To the naked eye, not a lot has happened down at the Squamish oceanfront lands since it was bought back in February of 2016, but behind the scenes, the Newport Beach development is abuzz.
Probably the biggest change is that Squamish developer Michael Hutchison of Bethel Lands Corp. is no longer involved in developing the 59 acres of former industrial land, plus 44 adjacent acres of submerged water lots.
“Matthews Southwest, operating as Squamish Cornerstone Developments, and the Squamish Nation are equal partners on their developments in Squamish,” said John Matthews, principal of Matthews Southwest. The change occurred in January of this year, he said.
Khelsilem (Dustin Rivers), spokesperson for the Squamish Nation, said the band was proud of the current collaboration.
“This is a monumental project that will not only revitalize the downtown of Squamish by adding more park space, better access to the water and additional employment lands but also bring meaningful employment opportunities to our members and others,” he said. The District of Squamish originally sold the oceanfront lands on Feb. 3, 2016 to Newport Beach Developments Limited Partnership, a partnership between Bethel Lands Corp. and Matthews Southwest. The deal included $15 million in cash, plus construction of the oceanfront park estimated at $10 million, a wind sports beach, two non-motorized boat launch areas, a sailing centre, a waterfront public walkway on the perimeter, a lands’ end monument, community open space, pedestrian and greenway areas, and a public art contribution of $150,000.
“We couldn’t be happier with the site,” Matthews said late last week from his office, which overlooks the Mamquam Blind Channel.
“Squamish is a town that has always embraced the ocean, but in the past it has always been for these industrial reasons — and that is still a major component of the town — but now there is this entire subsection that embraces the ocean in an entirely different way and we don’t acknowledge that as a town right now with any of our access points. So, having the ability to transform this piece… into maybe the epicentre of the town at the end is something pretty special. We want to make sure we are taking our time with it and doing it right and where it ends up, is it embraces what the town has become.”
In terms of the oceanfront timeliness, Matthews said he is hopeful the waterfront park will be under construction by the end of next summer, in 2019.
The detailed designs for the park, which are being influenced by recently completed public consultation, will soon be presented to the public.
“We still have to go through the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, the Ministry of the Environment, before we can get our approvals to start construction,” he said.
There likely won’t be a waterpark, as some have hoped.
“I definitely think a waterpark is needed in Squamish, but we were thinking that using a ton of space on the oceanfront park for the waterpark… since you are by the water, you’ve got nature’s waterpark, right there,” he said. “We don’t think it is the best use of the space there.”
The goal is that simultaneously, while the park is under construction, so too will be other aspects of the development, such as housing.
“They go hand in hand, in our mind,” Matthews said. “Obviously we can’t have any occupancy of residential buildings until the park is completed, but we would like them to come together.”
One of the original conditions of the oceanfront deal was that people not live on the site until the park is complete.
There is currently the design for an office building on the site and the company is looking for suitable tenants.
That office building will be under construction as soon as those tenants are signed on, Matthews said.
The planned education campus will likely be a conglomerate of schools, with several partnerships.
“We’ve been having lots of various discussions that are getting pulled together as we speak,” he said.
The new road at the oceanfront is almost complete, and is slated to be pulled all the way through the site next spring, he said.
The new Main Road replaces the Galbraith Road alignment.
The Carbon Engineering plant will be moved within the property, because it is right where the road will go.
Currently, materials — such as rocks — are being stockpiled on the site.
Environmental work also continues on parts of the property.
“For a while there we had to take crabs out of the ocean every two years and check their levels of mercury and just monitor it, so you can ensure that everything has been mitigated,” Matthews said. The oceanfront was previously home to a chemical plant.
“All the signs are very positive, everything has been trending down and so now we are talking with the Ministry of Environment about how do we move forward past that.”
The site is being raised three metres with clean soil.
“I think people have been scratching their heads and thinking, ‘Why aren’t people doing anything on the oceanfront?’ Fair enough, but behind the scenes we have been working, very, very hard at getting the right park put together, while making sure we have everything else aligned so we can move in a methodical and strategic manner to-make sure that not one thing is way ahead of anything else.”
The public access that the company has kept on the oceanfront will continue at least until construction of the park begins, Matthews said, adding he’s hopeful some form of access will still be possible during construction, but that will depend on what is underway at the time on the rest of the property.
“We are going to have to take a look at the safety side of it,” he said. “Our goal is to maintain access for as long as we can, as much as we can. We know how important that is to the community.”
Long term, Matthews — who is originally from Ontario, but was raised in Texas — said there is a hope of the company being involved in developing light rail through the Sea-to-Sky Corridor.
“When we got up here we were looking at transportation as a way to facilitate development,” he said. “Twenty-first century development is going to require unique solutions… to moving people to and from centres.”
The company is already working on a high-speed light rail project between Houston and Dallas.
The proposal for the Sea to Sky Corridor is in the very preliminary stages.
“We have been working with the province, and the federal government and the District as far as, can we get a study to analyze the feasibility of this both economically and engineering-wise,” Matthews said.
For more on the oceanfront, go to www.newportbeachsquamish.ca/