No room for the view

The Squamish Nation plan a condo project that flouts Vancouver’s rules

Photograph by Nick Westover

It’s just steps from Granville Island and Kitsilano Beach, and with to-die-for views of English Bay and the snow-tipped North Shore mountains, this 10-acre site at the south end of the Burrard Bridge—among the last open stretches of undeveloped city waterfront—may be the Lower Mainland’s hottest empty lot. Empty except for a totem pole and a thick tangle of blackberry bushes, the site belongs to the Squamish Nation.

And it will soon play host to a massive new real-estate development: a $1-billion, two-tower, mixed-use job that will, according to early drawings, block the city’s carefully preserved ocean and mountain views and dramatically densify sleepy Kitsilano.

The Squamish Nation is a growing local powerhouse, drawing most of its $60-million annual income from its marinas and construction business and 70 leaseholds, including a golf course and a mega-mall. It’s behind a tony new housing project in Howe Sound. Last month, its 3,600 members voted nine-to-one to develop a vacant Squamish site on the Sunshine Coast. These projects, however, pale in comparison to the crown jewel: that Kitsilano project, which is drawing quiet criticism in Vancouver. It’s not just the views. So far, the public amenities—parks, art galleries and schools—required of all new city developments of its scope are absent from its design. That’s because none of Vancouver’s celebrated design principles apply on native land.

It won’t be the first time the exemption has touched a nerve. A month ahead of the Olympics, the Squamish erected a series of 300-sq.-foot digital billboards, a move met with visceral anger in metro Vancouver, home to some of Canada’s tightest advertising laws and a citizenry practically cultish about the views. Even bus-stop ads are banned from West Vancouver. On their land, First Nations are not bound by municipal rules. Sweet justice, perhaps; on their land, past B.C. governments so rarely played by the rules.

The lot was once a Coast Salish trading hub and a major Squamish village, rich with elk, bog cranberries, wild rice, sturgeon and oolichan, says hereditary chief Ian Campbell, 37, who was recently re-elected to a second term on council. But in 1913, inhabitants were barged to the North Shore, their new home. The old one was burned to the ground. In 2002, the B.C. Supreme Court returned a portion, one-eighth the original size. The Squamish are simply using the “best tools available” to flourish once more, says Campbell, trim and tieless, like most local businessmen, noting the absence of a hue and cry surrounding the erection of the new Shangri-La skyscraper, which exceeds Vancouver’s strict height limits. “We aren’t going to ask permission to do business in our own lands.”

Of course, the Shangri-La is sliced diagonally on one side to prevent it from blocking mountain views and was allowed to exceed the height cap in return for public, outdoor art space. And the Squamish have yielded before, scaling back the number of billboards by more than half before the Olympics, and also reducing their size. Recently, the band signed an agreement with Mayor Gregor Robertson, promising regular dialogue over the coming development that will, after all, need sewer and water hookups.

More is at stake than a pair of condo towers. Both the Squamish and the Musqueam Indian Band own jaw-dropping undeveloped city lots. Other bands have dibs on surplus federal lands—old city army barracks and post offices. In fact, with Vancouver’s downtown largely built out, local planning guru Trevor Boddy predicts local First Nations will be the “single-biggest players” in developing the city in the next 10 years. Bit of sweet justice in that, too.