Surf’s up–and so is real estate–in Canada’s closest reference to the California coast: the Sea to Sky corridor between Vancouver and Whistler.
By Steve Threndyle
“Everyone remembers their first trip up the Sea to Sky Highway,” says Lions Bay resident Craig Doherty “There’s that first bend you take above Eagle Bluffs in West Vancouver. You’re looking directly up Howe Sound, where the deep blue ocean is surrounded by snow-clad peaks… this is the part where the angels come down from heaven and start singing. I’ve been here for 33 years, and it still takes my breath away.”
In those three decades, Doherty has purchased the local grocery store, the coffee shop and established his real estate business just above the highway. “I’m truly ‘all-in’ on Lions Bay… You can’t lose money buying this priceless beauty, since all of the developable property is gone,” says Doherty.
Well, almost all of it. Residential housing projects on the books for Furry Creek, Britannia South, Britannia North and Porteau Cove could potentially bring several thousand new residents to a region that Doherty describes as “Canada’s version of Italy’s Amalfi Coast, or Carmel and Big Sure in California.”
Population growth in the Sea to Sky region is being driven by three factors: affordability compared to other Lower Mainland suburbs; natural beauty and lifestyle amenities that make it attractive to young people seeking a place that’s “more than a resort town”; and proximity to employment opportunities, in both Whistler and Vancouver.
Whether it’s on social media or in the local media, Michael Geller is a ubiquitous presence in Vancouver’s real estate scene, where he’s spent much of his professional career extolling the virtues of urban neighbourhoods. Yet even Geller believes that now is time for undervalued, undiscovered properties in the Sea to Sky region to shine. “If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that a 45-minute drive from Britannia or Porteau Cove or Furry Creek [to Vancouver] is not the end of the world, especially if you’re not doing it every day. Furry Creek is really on the mark for people who want to downsize, or even for younger families who find the North Shore too expensive.”
Geller worked on the original Furry Creek project back in 1999, but the final result was less than satisfactory, since much-needed community amenities were never built. Furry Creek’s current owners and the Squamish Lillooet Regional District (SLRD) hope to implement the original community plan (which included a boutique hotel, a new marina, a community centre and up to 1,000 new homes). Geller says, “We want to build more apartments and fewer town houses. I can tell you that within five years, you will be shopping at Furry Creek, there will be a boutique hotel underway and relatively affordable homes will be sold. Investors will really kick themselves if they miss this opportunity.”
THE NEW BRITANNIA
The most highly anticipated community transformation in the Sea to Sky will occur in Britannia, where Adera/Macdonald Development Corporation’s Britannia Beach Townhomes are being readied for pre-sale and Tiger Bay Development Corporation’s much larger Britannia South community is headed for public hearings this fall. A century ago, Britannia was the “company town” for employees of Britannia Mines, the largest copper mine in the British Empire at the time. It’s estimated that more than 60,000 people came and went from 1905 to 1974, its last year of operation. A small number of homes, including some luxury properties, are still nestled into the hillside. The Britannia Mine Museum, housed in a massive 20-storey concentrator building, is a National Historic Site.
Macdonald Development Corp. purchased contaminated land on the north side of Britannia Creek in 2000, and it has been an arduous process to clean up the effects of seven decades of mining. Extensive flood mitigation work needed to be done, plus hundreds of tonnes of contaminated soil were hauled away and replaced by clean fill. Macdonald spokesperson Bill Baker notes that the company has been diligent in renovating and relocating older buildings. Though the spoke of Britannia Beach Townhomes is quite small (73 town homes) the mix of commercial and residential buildings and community services will attract young families who want easy access to the city, while maintaining a sense of local community. Baker says Macdonald is booking commercial space for a full-service grocer, family restaurant, local café and an adventure tour business.
A first-of-its-kind surf park will anchor Tiger Bay’s ambitious South Britannia project, located on the site of a quarry that was excavated to provide gravel for the Sea to Sky Highway upgrade before the 2010 Winter Games. Head of development Tony Petricevic is currently navigating the SLRD regulatory process but notes that “public response has been remarkably positive so far. The Squamish Lillooet Regional District made it clear that they want projects that bring jobs to the district, so what we have proposed is Canada’s first artificial surfing facility, a unique amenity that will generate over 100 full-time jobs. The WaveGarden surf park will be constructed before any of the housing units are built.”
That’s a profound symbol of the wave of investment and development activity that’s about to redefine this one-of-a-kind community.