October 28, 2021

The New Density Bar: How Indigenous partnerships could reset civic politics

There’s a seismic shift occurring in Vancouver’s real-estate and development industry, and it’s going to shake up our politics too.  Every day seems to bring some new tremor.

Today in The Sun: The provincial auditor-general report revealed that Concord Pacific purchased the St. Paul’s site for $850 million, with current development potential for close to two million square feet.   They will probably want more.  And they have a partner which may make it easier for them to achieve much more than that.  “Concord,” the paper reports, “has said it will work with MST Development Corp., which is the development firm of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations.”

This kind of partnership is not unprecedented: MST is already partnered with Canada Lands on the Jericho and Heather Lands developments; just as the Squamish separately partnered with Westbank, Ian Gillespie’s firm, for Senakw; and the Tsawwassen partnered with Aquilini Investment Group on the Tsawwassen Mills complex.

MST in a very short time has become what may be the largest real-estate developer in Vancouver.  And there’s an obvious reason why the other large developers in the city want to be with them.  Together they can achieve densities that would otherwise have been previously unimaginable.

Here, as reported by The Hive, are the comparable densities for the recently released proposal for Jericho:

The total floor area of Jericho Lands would be 40% larger than River District in the East Fraser Lands, 70% larger than Wesbrook Village at UBC, double that of the new Oakridge Centre, two-and-a-half times larger than Squamish Nation’s Senakw, triple the size of the Pearson Dogwood redevelopment, four times larger than MST Corporation’s Heather Lands redevelopment, five times larger than the Plaza of Nations redevelopment, or nearly seven times larger than the combined original buildings of the Olympic Village.

Interestingly, when polled, two-thirds of Hive readers were supportive of the scale – not something that would be expected if a private developer had proposed anything comparable.

Unlike the Senakw project, which does not require city approval, Jericho will be going through the City’s public hearing process, which means that every council member will have to vote on whether this dramatic shift in scale, especially when embedded in a single-family neighbourhood, is acceptable.  In doing so, they will establish a new bar, which will then become the level from which every developer will subsequently use in negotiation for their projects.

Combined with Vancouver Plan proposals to densify every neighbourhood in some way simultaneously, the political consequences are both unpredictable and game-changing.  Here’s a sample of the reaction to an idea that’s been around for awhile – adding a few floors to development on arterials and adjacent blocks:

Already with the lawyers!  And the politicians, incumbent or aspiring, have not yet weighed in.

For another tremor, turn to Vaughan Palmer’s column on possible provincial interventions into the approval process:

One change would eliminate the requirement for local governments to hold public hearings on zoning changes for projects that are consistent with an existing community plan. Another would allow municipalities to delegate decisions on minor variance permits to staff. A third would “modernize public notice requirements by allowing for community choice in addition to existing methods for providing public notice.”

Combine this with the follow-through on the recommendations from a federal-provincial panel on housing supply and affordability, chaired by former NDP finance minister Joy MacPhail: “It concluded that the province will have to take the lead on housing supply and affordability by reining in the power of local governments to delay projects and drive up development costs.”

All this happening, with more to come (let’s throw in False Creek South), in the lead-up to the civic election.  One way or the other, the scale and speed of development will be the pivotal issue for the mayoral candidates.  In politics, I learned, it’s often more about the perceived rate of change than the change itself – and this could be a rate we haven’t seen since the 60s when our politics took a generational change.

All this, accelerated by the transformation of local First Nations into giant real-estate entities, could transform the political landscape of the city as much as its development.



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  1. This is fascinating. Can anyone point me to a document that shows what areas of Vancouver currently come under the jurisdiction of the MST? And also where all that stands in relation to resolution of aboriginal land claims?

  2. I don’t see a problem with any of this. We’ve happily sidelined First Nations from participating in “our” civic life for 150 years. Now they’re taking advantage of something we value (developable land) and responses range from concern to alarm. I look at all this angst over reconciliation development as a sign of progress. If an MST-type entity had similarly challenged our sense of propriety in the 19th century, local mobs would have just beaten them, stolen the land, and redistributed it among “responsible” wealthy landowners. At least now we are mature enough to honour our treaties (or at least not renege) despite finding the consequences distasteful. It is unchartered and unsettling territory, but we’re doing it anyway.

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