Squamish Nation members vote to move forward with massive 6,000-unit housing project

In a landmark decision, Squamish Nation members have voted in a referendum to approve the development of 11.7 acres of land for the purpose of building thousands of units of housing.

Following final negotiations on the Sen̓áḵw project, the First Nation could be adding up to 6,000 units of mostly rental housing across 11 towers on reserve land at the foot of Burrard Bridge, near the Kitsilano neighbourhood of Vancouver.

A referendum was held yesterday at voting stations in North Vancouver and Squamish Valley, with 718 of 827 voting members, or 87 per cent, casting their ballot in support of designating the land use for redevelopment, and 605 of 826 voting members, or 81 per cent, voting to support the business terms of the redevelopment, which will allow the nation to partner with developer Westbank on the project.

“We’ve heard very loud and clear that our members want to see investments into our community, whether it be for our elders or our youth or our students,” said Khelsilem, a Squamish Nation council member and spokesman, during a press conference held Wednesday morning to announce the official results of the referendum. “We know that a lot of our people are struggling with the affordability crisis, and so we see the Sen̓áḵw project largely as an economic development initiative to generate wealth from the land to be able to support the goals, aspirations and dreams of our community.”

The development of the nearly 12-acre parcel of land, which was repatriated back to the Squamish in 2001 following a long court battle after the government annexed the land in the early 1900s, represents the largest development on First Nations land in Canada, according to the Squamish Nation. 

Because the project is slated for development on reserve land, the City of Vancouver will have no say in regulating what gets built. The deal between Squamish Nation and developer Westbank is a 50/50 revenue-sharing format, meaning neither First Nation or developer can make decisions without the consent of the other, however, Westbank will be responsible for raising the $3 billion in financing needed in order to get shovels in the ground.

The potential revenue generated from the development for the Squamish Nation is estimated to be up to $10 billion over the lifetime of the project, which includes leasing the land for 120 years, according to Khelsilem.

Of the 6,000 units the nation wants to build, the majority of them are earmarked for rental, something Squamish Nation views as a long-term revenue source.

“I think something that is really important to emphasize is that this is largely viewed as an economic development project, which means that this is intended to be a project that we generate revenue to be able to pay for those types of social services and programs and investments, like social housing, back into our community,” said Khelsilem.

While the focus is still primarily on offering majority rental housing, it’s too early in the development process to know exactly what the breakdown will be of different housing types, according to Khelsilem. 

“I would say some of it is going to depend on market conditions, where the market is at as we phase in each part of the project,” he said. “And that’s largely going to trigger as well the decisions around how much strata condo we build and how much rental we build, as well as the rates for each of those, and the different types of products and different types of housing units that are built into the project.”

Following finalization of the development agreement, construction is expected to start on the project’s first phase in 2021. 

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