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Arny Wise: City of Vancouver owes the public answers over Sen̓áḵw deal

The development appears to be a financial bonanza and a design problem, argues Arny Wise
Senakw development burrard bridge
The development isn't restricted by city bylaws, but certain aspects of the infrastructure, like enhancements to the Burrard Street Bridge, involve coordination between the Nation and the City of Vancouver.

Yes, there’s a debt to be paid. And yes, the site is on reserve land, so technically the Squamish Nation can do whatever it wants, even though the land is now an integral part of the City of Vancouver and the vibrant community of Kits Point.

As an urban planner, though, it is my view that the Sen̓áḵw housing project is just bad urban design that will have a significantly negative impact on its immediate surroundings. The development is dependent on City of Vancouver servicing, so in theory there was an opportunity for the city and the developer (50/50 Squamish Nation/Westbank Corp.) to work together to achieve the greatest good for all. The negotiation that resulted in the current Sen̓áḵw plan was secret and not publicly transparent, so judging only from the results, this is not what happened.

Sen̓áḵw will cram 6,080 housing units into only 10.5 acres – the equivalent of four city blocks – at the south end of Burrard Bridge. The plan is for 11 high-rise towers from 32-59 storeys at an unheard-of residential density of 8.37 FAR (floor area ratio).

At 235,000 people per square kilometre, this is five times the current highest neighbourhood density in Canada, the Toronto low-cost housing project St. James Town. By comparison, the enormous Oakridge Park project at 41st and Cambie has a residential density of only 1.5-2.0 FAR.  The profit to the developer will be enormous.

The city agreed to connect Sen̓áḵw to all municipal hard services like sewers, water, electricity, and road infrastructure, at a $43 million cost to the developer. A new access road, currently under construction, will be built not on the developer’s land, but through a public park, through Vanier Park, a forested area that is home to an eagle nesting habitat. The development does not include schools or community centres for the 10,000-12,000 new residents. It is hard to see that the city received anything in negotiating this agreement, besides bike lanes, public art, and green building designs.

Contemplated anywhere else, this kind of proposed density would require a complete master plan for provision of community services and an access road on site for the 10,000-12,000 new residents. The adjacent Kits Point neighbourhood has some shops and services, but only a 400-student elementary school and no community centre. The whole area, bounded on one side of False Creek and Kits Beach, already has a challenging access issue.

The city held the trump card in the negotiations – no development could proceed in the absence of city servicing. In light of the current housing crisis, it is boggling that the city does not seem to have pressed for the development to meet any of the urban planning criteria of affordability, livability, and community.

So, what happened? The city owes the citizens of Vancouver answers on several fronts.

Sen̓áḵw has the savviest real estate player in town on its side, the experienced and well-connected Ian Gillespie, CEO of Westbank Developments. Were the naïve NDP City Mayor Kennedy Stewart and his team outmanoeuvred and out-negotiated by a smart real estate player with a weaker hand, who got more than he ever thought possible? The initial proposal for Sen̓áḵw was for half the density. Did Westbank walk away from the table with a massive financial bonanza and approval for a plan at a scale and scope of residential density, unheard-of anywhere else east of Shanghai?

An expert financial report prepared for Squamish Nation in 2019 estimated that the project could generate as much as $12.7 billion, recently updated to $20 billion, in cash flow for Squamish and the developer, at a cost of around $43 million to pay for the necessary hard services, road and transit upgrades.

The Kits Point Residents’ Association (KPRA), a neighbourhood group of residents, has taken the City of Vancouver to court about the lack of transparency, claiming the city had a legal obligation of public consultation regarding the plans for the site.  A court decision is expected in July.

Last summer, the federal government announced a $1.4 billion low-interest loan to Sen̓áḵw to finance half of the 6,080 housing units in the first two phases: 100 per cent of the 6,080 units will be rental, with about 4,800 market rental units and 1,215 (20%) below-market “affordable” rentals. 

The government said that the 50-year loan, funded through a special loan program in its National Housing Strategy, will create “affordable” housing, but is being offered under old rules that housing experts say would allow rents that are too high to be called “affordable.” Sen̓áḵw's location and the views alone would make all the rental units, both for market and below market rents, expensive housing and unaffordable for most Vancouver residents.

“Those apartments (in Sen̓áḵw) can be rented at around $2,200 using the household income criteria. Not sure in whose world $2,200 is affordable,” housing analyst Steve Pomeroy said, in a 2022 Globe and Mail article by Frances Bula and Bill Curry.

The city has a housing crisis. The enormous projected profit for the development suggests the city could have used the opportunity to negotiate additional affordable housing in exchange for servicing. Why didn’t that happen?

It is difficult to understand how 11 high-rise towers from 32-59 storeys crammed on to the equivalent of four city blocks can be considered livable for the citizens of Vancouver. Congested elevators, long, narrow, apartment corridors of anonymous strangers you’ve never met, crammed amenities and a lack of community cohesiveness do not add up to livability.

Former chief planner for the City of Vancouver, Ray Spaxman, who has been an outspoken opponent of the project, said in a 2020 interview with Kerry Gold of the Globe and Mail that there is an absence of crucial information for so much added density, and nobody can offer him answers.

“All that we’ve got is the propaganda,” Spaxman says. “I don’t think it’s going to be especially livable, at that density. I can’t quite understand the design.”

Why didn’t the city use its leverage to press for a reduced density and a more livable design?

With no additional community centre or school on site, and (as far as we know) no developer funds for a new school, the local amenities are simply not sufficient to handle the influx of such a large new population.

Did the city get funding from the developer to pay for these needed community amenities, in exchange for doubling the massive density it gave to the developer? Or are the rest of the citizens of Vancouver on the hook for funding the purchase of new properties nearby and the construction of new schools and community centre? Or is it actually a moot point because the housing will not be affordable for families anyway?

Without many of these questions answered, all that can be said is that the Sen̓áḵw housing project is a financial bonanza for the Squamish Nation and for the savvy, profitable, developer Westbank, and a bad urban design plan for the City of Vancouver in general.

Arny Wise is an urban planner, retired developer and mediator of municipal housing disputes in Vancouver.

Updated June 12 to clarify the project's density and to reflect the involvement of the Kits Point Residents’ Association.