Businesses cautious about Squamish Oceanfront development 

First phase of development, a $6-million park, set to begin in April

click to enlarge IMAGE COURTESY OF DISTRICT OF SQUAMISH - Oceanfront on track The first phase of the Squamish Oceanfront development could be underway by April.
  • Image courtesy of District of Squamish
  • Oceanfront on track The first phase of the Squamish Oceanfront development could be underway by April.

By spring of 2015, shovels should finally be in the ground on the first phase of the long anticipated Squamish Oceanfront development, but reaction of long-suffering downtown businesses seems mixed.

The final agreements, signed Aug. 5 for the $15-million sale of the Oceanfront Lands, reveal details about the deal between the District of Squamish and the Squamish Oceanfront Development Corporation (SODC). The development will see a $6-million park, more commercial space and roughly 1,100 residential units for 5,000 people, among other things, developed along the water's edge.

While many businesses are glad to see movement finally happening on the development, others are cautious about what the changes may bring.

Owner of August Jack Motor Inn on Cleveland Avenue, Tejinder Bhullar, said she is excited about construction of the project getting underway because she thinks it will mean more business for her motel.

"More workers coming, will mean more workers staying here," said Bhullar who has been in Squamish for 10 years.

Bhullar said she is skeptical the development will significantly increase land prices downtown. While some in her family think they will be able to sell their land at a nice profit — they own two plots of land where community gardens now sit, one on Cleveland Avenue and one on Main Street — Bhullar said she is wary because of the let down after the 2010 Winter Olympic Games. She said the hype around the Games was that land prices downtown would dramatically increase, but that never happened.

With the Oceanfront development, she isn't holding her breath.

"I am doubtful," she said.

Developers Matthews Southwest and Bethel Lands Corporation (MSB) will pay the District of Squamish $15 million cash for the oceanfront property, to be paid out on closing, in April of 2015.

In partnership with MSB, the district will keep a 25 per cent interest in the partnership, at no financial risk.

The developers will commit to sticking to the existing 20-year Oceanfront sub-area plan — guidelines that came out of community consultation, which specify the project must consist of one third park, one third businesses and one third residences. The plan also includes a marina, cultural spaces and an educational space to accommodate a college or university. The specific institution is yet been determined.

The first phase will be the $6-million park.

Murray McCorriston, who owns the Squamish Native Art Store downtown on Cleveland Avenue, is even less enthused about the development.

"I don't care for it at all," he said. "I don't agree with what they are putting in there." McCorriston said he would like the entire waterfront area to be businesses only, with no residential units, or a park.

Instead, he said the waterfront should have planned a major attraction, such as a tower with a rotating restaurant at the top — something that would draw more people through the downtown, and past his store.

"You can build townhouse apartments up on the hill overlooking the water just as easy as putting it right on the waterfront. And there are parks all over the place," he said.

Squamish Mayor Rob Kirkham disagrees. He said there are innumerable benefits to the community to the project going ahead.

"It is a very positive thing for us to finally have this moving, instead of stalled. But it is also a dramatic change for us to have this park be step one rather than what has been happening, which is just a very progressive, gradual expansion from the existing base of the downtown," said Kirkham.

"So this is starting right at the waterfront and it will be immediately an active, vibrant people-attracting asset for the community."

Kirkham said traffic consultants have looked at the community's capacity to handle the uptick in traffic that will come with the new residents and businesses and determined that Cleveland Avenue is adequate to support the increase.

Part of the development plan for Oceanfront is also a bridge connection to Third Avenue directly from Oceanfront, which would spread traffic over Third Avenue, Cleveland Avenue and Loggers Lane, according to the mayor.

Kirkham said the development will be a boon not just for Squamish, but for the entire Sea to Sky corridor. He said the development, like attractions such as the Sea to Sky Gondola and events like the Squamish Valley Music Festival, increase public awareness of the entire region.

"Squamish is a key part of the corridor, so as Squamish is prospering and growing and becoming a wonderful place to live, so is the corridor," he said.

Kirkham imagines some kind of packaged corridor deals for tourists like ones currently offered in the Okanagan for wine and golf tours.

"I have no doubt that Whistler, Pemberton and even Lillooet will benefit from the greater exposure of the whole corridor by Squamish becoming more of a focus," he said.

Previous development plans for the Squamish waterfront fell through before getting to the final agreements stage. In 2006, Vancouver's Qualex Landmark bowed out because leaders and the real-estate developer couldn't agree to the community's mandate for more commercial and park space to go along with its planned residential developments.

In 2011, an unsolicited proposal by Bethel Lands Corporation was rejected by district council because the proper public process had not been followed. "As part of what I felt was the mandate for myself and this council getting elected (in 2011) was that project has stalled and we need to get into the hands of developers because the municipality is not capable of delivering on the vision," he said.

"We were sitting here to that point with what we thought was a great plan for the community, but we didn't know whether or not it was possible."

According to Kirkham the next steps are similar to the subjects placed on a house sale, only more complex. Terms and conditions have to be met such as MSB obtaining permits and the district updating the Development Cost Charge bylaw. If all goes according to plan the first phase, the park, will be started once the deal closes, in April of 2015.

"We just want to get moving on it," said Jack Matthews, president of Matthews Southwest.

Matthews said the Oceanfront project is different than anything else he has been a part of in Canada or the United States.

"The unique thing about the Squamish piece is just how stunningly beautiful the land is," he said.

"When you stand on the property and look at the water across the bay and up the mountains it is something you don't get in many places in the world."

Matthews said Squamish residents don't have to worry about losing the small-town feel that makes the community special. "It is definitely growth, but I think it will be growth that everyone should enjoy in the sense of an increase in services and an increase in population of people that are going to enjoy the city. It is very, very positive growth — growth of jobs and housing and retail to support it and the really big thing is, the connection with the water."

Squamish residents haven't had access to their own ocean waterfront since the town got its start in the 1910s with the construction of the railway to the Cariboo. From that point on the waterfront was used as a shipping port or industrial hub.

"So making a formal park that connects the water to the city I think is long overdue," Matthews said.

The District, SODC and MSB will hold an open house on Saturday, Sept. 20, at the Oceanfront Offices in Squamish.

More info on the development can be found at www.squamishoceanfront.com.

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