Dan Fumano: Despite council rejection, Celtic Shipyard proposal 'not dead,' proponent says

After Vancouver council rejects new vision for historic Celtic Shipyard site in Southlands, developer pledges to come back with "something even better."

VANCOUVER, BC - January 18, 2021 - Celtic Shipyard in South Vancouver, BC, January 8, 2021. City staff recommend against residential subdivision of old Celtic Shipyard. Photo by Arlen Redekop / Vancouver Sun / The Province (PNG) (story by Dan Fumano) [PNG Merlin Archive]

Vancouver council has sunk a proposal to transform the old Celtic Shipyard site on the banks of the Fraser River into a residential subdivision.

Despite the rejection, the proponents say they plan to take another crack at developing the historic site.

Council voted unanimously Wednesday night to reject the proposal seeking to subdivide an eight-acre (32,000 square metre) riverfront property in Southlands, a century-old piece of Vancouver’s industrial history. The proposal was in a very early preliminary stage, as council repeatedly heard Wednesday, and several additional steps would have been required before any construction could begin.

But Wednesday’s decision puts a halt on the project, at least for now.

Although the landowner, Keltic Development, might have hoped for a different result this week, it wasn’t entirely unexpected, said Michael Mortensen, an urban planner and development consultant hired by Keltic for the project.

“We appreciate council’s feedback, we’re rising to the challenge,” Mortensen said. “We’ll come back with something even better.”

The site is largely empty, but includes a few buildings rented by different users, including a lumber company, artists, and metalworkers. Keltic wants to subdivide the property into between 10 and 18 residential lots, and donate about half the space to the city in the form of a park, a road, and the historic Celtic Shipyard workshop building for artisans’ use.

Council’s decision followed the recommendation from city staff, whose report listed several reasons for not supporting the proposal.

There were historic and cultural considerations, the report said, because this riverside location was, in the early 20th century, the site of a thriving community of dozens of Japanese families employed in the fishing industry. And for a very long time before that, this location was an important one for the Musqueam Nation: To the east of Celtic Shipyards is the Marpole Midden, an ancient Musqueam site, and just to the west is the Musqueam Reserve.

The staff report also flagged flood management risks due to its location in the city’s “largest and most at-risk floodplain.”

Many councillors cited those issues at Wednesday’s meeting when explaining why they were following staff’s recommendation to vote against the project, and also mentioned that Keltic did not yet seem to have support from other interested parties, such as the Musqueam Nation.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Mayor Kennedy Stewart said that if Keltic were to make another attempt to develop the site in the future and they had the support of Musqueam leadership next time, then he would be “would be much more tempted to vote for this.”

After the decision, independent Coun. Rebecca Bligh said: “The historic nature of the site with possible archeological sensitivities requires robust consultation with Musqueam First Nations and Japanese Canadians along with engagement with local residents who are protective of an existing Southlands plan.”

Keltic had not yet been required to conduct the kind of community engagement that’s generally done before typical rezoning applications go to council, because this particular proposal, as councillors and city staff reiterated several times Wednesday evening, is quite different from those that regularly go to council.

That’s because the Keltic proposal is on the relatively tiny sliver of the city covered by the Agricultural Land Reserve.

To subdivide this ALR land into smaller residential lots, the developer would first require Vancouver council’s approval, before seeking the Agricultural Land Commission’s blessing, and only then navigating the city’s regular rezoning application process.

Keltic had envisioned residential lots that would have been significantly larger than single-family properties in almost any other part of Vancouver — but smaller than that part of Southlands, where the zoning mandates a maximum of one house per 2.2 acres.

For many Southlands residents who contacted Postmedia this week to express alarmed surprise over the news about Keltic’s proposal, that kind of zoning is what gives the neighbourhood its semi-rural feel, which is unique in Vancouver and, they say, worth fighting to preserve.

The Southlands Ratepayers’ Association had heard nothing about the prospective development before it was on this week’s council agenda, said association president Paul Sullivan.

Southlands, where riders on horseback still roam the streets, is the only semi-rural piece of Vancouver, something residents fear could be jeopardized by this subdivision, Sullivan said.

“You’d create 18 $5 or $10 million houses, and then that creates a precedent for our only ALR land,” he said. “Then the next guy who’s got four acres wants eight lots, the next guy wants six, and then what do you have? You no longer have an ALR, you no longer have the rural jewel that belongs to the City of Vancouver.”

Now, Mortensen said, Keltic plans to talk to all interested parties, including the Musqueam and the residents and equestrian community of Southlands, and others.

Then, eventually, they will file a new, “more compelling” application, Mortensen said. “It’s not dead. In fact, it’s very much alive.”

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