South waterfront has big potential

Wed. Nov. 18/15

The South Downtown Waterfront (the area south of Port Place Mall) offers significant urban development potential for Nanaimo.

Over the past two years, the City of Nanaimo tasked the South Downtown Waterfront Initiative Committee to explore that potential.

In the spring of 2014, the committee tabled its first report and identified a vision and guiding principles for future development activity in the area.

Council endorsed the Committee’s work. Part of the committee’s advice centred on urging affected parties to explore the development of a charter to provide an overarching framework to guide future waterfront deliberations. As well, the committee suggested the use of an entity, corporation or like body to manage waterfront development.

As a result, council asked the committee to examine the creation of a charter and explore and identify an appropriate entity to manage the area. Over the course of nine meetings and one year, the committee met to examine those topics.

But, the committee came to the conclusion that the enormity of the task including the over-riding interests (some common, but some conflicting) of the City of Nanaimo, the Nanaimo Port Authority and Snuneymuxw First Nation was beyond the committee’s purview.

Rather, the committee felt that the three groups needed to come together themselves (and in the absence of the committee) to explore their interests, needs and potential areas of collaboration and that a Committee simply could not do what the leaders of those three bodies could. So, at the November 9 city council meeting, the Committee recommended that:

“The two objectives of recommending a charter document and a development corporation for the South Downtown Waterfront Area, should be further reviewed at a later date, when the following conditions are present:

• The key partners (City of Nanaimo, Snuneymuxw First Nation, and Nanaimo Port Authority) agree to the mutual benefit of preparing an integrated approach to the planning, development, and implementation of the South Downtown Waterfront Area.

• The Committee now formally requests, at this time, that Council suspend operations of the SDWC until there is clarity in direction”.

It is the Committee’s view that the significance of the waterfront and the associated interests warrant special attention and action from the City, the Port Authority and the First Nation.

Commonality of interest and approach could not be identified within the Committee structure and process.

Where does that leave us? What should happen?

There are many examples of other cities where waterfront development has been completed in very challenging situations that are not too dissimilar from Nanaimo. How did those waterfronts become major dynamic urban places?

It is my personal view that there are three key ingredients for the long-term success of waterfronts. First, there needs to be a vision. Such a vision was crafted and adopted in the committee’s first phase of work. That vision needs to be married to leadership and structural supports. What do I mean?

Leadership has been key in other successful waterfront redevelopment. Such leadership is usually provided by a mayor and/or group of councillors (often working with highly regarded senior public servants) cajoling, prodding and inspiring others to join in a collective ambition of waterfront renewal. In such instances, where large waterfront renewal was successful, a development corporation was formed to undertake the management of the complex issues, including very lengthy build out periods (e.g., Winnipeg’s Forks Renewal Corporation).

In Nanaimo’s case, the level of complexity is exacerbated with the need to incorporate the Snuneymuxw First Nation’s outstanding treaty obligations and associated rights and fact that the port authority is a federal supported agency with ‘special’ land use rights. Each of those parties must be engaged in a respectful way.

I believe there needs to be a conversation at the highest levels of all three groups to identify where common aspirations can form a foundation for the development of a charter that guides future conversations and activities. The vision adopted after Phase 1 of the committee’s work provides a basis for such a dialogue.

Further, it is my view that a development corporation, which has the three parties as partners, could provide the basis for strategic investment and revenue sharing.

Each party brings something to the table: The port authority has much of the land (but it and its users are moving to a deep port model); Snuneymuxw First Nation has outstanding treaty and rights that require consultation and could bring others to the table by way of land acquisition; and the city has the Wellcox lands and the mechanisms for facilitating action.

Yes, this will be complex. But the importance of getting the waterfront right is paramount to the long-term future of the city, the port and Snuneymuxw.

Lets give it a try.

Dave Witty PhD, MRAIC, FCIP, RPP was chairman of the Southdown Waterfront Initiative Committee. The views here are his own.