓áḵw Community. They were forced to relocate and a number of them relocated to the Squamish area. Eventually the Sen̓áḵw land was taken over by National Defence during World War II. It was maintained by National Defence until the 1960’s when the Federal Government started to obtain leases on the land to the Vancouver Parks Board and the City of Vancouver. In the 1990’s, CN Rail attempted to sell a small parcel of the land (11 acres) adjacent to the Burrard Bridge that was under their ownership. At this time, the Squamish Nation challenged CN Rail legally that they even had the right to sell the lands, as they belonged to the Squamish Nation. The lands had never been sold and the Nation had never been compensated for the years from when they were originally appropriated. After a 20-year court battle and an out of court settlement, the Squamish Nation received the 11-acre parcel of land back and 98.2-million-dollar cash settlement as a trust fund for the community members. Given the land’s location and the close proximity to downtown, it has always been seen as an ideal site for economic development. The Nation is proposing a masterplan development project for the site to generate revenue for the Squamish Nation to support the social and economic programs for the community.  

Can you tell us about the planned masterplan community at Sen̓áḵw?

The proposal is for approximately 6,000 units of housing. There will be 11 towers, with the tallest being 56 stories and the smallest being 16 stories. The development plan is focusing on activating the ground space by foregoing the typical podium and tower structure and instead just utilizing towers that would essentially just come down from the sky into the ground level with a lot of community amenity spaces. This would also include space under the Burrard Bridge and would include retail opportunities on the edge of the reserve boundaries. The roofs of these retail spaces would be part of the park or green space where people could sit. It will be a largely rental project with between 70% – 90% rental units and some leasehold strata and possibly office space. There is also a plan to include subsidized units for Squamish Nation citizens to provide housing to the community’s people as well. Rental was a strategic choice because the Squamish Nation has other developments that will generally need leasehold strata. Rental will be provided at this development to attempt to diversity the revenue streams for the Nation. Rental also provides the greatest return for the Nation back to the community with a sustainable source of revenue that would grow over time as the principal investment for the construction is paid back. Rental is a sustainable income stream.  

What role, if any, does the City of Vancouver play for this development? Is there a precedent for this project?

There has been a lot of development that has happened on reserve land over the last couple of decades. There has also been a changing landscape on law and regulation when it comes to development of reserve land. About a decade ago, the Federal Government passed the First Nations Fiscal Management Act that gives First Nations taxation authority on reserve lands. The taxes are collected at the same rates as in neighbouring areas, but the taxes are collected by the Nation. These taxes are used by the Nation to pay for municipal services that they negotiate from the local municipality for things like hydro, libraries, police, sewage. There is a relationship there between the local municipality, the Nation, and the residents that was not possible 20 or 30 years ago. There is also legislation at the provincial level called the First Nations Commercial and Industrial Development Act that allows for the Province to collaborate with the Federal Government to develop Federal regulations that will mirror Provincial law so that Provincial Law can apply on reserve lands. This legislation allows the mirroring of things like the Residential Tenancy Act in the province. This creates a certainly for the market when doing things like rental and real estate development. These tools didn’t exist 20 – 30 years ago and this is what allows the development of real estate on reserves. Real estate becomes a huge economic driver for taxation as well as the rental revenue. 100% of the levies and taxes on real estate goes to the Nation and a portion of this goes to negotiating services with the municipality, but a portion of this goes directly to the Nation as a revenue stream. There are a number of pieces at play and there is a requirement to work with the City of Vancouver for this development to provide infrastructure to the site, as well as coordination of engineering requirements on the roads that are adjacent to the site. If we think about how many construction vehicles will be coming and going from the site, they will have to travel on roads on the City of Vancouver, where it requires the Nation and the City to work together.   Where the City will not be involved is on the development site for the zoning. The height, unit sizes, density and other factors will not be determined by the City of Vancouver. There is a requirement to build things to code, both from a market standpoint and from a liability standpoint. Inspections and engineering signoffs are still required because it is in the Nation’s best interest to build the best product that it can. There is no incentive to build an inferior product because the Nation would not see the return on investment that it is looking for. There are further opportunities to develop further regulations that would very clearly apply. As discussed before, the Federal Government could create regulations that would mirror provincial law that would apply to a similar development, with the input of the Nation. This would mean that the Nation is not following the regulations because they want to, but because there are regulations in place. This provides a clarity of what regulations are being followed and what regulations are in place. That being said, there are also opportunities to forego some of the City’s requirements when it comes to things like floor space ratio and sightlines if it makes sense to do so. For this project, the site is awkward for doing podium structures because of the Burrard Bridge, so it made more sense to provide open park space at ground level that will provide a more open area versus a dark and enclosed space. The Nation is working to make the best choices for this specific development.  

This project appears to be a large benefit to the City of Vancouver that is currently undergoing a housing crisis. What has your feedback been to the project?

There is definitely a huge opportunity to study this development to see what the impacts will be on the community and the real estate market. As others have said, the only reason that the Squamish Nation and Westbank can propose a 6,000 unit development on an 11 acre site is that they have done the analysis that shows there is a demand for this type of development. The site was built to include a high level of density for units that was inline with engineering standards. This was done because this was what the market wanted. If there was a redesign of the whole city to create density, you would see a significant drop in prices over time because you would be adding so much new supply. There will be a lot of excitement around the project and the Nation is doing something that the City of Vancouver is unable to do. The City of Vancouver struggles to build 1,000 units of rental, whereas this project will be providing upwards of 5,000 rental units. This will benefit the City and show residents of Vancouver that this increased level of density can work and is preferable to provide benefits of housing to the larger city. There is a common discourse in the City of Vancouver that people are not interested in more density, but this narrative may only be due to a small number of people and not the larger population. The larger population is ready for greater density if it is done in the correct way and this project may challenge those dissenting views and change the conversation around housing development and land use. For Sen̓áḵw, there is a clear narrative for a lot of people to understand in that a local First Nation is doing a massive real estate project and will use 100% of the profits to benefit a marginalized community. There is a very clear story here that is a very different story than a private developer who is planning to build 6,000 units so that they can become richer. There may be a discomfort with the latter narrative versus the narrative that the Squamish Nation is proposing. We are prototyping a type of development that will shift the conversation around real estate in Vancouver.  

The Squamish Nation has paired up with Westbank for this project. Why did you team up with Westbank and what does it merit?

The Nation did a request for proposal to over 20 developers in Vancouver to bid on a 50/50 partnership with the Squamish Nation where the Nation would provide the land and the developer would provide the guarantee on the financing and the project management expertise. The fact that the Nation is not required to come up with a single dollar for the financing is a huge plus; most developers are not comfortable with taking on this much risk. Westbank has done many major development projects and they can secure the financing needed for the project. At this point, we have chosen Westbank to undergo this project with us, but the master development agreement has not been signed. There are ongoing conversations with Westbank in tandem with a number of other organizations, including the City of Vancouver, Metro Vancouver, Vancouver Parks Board and the Vancouver School Board. Westbank was chosen by the Nation because of their experience in the industry, their success in the industry, their ability to do complex partnerships and their overall philosophy. Westbank understands that the Squamish Nation is looking to do these developments on their own in the future. The Nation has another 100 acres on the North Shore that are potential lands for economic development of real estate. Ideally, the Nation would like to develop these lands on their own after gaining the capital and experience necessary from this current project. In terms of timelines, we are looking to have some major announcements in the fall regarding the project and the goal is to move into construction sometime early in 2021. The development would be a 5 phased approach which allows us to make some market-based decisions as the phases are completed. The timeline to completion is uncertain; it could be 5 years or 10 years to be fully complete. There is a 120-year lease on the land that allows for a construction period and then the sub lease agreements.  

How does this project tie in with Reconciliation?

In some ways it doesn’t, and it shouldn’t be considered Reconciliation. The City of Vancouver did not do anything to help the Nation get the land back and they did not give us any land back. They have not given the Nation any compensation for the land we have lost or compensation for any of the land they have been occupying and generating billions of dollars from over the last 150 years. The City of Vancouver signing service agreements with the Nation should not be considered Reconciliation. There is nothing that the City of Vancouver is doing to restore wealth and capacity to the Indigenous People that have been stripped of their land and resources. It is important to recognize that just because Indigenous People are involved in a project doesn’t mean that it contributes to Reconciliation. The Reconciliation work that we have seen at the City of Vancouver has been at the political level and staff level around attitude change, philosophy change and behavioural change. For example, the City of Vancouver has been working hard to support this project in ways that they would not support a project from a private developer. They recognize that this project is a neighbouring government that is trying to accomplish something, and they have been working together with us on a government to government basis. The general public can also look at a project like this and shift their own perceptions and attitudes around Indigenous People and how Indigenous People can succeed. There is also a shift in attitudes that the Squamish Nation should be able to receive economic benefit from their land the way that the City of Vancouver and others have benefited from the land over the last 150 years. There have been all kinds of towers build on the Nation’s territory; we did not have say over that, when those towers were built or when the City of Vancouver received billions of dollars from these developments. There is an opportunity now for people to recognize that this is an opportunity for the Nation to succeed in a way that the rest of us have been succeeding for over 100 years.   5 wire: Favourite Neighbourhood in Vancouver: Strathcona Favourite Bar or Restaurant: The Boxcar on Main Street One book you would recommend everyone read: Indigenous Writes by Chelsea Vowel One piece of advice you would give your 18-year-old self: I wish I would have come out of the closet sooner Something you have purchased for under $1,000 that has positively changed your life: My first paddle used for traditional sea going canoe journeys with my community.   

Find out more about the Sen̓áḵw Project and the Squamish Nation.        

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