August 27, 2021

How Do We Talk About Senakw?

We’ve never found a way to talk about Tssawwassen Mills.

It’s that giant auto-dependent single-use shopping complex on the way to the ferries. Over a million square feet of retail sitting on paved-over arable land below sea level on the Pacific Flyway.

The mall was developed by the Tsawwassen First Nation as a consequence of one of the first modern treaties negotiated when Gordon Campbell was Premier – a breakthrough achievement.  There is no dispute that the Tsawwassen had the irrefutable right and the economic justification to do what they did.  But when those who speak of their deep respect for creation, for the natural world of which they are an indivisible part, then the gap between that spiritual world and the brutal reality of Tswawwassen Mills is just too discordant.  So we don’t speak of it.

But there are lessons that would be helpful to discuss as we enter this new era of billion-dollar indigenous real-estate projects – especially Senakw, the latest megaproject to be built on the shores of False Creek and the highest density development anywhere in Canada, packed on to a very constrained site.

Senakw has been framed by the mayor as a “gift to the city” – and in one important way it is: thousands of rental units coming on stream when critically needed, without the constraints of public process or lack of amenity as measured against its predecessors on False Creek .  This will, it is hoped, provide more affordability than would otherwise occur, in part by passing costs on to those beyond its borders and into the future.

Senakw, to be clear, is going to be better than Tsawwassen Mills.  This is not a spec development on some farmland; it’s a milestone in indigenous relations – where reconciliation and capitalism come together, the Squamish and Westbank as partners, whether around a boardroom table or a drum circle.  All parties, including local government, have a stake in its success and acceptance as a project that lives up to the aspirational values of its beneficiaries.

However, as more information becomes evident about density and transportation impacts on its immediate neighbours and the city, as well as the specifics of the relationship with local government (the financing of infrastructure, the provision of amenity, the tax implications), the questions will get tougher and more technical.

There are also other developments immediately adjacent to the Squamish project, notably the Concord Pacific brewery redevelopment, for which Senakw will inevitably be seen as a precedent for what they may be allowed to do and the obligations expected to be met.  Will the megaproject standards developed over the last half century continue to apply, or will a new (and lower) bar be set? – a thought that has surely occurred to any developer looking to partner with First Nations.

More answers will be demanded, more process called for, more citizen groups formed – indeed, that’s already started.  Soon more mayoral aspirants will speak up as an election looms.

It’s understandable why there’s momentum to get Senakw into construction with enough inertia and support to hush dissent.

But if reconciliation of any kind means being honest and open, to declare interests and be open to accommodation, then this is that time. The best outcome will be if there’s a sense of mutual benefit and an appreciation of past traditions of everyone involved – and that includes what many dismiss as colonial or fail to take seriously as indigenous.

Senakw seems to be searching for the right balance, but so far the spokespeople aren’t saying much beyond good intentions and platitudes – and certainly not about the gap between rhetoric and reality seen elsewhere.   But If community concerns are not treated with the respect expected of those who speak for the community, then there will be a real danger that Senakw gets pulled into a political culture war.

My belief is that there’s enough experience, understanding and mutual respect in this city, given the scale of the benefits, the magnitude of the achievement and the potential for another win-win, to avoid intransigence and excess.  Guilt and shame are ultimately counterproductive ways to relitigate the past and negotiate a healing future.

If Senakw reflects on the ground the aspirations of its visionaries, it could be the next great megaproject that is better in important ways than those that came before.



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  1. I am not so much concerned about the density but more about why we will end up with people boxed into apartments immediately adjacent to the Burrard Bridge traffic. Noise and air pollution are significant health hazards. What is really galling is that a massive yard of boat and canoe dominates the waterfront. Surely some one could have said let’s do a land trade and put the boats under the bridge and give the residents the best habitat possible?

    1. We lived for a year in the The Lagoons near Granville Island, about 400 metres from both the Granville and Burrard bridges. I agree that the noise from the bridges significantly increased our stress levels at night. I can’t image living in one of the Sen̓áḵw towers within 30 metres of the Burrard Bridge.

      Under your concept of a trade for more liveable land, do you anticipate Sen̓áḵw being lower in height, yielding less impact on view planes for the residents south of the development, and fewer units, creating less stress on the adjoining communities?

      Your concept would also put more units north of the bridge, further compounding the roadway and greenway pinch points in Kits Point, a community already under stress without a traffic plan, despite one having been requested since the 1990s. Do you see alternative connectors to Burrard and Cornwall, an intersection that has the capability of handling the traffic loads from both Sen̓áḵw and Quantum Park developments? It is currently designated a part of TransLink’s Major Road Network and the City’s Designated Truck Route.

      1. The concept of a road along side the west side of the complex is shown on the publicly released early plans. I don’t think of it as a trade. I see it as a reconciliatory gesture of sharing the land as opposed to the city giving up the land in trade for lower density. But this depends on the city’s directive to the planning department. Possibly that has been given already in an in-camera meeting. I am unclear whether the view scale is an issue. Currently the site, on the west side of the bridge is occupied by tall trees and on the far side of the creek the tall buildings on the high slope of Burrard would obscure any view of the distant mountains. As far as I know there were no protected view envelopes of the mountains west of Chocolit Park on 7th Ave. That’s a shame.
        You mention a lack of traffic plan for the Kits Point area. The schematic of the accessing roads indicates entry to the city system on the east side at or close to the First Ave intersection. Traffic volumes may warrant a signalized intersection. On the west side I can see that the Cypress/ Cornwall intersection needing an upgrade but it will be a tough nut to crack as the road already accommodates two vehicle and two bike lanes leaving no room for a dedicated left turn onto Cornwall. Projected volume increase will be a key issue to pursue with the city. But don’t despair at this stage. Of the 6000 units only 10% parking will be accommodated and the transit system will be improved with bus stops on the south end of the bridge.

  2. Everyone is being honest, so I don’t see this as a point of contention. The question only comes up because negotiations are usually sensitive and confidential, leading those not directly privy to those talks stressed and suspicious. Squamish/Westbank say they’re building 6,000 units, as is their right. The City says it wants to negotiate as much from them as possible to mitigate the impacts on adjacent City streets, residents, and services, as is its right. None of this is a secret.

    I realize this is a new and weird situation. We’re not accustomed to First Nations’ nascent autonomy affecting “our” world in such a direct manner. But this is a small part of what actual Reconciliation means – sharing. God knows the Canadian government has lost no sleep trying to control every aspect of their lives. But suddenly they want to do the most normal Vancouver thing imaginable – build towers – and it prompts existential conjecture about the future viability of our civilization. I’d hate to see what would happen if they changed their minds and turned the whole place into a sprawling brothel (wait, no, I wouldn’t hate to see that).

    After several hundred years of treating First Nations as something between an infestation and a burden, we are finally trying (trying) to see them as actual, human partners. This is new and there will be mis-steps. But they didn’t create this cultural dichotomy. We did. So let’s not get our knickers in a twist when they decide to exercise their decision-making autonomy in a slightly different fashion than what we’re used to. Of all the things that are likely to kill us off in the next 100 years, treating First Nations peoples as actual human beings ranks real low.

    1. Very thoughtful response Dan. Disclosure. I am very much embedded with the Tsawwassen First Nation (TFN) and the Great Blue Heron Way trail through the traditional lands of the TFN. the Tsawwassen TFN have houses completed and under construction in addition to the Tsawwassen Mills Mall. Some of that development is on brownfield sites and some on ALR green fields of poor agricultural yield. While the mega mall and delisting of the ALR rankles a little it would seem illogical to cry foul when we say little about the Oakridge expansion where buildings of only 40 years are torn down to build-towers. Or MetroTown where quasi job producing industrial complexes like Kelly Douglas were torn down for Meagan malls and-towers.

  3. I fully support and congratulate the Squamish nation for taking the initiative to develop more housing in a city that sorely needs it. I am, however, completely opposed to a ‘push the boundaries’ developer, Westbank, planning a paved road through public parkland! Yes, the Squamish nation has land to develop and use as they choose but, like everyone else, their project needs to build access roads within their property lines and not on Federal park space, owned by all Canadians. We need more housing in Vancouver but we need green, natural spaces to keep our city liveable. As Gordon Price has suggested, many developers will be waiting eagerly for their chance to pave over our parks!

  4. Excellent article. There are many questions that need to be answered before this development takes hold. But the way this project has been proposed is quite the opposite. Build first and the everyone can ask questions later. By then, it is too late. Frankly, many people are tired of “back room” politics by this city government of Vancouver.

  5. A very well written article. I find the density shocking – 8 times the density of the west end, with no amenities or access roads?! Using parkland to create an access road is not an option in my mind. This development could be a gift to the city, if it was carried out with the transparency, environmental consideration, and general range of guidelines applied to other developments of this magnitude.

    1. A few weeks ago, inspired to do so by an angry resident of kits Point, I walked the path along the east side of the park. A gaggle of geese looked up briefly from their cropping but no one else around. It occurred to me that the stand of tall trees were likely destined for the chipper. Again, I can’t fathom how much we worry about loss of a 20m strip of goose forage but allow trees to be lost to cram people up against a major arterial. Even while a blacktop boat park is allowed to occupy the best part of the park. And just to throw another dart. I dislike the depictions of the towers that look like rising grubs with green carbuncles sprouting from their intestinal pouches. I would be so pleased to see a sophisticated array of James Chang towers marching along, at a distance, from Burrard Bridge in place of the grubs.

      1. Yeah, there are a bunch of geese and brown grass areas in Stanley Park, Queen Elizabeth Park and Jericho Park — unsused space so we should pave those over too!

        1. I am pretty sure your tongue in cheek comment indicates that you don’t believe that is what I would advocate for. However, are we not looking at the three sides of the sustainability model. Environment green space v economic affordability v social livability? We need to retain our green space but we also need to address the housing affordability and livability simultaneously. Let’s not forget that the original stewards of this land were the Squamish who, it appears, were cheated and cajoled to get on a barge and were shipped out. I am sure their domain stretched much further back, to at least the slopes up-to what is now Broadway. This is a good opportunity to show flexibility in the grand trade off.

          1. Yes, I admit it was a ‘cheeky’ comment. And I agree we need housing badly and I support this initiative by the Squamish Nation. And we need discussion of the 3 pillars of sustainability but when or if will this ever take place? Nothing yet in this regard. I’d love to see an open table exchange. Environmental concerns — is it a good idea to pave over some of the closest park space available to the development? Economic affordability — I wonder since I suspect this will be the most expensive construction location ever in Vancouver due to the bridge, the water, the limited land area. We’ll see how the numbers crunch. Social livability — I’m not sure about others but I don’t always find the West End to be the most calm and peaceful place yet the Senakw development will have over 8 times that density.

            Finally, I agree that unforgivable things were done to the Squamish and other First Nations and we must now focus on reconciliation. In this case, however, in 2000, the Squamish people ceded Vanier Park to the Federal Government for $92.5 million. Is breaking yet another agreement going to help?

  6. Interesting article. I’m very perplexed, though, as to the City of Vancouver’s silence on this issue. If there is a road through Vanier Park then how is the small community of Kits Point supposed to absorb this traffic? It’s already overrun with cars and crossing the street doesn’t always feel safe.

  7. I welcome more press coverage of this development. It seems to not have caught the eye of many and there is of course the uncomfortable assumption that any criticism of it must be rooted in colonial era racism. But without some proper discourse we risk making one of the most beautiful parts of the city into an even much more denser version of the Concorde Pacific lands. The density here is like nothing ever done in the US or Canada. And it’s in a spot without the amenities for the new city of 10,000 residents. There are 2 schools that are at capacity and one aging Community centre on Granville island. Somewhere in the planning needs to be massive upgrades to the traffic systems, sewer systems, new roads built over parkland (I can’t see any other way this can work?). My hope is that the developer is opening high in the density ask so that it gets knocked back down to something like what we have downtown.

    I think what frustrates residents of Kits Point is that there doesn’t seem to be much information forthcoming on the actual plans and timelines and any allowable public debate.

    I’m hoping dialogue can happen so that this can be a great new neighbourhood in Vancouver and not seen as another Tsawwassen Mills.

    1. The lack of public debate is a dereliction of duty by the City of Vancouver. This unfortunately just breeds suspicion and does nothing to further the process of reconciliation. In fact, it does just the opposite. Sad. A wonderful opportunity missed.

      1. Wonderful opportunity for what? For the good people of the city to tell Squamish Nation what it can and can’t do? Is that Reconciliation to you? The City is currently trying to negotiate everything it can get, and does have some leverage. Much of that will come in the form of developer contributions. Locals will then get to bicker over what to do with that money. That’s “the opportunity “. But until it’s got, there’s nothing to discuss.

        1. Dearest Dan
          Irrespective of the horrendous historical treatment of the Squamish Nation, if you think that relations with the Squamish Nation are going to be anything but sour, by ignoring local interests, stifling any debate, and by the use of deceptive signage at the Senakw site, then I believe you’re being naive.
          The issue is not the actual project, but the lack of information. We deserve better.

          1. Debate starts when the City has its money. Not before. Neither you nor I nor the City of Vancouver have any legal or moral standing to “debate” what Squamish Nation chooses to do on its land. I realize it’s anathema for us middle class folks to not have any power in this type of situation, but we do not. To insist one must have a “say” in the Nation’s decision just because one has a pulse is, frankly, childish.

        2. I took Jeremy’s comment, that it was a missed opportunity, at face value. That is, an opportunity for the city to be open and declare the city’s position -such as the city will , in the spirit of reconciliation, endeavour to provide services at neutral cost. No subsidy, No add on costs-like community amenity charges. The development cost charges are not applicable as they are a false charge rate set at what the market can bear and don’t directly relate to actual costs. A neutral cost position to take would be to charge for the cost of tying into the sanitary sewer and the new road intersections. Oh, I might add the cost of building a new road in, through the edge of the park , from Chestnut St. The land itself would remain as city property.