A bit of Hong Kong for Vancouver, courtesy of the Squamish Nation

Dr Eric Crampton
The Dominion Post
4 October, 2021

They say you can’t fight City Hall.

And pity the developer who tries. Council can choose to be as obstinate and obstructive as it wishes.

One Auckland urban design consultant recently held a Twitter quiz asking participants to guess exactly why a processing planner had refused to stamp the drawing for a proposed development. Respondents provided guesses ranging from the number of windows, to the colour patterns on the roof, to the extent of gutter penetration through a recession plane.

In fact, the planner had wanted the colours to be changed. Some of the doors were brightly coloured. That the future owner of the building could paint not only the doors but also the whole building any colour she might like seemed to be beside the point.

So best is if you don’t have to secure City Hall’s consent in the first place.

Vancouver, Canada, faces a housing shortage at least as bad as anything in New Zealand. Vancouver’s median house price, as a multiple of median household income, exceeds even Auckland’s.

It has been just too hard to get new housing built.

But Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw, the Squamish Nation, have found a way through.

The Canadian government has a shameful history in its dealings with indigenous peoples. One legacy of that history is that First Nations were left with ‘reservations’: land left to First Nations that the Government did not take for others.

Much of that land has been in remote places, and much of that has not been of the best quality for agricultural purposes.

But one sliver of reserve land, almost five hectares, sits right across the Burrard Street Bridge from downtown Vancouver. It had been expropriated for railways in the late 1800s and early 1900s, but an eighth of the original 80 acres was returned to the Squamish in 2003.

Reserve land sits under Federal jurisdiction. So zoning rules set by local government, and processes dominated by local Not In My Backyard activists, simply do not apply.

The Squamish Nation can largely do as it wishes with that land because it is theirs by right. Land that sits a five-minute drive from downtown.

In late 2019, Squamish First Nations members decided to build, with the support of 718 of 827 voting members. They approved construction of six thousand homes on those 4.7 hectares, with ample green space, in a high-rise development called Sen̓áḵw. The development would proceed in partnership with Westbank, a real estate development company.

Sen̓áḵw’s eleven towers were set to rise to up to 56 stories, ignoring local height limits. Since then, heights have increased to 59 stories, and a twelfth tower, an office tower, has been added.

They will also ignore the City’s parking requirements, allowing them to build more homes in a transit and active-transport-oriented development. The development’s floor space will total over 371,000 square metres.

Khelsilem, a spokesperson and councillor for the Squamish Nation, noted that “some of the motifs of the building have been refined to incorporate Squamish culture and identity.” The artistic renderings are stunning.

When zoning, height limits, and council design guidelines can be ignored, because council has no such authority over First Nations land, beautiful things can happen. Vancouver bureaucrats won’t decide on the project’s aesthetics. Instead, the Squamish Nation is putting its vision to a market test.

As Daily Hive Vancouver’s Kenneth Chan put it when the project began:

“It is a project that is antithetical to the City of Vancouver’s foremost urban planning instincts that are biased solely towards European aesthetic, but it can proceed without the arduous process of seeking municipal permission and following extreme and costly city regulations as it sits on a reserve — outside of their jurisdiction.”

The Squamish First Nation set a target to provide housing for all of its members. Developing large numbers of mid-market apartments, renting them out at market rates, and using the proceeds to fund affordable housing projects gets the job done. Some 150 to 200 of the six thousand homes will be held for First Nation members at less than the market rate.

When the project was first announced, The Daily Hive reported that the Squamish Nation still needed to negotiate with municipal and regional government over road and utility connections, and local services. City government was reported to be supportive, with Vancouver’s Mayor calling the project “a gift to the city”.

Negotiations must have gone well, as construction is now soon to begin on the first phases.

It provides a rather stark contrast to Wellington’s proposed development at Shelley Bay.

And it also provides a rather pleasant vision of potential ways out of New Zealand’s housing shortage. Iwi with land in places where people wanted to live might simply assert that the right to build homes had never been ceded by Treaty.

Why fight City Hall if you can assert a right to build, and simply get on with it?

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