Dan Fumano: Vancouver city staff recommend against new vision for old Celtic Shipyard

© Provided by Vancouver Sun An ariel view of the Celtic Shipyards. Vancouver city staff recommend against residential subdivision of the old shipyard.

Vancouver city staff are recommending against a proposal to redevelop the old Celtic Shipyard property on the banks of the Fraser River, a site of historic significance for both Japanese-Canadians and the Musqueam First Nation.

A local developer wants to subdivide the eight-acre (3.24-hectare) property at the southern end of Balaclava Street in Southlands, to transform the century-old industrial site into 18 residential lots. The proposal provides for a number of public amenities, including new park space, a riverfront trail and a plan to preserve the historic shipyard workshop building and donate it to the city for artisans’ use.

But city staff don’t support the proposal, after conducting a preliminary assessment. In a report on Tuesday’s council agenda , staff cite a number of reasons: cultural and historic considerations, potential soil contamination, and concerns about flood management due to its location in the city’s “largest and most at-risk floodplain.”

But the primary reason given for staff’s opposition to the project is due to a zoning issue.

The proposal is unlike most typical rezoning applications that come before council. For one thing, the shipyard site happens to sit in the relatively tiny slice of Vancouver’s land mass that falls within the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR). That means that in addition to seeking city council’s approval, the subdivision would also require the blessing of the provincial Agricultural Land Commission (ALC). Developments requiring ALC approval don’t come up as often in Vancouver as in other parts of the region.

If council rejects the proposal this week, it will not proceed through the ALC process. But if council approves it this week, and then the provincial commission eventually gives it the thumbs-up, the project would still need to come back to Vancouver council for a rezoning approval, which entails a public process.

© Arlen Redekop The Celtic Shipyard in South Vancouver on Jan. 8. City staff recommend against residential subdivision of the old shipyard.

The project proponent’s name isn’t listed on the report to council this week. But land title records show the 7520 Balaclava St. property has been owned since 2017 by a numbered corporation, the listed directors of whom are members of the executive team of Keltic Development , a Vancouver-based real estate firm.

Reached by phone Monday, Keltic vice-president Jun Nan said about two-thirds of the property is currently empty, and the warehouse buildings there today are rented by a range of users, including a lumber company, artists, and metalworkers.

Michael Mortenson, an urban planner and development consultant hired by Keltic for the project, said he understands the list of issues the city flagged in their preliminary work. Now Keltic wants the chance to address those issues through further technical and archaeological work, he said, which won’t be possible if council shoots down the project this week before it can go to the ALC.

“The quid pro quo is: let us subdivide 49 per cent of the site for low-intensity residential use, and in return, Keltic would give the city 51 per cent, which includes the Fraser River frontage, the new green space, the heritage building, and a new road through the middle,” Mortenson said. “It’s an industrial site … that’s trapped in ALR zoning.”

The staff report flags that “the site may contain significant archaeological artifacts to the Musqueam First Nations,” and Mortenson said Keltic plans to work closely with the Musqueam if the project is able to proceed.

“If we go out to the public and we do the technical review, and we check all the boxes, council should have an easy time approving it some months down the line,” Mortenson said. “And … if those boxes aren’t checked, they have the authority not to approve a rezoning. Keltic only seeks the opportunity.”

A request for comment sent Monday to the Musqueam Band Office wasn’t immediately returned.

But city staff’s main reason for not supporting the project, the report says, is “primarily because the proposed lot sizes do not meet the minimum size requirements” under the existing zoning for the area.

Keltic is proposing 18 residential lots ranging from 720 square metres (7,750 square feet) to 992 sq. m (10,678 sq. ft). While those lot sizes would be far larger than typical residential plots in almost any other part of the city, the particular zoning for this agricultural area is different. In order to retain Southlands’ “semi-rural, equestrian and limited agricultural nature,” the zoning currently means minimum lot sizes of 9,100 sq. m (97,952 sq. ft). That means a maximum of one house per 2.2 acres.

The shipyard site was identified in 2017 as one of the city’s most endangered heritage assets by Heritage Vancouver , a non-profit advocacy group that operates independent of the City of Vancouver, describing it as “an important and unique component of the city’s rapidly disappearing industrial heritage.”

The Celtic Cannery, Vancouver’s first fish-packing plant, opened on the banks of the Fraser in 1897, according to the Heritage Vancouver listing, and the area was soon home to a thriving Japanese-Canadian community. About 25 Japanese families employed in the fishing industry lived in homes near the cannery, until the Canadian government forcibly displaced the community during the Second World War.

Jurian ter Horst, a Heritage Vancouver board member, said he didn’t want to comment on the merits of the rezoning overall but he said he was glad the proposal sought to preserve the Celtic workshop building.

“It’s an often-overlooked part of Vancouver when it comes to heritage,” said ter Horst