“Waterfront-gate” is the term one Mission councillor fears the public will apply to the district’s plan to develop almost 300 acres stretching along the Fraser River.
On Sept. 21, council voted to pass a bylaw designating 297 acres of waterfront land as a comprehensive planning area under the Official Community Plan. This would require a two-year study, and restrict development permits until its completion.
The amendment passed 5-2. But significantly, this is the only vote regarding the waterfront which has not passed unanimously for a council elected in 2018 on a commitment to develop the area.
At issue was a conceptual plan by the Martini Development Group to develop 87 acres of property owned by the Braich family. The plan took nine-months to complete and ran up to $1 million dollars, according to Kenny Braich.
This prized property makes up the most valuable one-third of the land dreamed for the District’s Waterfront Revitalization Project. It’s undeveloped industrial-zoned land sandwiched between Mission Raceway Park to the west, and contaminated “brownfield” industrial properties to the east.
“The city does not have a [project] without the Braichs,” said Braich, who owns and manages the lands with his brother Bobby. “The 87 acres dictates what happens, and it ought to, because it’s unheard of to have greenfield 87-acres [zoned] heavy industrial.”
The two councillors who voted against the bylaw, Ken Herar and Jag Gill, said they were not aware of the existence of the Martini plan until the “11th hour,” and question how a potential project of such magnitude wasn’t shared with them.
“It’s not my intent to point fingers or pass blame, [but] I believe we’ve dropped the ball in a big way when all imperative information was not transparent,” Herar said. “The meeting that took place approximately 10 months ago … was not within my knowledge at that time.
“The perception of our community seems to be … the district pulling a scenario with a term I would label ‘waterfront-gate.’”
Mayor Pam Alexis and Chief Administrative Officer Mike Younie said a formal application was never submitted, they never received a copy of the conceptual plan – only a presentation from the developers at a meeting on Nov. 21, 2019.
“These are concepts, these are just ideas that people want to float by the mayor,” Alexis said. “So I have nothing to share, because I don’t perceive anything that I can actually hold on to, it’s just an idea. That’s pretty standard in city halls across B.C.”
Included in the Sept. 21 agenda was a letter written by Thomas Martini, president of the Martini Group. He addresses how the “uncertainty regarding the district’s timelines” killed their interest in submitting a formal application.
“Over the past number of months we spent a great deal of time and resources preparing the plan, meeting with district staff four or five times and at significant cost commissioning a number of technical reports which we believe addressed every issue raised by the district,” he said. “We were extremely surprised and disappointed to learn, only during our final meeting with staff, that the OCP amendment was being proposed and would likely result in something like a three-year delay in development approvals.”
The focus of these meetings was to discuss constraints on the waterfront lands, such as water and sewer servicing, flooding, landslides, geotechnical and road connections, according to Younie, who said these constraints were not fully addressed.
Younie said staff had made their intention to create a comprehensive planning area for the waterfront clear from “day one.”
“We explained that process, near the end when they had their conceptual plan, that process was explained again,” Younie said. “[We] said, ‘This is all good, and we would really like to work with you on developing the land use plan. And we see that taking several years.
“They wanted to fast track and to just focus on their site, which wasn’t entirely consistent with the land use planning exercise that takes into account what the community really wants.”
Both the mayor and Younie say they never saw any of the technical reports the Martini Group conducted, though the developers brought “extremely well-qualified people, well-respected people,” to the presentation on Nov. 21.
Younie said the plan was only a single page, and although he is aware of a longer, four-page version, he has never seen it.
Braich disputes the mayor and Younie’s account of what was shared in these meetings. Although he wasn’t present, he said through his conversations with Martini and his dealings with the district, he knows staff were “intimately aware of the details of the plan.”
“[The Martini’s] were not building this thing on spec,” Braich said. “[Plans] don’t happen in the middle of the night on a napkin in a bar. This is the real world – hundreds of thousands spent on due diligence, millions spent on testing.”
These types of “pre-application” reviews typically only include staff, the developer and their consultants – not councillors, according to Younie.
On Sept. 21, Gill and Herar voiced their concerns over their lack of inclusion as their reason for voting against the amendment.
Gill said that he had never heard of the proposal until the public hearing, when Martini addressed council himself.
He said that after reviewing the district’s 2021 budget, he feels the community needed this type of development “yesterday,” and it’s not certain the district will be able to complete a comprehensive plan in two years.
“I’m an elected official, how can I serve my residents to the best of my ability if I’m not given all the information?” Gill said.
“There’s been a lot of mention of trust today, and I’m feeling that there’s been a breach of trust – four meetings, a conceptual plan done by a very reputable company – and I only learn about it at the public hearing from Mr. Martini?”
“It’s not a dictatorship we live in, it’s a democracy, and not one person elected decides how the district will proceed.”
Herar, along the same vein, said he doesn’t believe the district handled the Martini proposal with the respect it deserved.
“Any projects of this size should have a limited number, if not all of council’s involvement at the time of presentation to avoid controversy, similar to what’s occurring,” he said. “As of now, our community desperately needs jobs created and more industry provides tax relief.”
Following the public hearing on the OCP amendment on Aug. 24, a series of social media posts by Braich, and former MLA and Mayor Randy Hawes criticized the District, accusing them of mishandling the Martini plan.
Another post was made by Mission Raceway Park on Sept. 7, in support of the Braichs. The district responded with a news release four days later calling the post “misinformation.”
This “noise on Facebook,” as the mayor described it, was addressed directly by her on Sept. 21.
“We have been the subject of a smear campaign as of late that contain a number of mistruths,” she said. “I can tell you that every single decision has, and will benefit our community and not one or two individuals.”
Alexis said she had received threatening emails and the RCMP were called.
Former mayor Hawes’s criticisms were attacked by Alexis and Coun. Cal Crawford, who said that a lack of neighbourhood planning and “piecemeal development” were an issue during his time in office.
“This council is literally on the doorstep on initiating master planning for the entire waterfront area, which is far more than any previous mayor or council has done,” Crawford said.
“If we do not move ahead with this OCP amendment … We would be creating a short-term gain and a long term pain. We would be allowing one developer to shape our future on our waterfront.”
Hawes demanded a public apology for the mayor’s comments following the meeting, to which she agreed.
Coun. Mark Davies said although he voted in favour of the amendment, he has many concerns over the district’s staff being at capacity, their communication with stakeholders, the direction of the relationship with the Braichs and how the conflict may appear to potential future developers.
Alexis said she is not worried about the district’s optics when it comes to attracting potential development in the future. She said they are frequently in contact with developers regarding the waterfront, but wouldn’t disclose details.
“I’ve had calls from developers to say congratulations on the [OCP] decision, so there is no shying away,” she said. “This kind of planning provides certainty … This is actually providing value.”
The Braich property has been advertised to over 4,300 real-estate firms, according to Braich, adding the family was previously selective about who the land would be sold to as they cared about Mission’s goal to change the waterfront.
He says they will no longer be co-operative with finding a buyer to fit into the district’s waterfront image.
“[They] ought not to be spending money on a plan that’s dead on arrival,” he said. “Don’t blame us, when it’s a pulp mill, or a sawmill, or ugly, dirty industry.”