A Multi-Billion Dollar Real Estate Project Is Rising on Native Reserve Land in Vancouver

Not only will Sen̓áḵw be North America’s most significant example of indigenous urban development, but because the reserve land is not subject to the bylaws of the city that it surrounds, it will also feature a style and scale of density more typically found in cities like Hong Kong.

Kokalov conceived the development as a “village in the park.” But rather than impose towers onto the landscape, the four-million-square-foot complex will only occupy 15% of the land. The rest will be publicly accessible green space. “We imagined Sen̓áḵw as an extension of the adjacent Vanier Park,” Kokalov says. “We invited the nature into our site.”

Subverting the typical Vancouverist tower and podium trope, the buildings will be literally connected to the earth, with a bike garage below ground and accessed via long, shallow ramps. “We liberated the ground plane to minimize the impact of the building footprint,” Kokalov says, “and to encourage activation of the public realm,” which will include shops, restaurants, and cultural centers designed as landscaped pavilions, maximizing underutilized space under the bridge.

The fact that the Squamish Nation’s current and ancestral territory is now within the bucolic beach neighborhood of Kitsilano, in a city with the least affordable real estate in North America, has created some interesting tensions with non-indigenous residents decrying potential density related environmental issues. But in the midst of a national reckoning on indigenous rights, and with a nearby rental tower still owned by the family of a former Vancouver mayor and developer who conveniently arranged a rezoning of the former reserve land to facilitate its construction, critics must tread warily.

In some ways, Sen̓áḵw is the full circle vision of Vancouver as a city of towers by the sea, as sketched by renowned local architect Arthur Erickson in 1955, when it was still a provincial port town. And as the centenary of Erickson’s birth approaches, that vision will be realized by the protégé of his protégé, Bing Thom, in a city that has now grown into a global village. 

Squamish spokesperson Khelsilem (who goes by a single name) notes in a promotional video that the project will help create a new part of the city, “informed by our own principles of development and design to create something the city and the nation will be proud of. The world will look at it and say ‘Wow, that is a project that is done by an indigenous community—look at how unique and forward thinking it is’.”

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