High stakes at play for Musqueam high-rise development

Kimberly Smith has lived on the University Endowment Lands for 17 years. She raised her children in the small community of 4,200 nestled between UBC and Pacific Spirit Park.

And it’s the community that keeps her here, now that her children have moved.

“Here in the UEL, we’re between two very large neighbours – UBC to the west and the City of Vancouver to the east,” she said. “There is a community spirit here.”

In recent years, condos and townhouses have sprung up in an area once dominated by single-family homes.

Now, the Musqueam First Nation is about to venture into its first-ever market housing development, with plans to build 1,200 units on a swath of forested land beside the University Golf Club.

The project will bring a fresh influx of residents to the UEL, which could challenge the political structure of a close community with no municipal democratic representation. It will also provide the Musqueam with revenue that could be used to build much-needed housing for band members. But it will force the band to make decisions about how to house its growing population on limited land, and how to spend limited resources.

Kimberly Smith

Smith: There is a community spirit here.

Smith worries about the future of her community. But she is hopeful that new development will allow her family to call the UEL home for years to come.

“My children are in their late 20s, both professionals,” she said. “I would like to think they could come back to the UEL someday.”

Developing plans

The site, known as Block F, is an 8.5-hectare parcel of land transferred to the Musqueam Indian Band in 2008 by the B.C. government as part of a reconciliation agreement.

The Musqueam Capital Corporation submitted a rezoning application to the UEL in December 2013, which is currently under review. As it stands, the development plan includes 22-storey high-rises, townhouses, a hotel, and a commercial centre. The Musqueam plan to lease the land to a private developer.

Stephen Lee, the corporation’s CEO, estimates Block F will house up to 2,500 people, which would bring the total UEL population up to nearly 7,000.

“We would be looking to attract a variety of clients,” he said. The application lists new immigrants, baby boomers looking to downsize, and young professionals among its target demographics.

Changing communities

But a population boom will present challenges. The UEL is not a municipality — it is administered directly by the province, and its residents cannot vote on community affairs. Block F could change that.

Block F

Block F runs south of University Boulevard, adjacent to the golf course.

Ron Pears, president of the UEL community advisory council, believes that, as population grows, so will the demand for self-governance.

“I don’t think you can run on a municipal level as a colony out of Victoria,” he said. “That is an issue that will change this community – whether this model that we’ve been working under will still work with 7,000 people. We could run a very tidy little municipality.”

Currently, Metro Vancouver’s smallest municipality is Belcarra — at 700 residents, it has its own mayor and council.

Pears also worries about a rift between the growing number of people in multiple-family housing units and the owners of single-family homes, many of which are valued at $5 million or more.

He fears that newer residents will demand amenities, like a community centre, and single-family homeowners like him will shoulder a disproportionate share of the cost.

“I worry about disquietude in the community,” he said. “We’re in fact carrying the burden of the tax load for the whole community. The multiple-family people in the apartments are getting damn near a free ride.”

But the development will do more than boost the population of the UEL.“There are over 200 people on the wait list for Musqueam.”

The project is a milestone for the Musqueam – it will be the first housing development to generate revenue for the band of 1,400 people. The development is not reserve housing. Instead, income from the lease of Block F will be used to build housing on the reserve south of Marine Drive.

“There are over 200 people on the [housing] wait list for Musqueam,” said Wade Grant, the band’s economic development coordinator. “Right now, we’re only able to build a small amount of housing at a time because of lack of funding.”

High-density future

But solving this problem may be easier said than done. Even when the band starts generating profit, it will have to find space for new housing. The Musqueam reserve is hemmed in by two golf courses and Musqueam Park.

“We’re looking at options in terms of multi-unit and higher density within our community,” Lee said. “We’re trying to be creative.”

Buddy Joseph

Joseph: There’s not enough land.

This issue is familiar to Buddy Joseph, department head of housing for Squamish Nation. He oversees the construction of 15 homes each year for Squamish band members, but he says that doesn’t come close to meeting the demand.

“There’s not enough land,” he said. “If we have steady growth, at some point single detached is not an option.”

He believes the Musqueam are in for a long, slow process as they address their housing shortage.

Meeting needs

Distributing income from housing development presents its own set of challenges for First Nations.

Musqueam isn’t the first band to use market housing to generate revenue — Tsleil-Waututh First Nation has built nearly 900 homes in its Raven Woods development in North Vancouver.

Tsawwassen First Nation began leasing land to private developers for residential development in the 1980s. Former chief Kim Baird says allocating money from these developments is always difficult when there are many needs to be met.

“It’s hard to know where to spend scant resources,” she said. “The expectations become very high. The revenue needs to match a longer-term vision for the community.”


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