Squamish now more than just an ‘alternative suburb’

Saturday, October 29th, 2005

Bob Ransford

A signal moment last summer in the transformation of Squamish in the popular (Lower Mainland) imagination was the gathering of windsurfers for a world-championship qualifying competition. A change in image is one of three prerequisites critical to Squamish’s accession to a community that could support both ‘a very high quality of life’ and ‘a smalltown atmosphere,’ columnist Ransford argues.

It wasn’t that long ago that Squamish didn’t even appear on the radar screen for Lower Mainland home buyers. Today the Squamish real estate market is booming as the one-time forestry town on the road to Whistler is heralded as a revitalized “people-friendly family-community” within commuting distance of Vancouver.

Just last week headlines in this newspaper talked of the launch of a 10-hectare, $100-million development in Squamish’s downtown. The private development, on a once almost worthless site owned by the district of Squamish, will bring a number of new housing types, including row townhouses, and real density to the small town’s core.

Not only will this latest development help to create a more vibrant downtown, it is one of a number of planned developments that will breathe new life into Squamish’s downtown and ensure that it survives, despite the competing commercial development that for too long has been allowed to sprawl along the Sea to Sky Highway on the outskirts of town.

Squamish is poised to become more than an alternative suburb to the sprawling Fraser Valley and more than a highway stop on the way to a four-season resort beyond. It has the potential to sustain a very high quality of life without sacrificing its small-town atmosphere.

The key to achieving this is a change in attitude, a change in image and a change in planning.

Squamish had to believe that it could see as much success as its world-class cousin Whistler. Attitudes were quick to change with the promise of the tourism boom that will come with the 2010 Winter Olympics.

Squamish had to shed its image as a one-industry town. Changes in the forest industry forced a re-positioning. While the community celebrates a still important and once vital forest industry heritage, it has found other assets to promote as well, including a new private university that will help transform the town.

But the most important element of change in Squamish has been the adoption of a long-range plan for smart growth.

Last week, Squamish district council formally approved a plan that includes a 30-year-plus vision for transforming Squamish’s downtown and waterfront .

Fourteen months of grassroots community work that went into crafting that plan and the process that facilitated that kind of community collaboration is rather unique in community planning in these parts.

It was carried out under the Smart Growth on the Ground initiative — a partnership between the Design Centre for Sustainability at the University of B.C., the Real Estate Institute of B.C. and Smart Growth B.C.

This unique partnership is assisting three B.C. communities — Maple Ridge, Squamish and Oliver — with the preparation and implementation of neighbourhood plans that are smarter and more sustainable.

The Squamish plan demonstrates how leading research can have practical ”real world” impacts with multiple community benefits. Highlights of the plan include:

– More opportunities for living, working, learning and playing in downtown Squamish, through a range of new housing types and densities and a civic-culture-education precinct.

– Encouragement of eco-industrial networking, to ensure a diverse and vibrant economy in Squamish.

– Transportation improvements, including a trail network to provide mobility options.

– A limit on building height along historic Cleveland Avenue, to maintain the historic aesthetic and to keep land prices within reach of small businesses.

This new vision of Squamish reinforces the role of the traditional downtown as the heart of activity for the community, while increasing sustainability in the entire community.

With a new, vibrant and healthy downtown, Squamish will have a new heart and a new identity.

The Smart Growth on the Ground initiative begins work with its third partner community, Oliver in the South Okanagan, with its first community meeting scheduled for Nov. 2.

Bob Ransford is a public affairs consultant with COUNTERPOINT Communications Inc. He is a former real estate developer and a director of the Urban Development Institute, Pacific region. E-mail: [email protected]

© The Vancouver Sun 2005


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