It's a rare occasion to find property that begs to be developed, let alone a project that will complete a community's heart. That's what Jack Matthews saw when he looked at Squamish's oceanfront.
“It's naturally the best property in town,” the president of Matthews Southwest Developments (MSW) told The Chief.
On Thursday (Oct. 10), the municipality's wholly owned subsidiary — the Squamish Oceanfront Development Corp. (SODC) — announced it had secured the North American development firm and local developer Bethel Lands Corp. to transform the former site of the Nexen choralkali plant. Almost a decade after the Province transferred the 59-acre property to the District of Squamish, an agreement is under negotiation.
Squamish's vision for the property, as outlined in the oceanfront's sub-area plan, makes sense, Matthews said, before recognizing the amount of citizens' time that went into the report. Ultimately, proponents will have to figure out who the area's users will be and how to best accommodate them, he added. A construction start date hasn't been set.
“We are really about the end product,” Matthews said, noting he's not opposed to joint ventures. “It is not about getting it done quickly, it is getting it done right.”
After reviewing two serious candidates, MSW was deemed to have the better proposal, said Gregg Smyth, SODC vice-chair. MSW has experience with similar properties. The oceanfront loosely mirrors MSW's South Side of Lamar. As with the oceanfront, the 45-acre project in Dallas, Texas, lays untouched beside the city's downtown. The multi-year, mixed-use development focuses on the arts community and includes four million square feet of residential, commercial, office and hotel space.
“They have a lot of interesting ideas,” Smyth said, noting the company is also responsible for Calgary's tallest skyscraper, The Bow.
Bethel Lands Corp. has developed approximately $102 million worth of projects in the Sea to Sky Corridor, from the Amblepath subdivision to the Sea to Sky Gondola. Smyth expects oceanfront construction to begin next year.
The kickoff of negotiations marks a pivotal moment in Squamish's history, Mayor Rob Kirkham said, adding it's a catalyst to the community's growth. An agreement will be hammered out within the next six months, he said.
“There are not a lot of projects that match what the oceanfront has to offer,” Kirkham said.
The news should extinguish concerns regarding the SODC's first debt repayment in May, Coun. Doug Race said, adding even without an agreement by that date, there's money in reserve — last year the district sold 20 acres of municipal land in the business park for $8 million.
“It is not the gun to our head that people think it is,” he said. “Taxpayers of the district will not have to pay a cent.”
Officials didn't want a developer who would bank the land for a later date. DOS officials said they expect development to begin immediately on completion of a land-sale agreement.
In hindsight, Race believes the district got a better deal than the one Qualex-Landmark was offering before it pulled out in 2006. That proposal left the development's form and composition up to the proponents, Doug said.
“It was more residential. It was the wrong plan for the property,” he said.
Under the sub-area plan, nothing can be built before the oceanfront park is completed, Race said. The 12-acre green space not only meets the district's flood elevation standards, but it's the final step in risk management, capping the remaining mercury plume not captured by Nexen's $40-million remediation project.
The development of the property will change the community's culture, Doug said.
“I think it will make us more of an oceanfront culture. It has the potential to be a huge draw for our community.”
Coun. Ron Sander, who lobbied for a larger marine-based industrial component, had his fingers crossed for a proposal to provide more job-creation opportunities. Without that on the SODC's plate, MSW was the best fit for Squamish, he said.