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Developers take first tour of Somass Lands with First Nations, city leaders

Matthews West, City of Port Alberni work on development agreement for waterfront property

Developers from Matthews West got their first public view of the Somass Lands during a tour on Tuesday, Jan. 30 with members of Port Alberni city council, Tseshaht and Hupacasath First Nations. The developers have signed a letter of intent with the city and are working on a development agreement that Mayor Sharie Minions hopes will be complete by late spring 2024.

Matthews West Developments Ltd. was selected as the partner for the redevelopment of the 43-acre property known as the Somass Lands. The property was formerly the site of Somass Division sawmill. Matthews West was chosen during a rigorous Request for Expressions of Interest process that started in September 2022.

“A piece of what we were so excited about when Matthews West put in their submission was that there really was a strong alignment with the initial vision that the city put out—and granted, that vision was high level,” Minions said.

“First and foremost we’re trying to achieve public waterfront for the people of our community, and it was a real alignment that public waterfront is a community asset that you can invest in,” she said.

“We want (the development) to be something that’s meaningful, that meets the needs of the community and is really uniquely Port Alberni design,” Minions said.

The company’s willingness to work closely with First Nations leadership was another reason. Both the city and development partner plan to seek feedback from the Tseshaht and Hupacasath First Nations as well as Port Alberni residents “to ensure that we are proceeding in a transparent and thoughtful way,” she said.

The land is historically important to Tseshaht, Elected Chief Councillor Wahmeesh (Ken Watts) said. He heard “good things” about Matthews West’s relations with First Nations in Squamish, and “we’re hoping we’re engaged in what happens here.”

Hupacasath First Nations Elected Chief Councillor Brandy Lauder said both nations have been involved in the process from the beginning, and she is looking forward to seeing how the site can be diversified for the community’s best use.

John Matthews, president of Matthews West, said Port Alberni “is poised to grow…and we’re excited to be a part of that growth.”

He said he envisions a mixed use for the site, something that “embraces the surrounding area, the history of Port Alberni.

“We know that park space is going to be huge. We want to see organic retail and we want to see residential down here as well,” he said. He acknowledged the environmental concerns people have voiced about the site, which has seen decades of heavy industrial use.

“We’re still wrapping our heads around the environmental issues with the site, but I do know the city has a really strong handle on it and is actively working to remove any existing contamination,” he said. “We don’t shy away from it. It’s something we’re going to have to deal with and ensure it’s dealt with to get certificates of compliance from the Ministry of Environment.”

The City of Port Alberni received a $1 million grant to deal with initial remediation of the site.

Matthews West, which is in the process of developing some land on the waterfront in Squamish, B.C., has dealt with these types of sites before, Matthews said. They are also aware that the site is on a floodplain, and they will have to deal with flood construction levels and “ensure that we’re building to future sea level rise.”

“We look for long-term community projects where usually there is a challenge to them,” added Andy Baines, director of acquisitions, strategy and finance for Matthews West. “There’s often a lot of groups that may not want to take on that challenge. We see it as truly an area where we can use our skill set in addition to building long-term relationships with the community, with the First Nations, with the councillors and staff, to essentially realize the best use of the land that balances all those interests.”

He said in an interview with The Scoop on Port Alberni that the Somass Lands have “some unique attributes,” adding that they aren’t “too far out of the box than what we’ve seen before.”

He said when he first saw this property was for sale he was excited. “I have a bit of a shine for communities with a history of an industrial background that goes through a conversion.”

Baines lives in Britannia Beach just south of Squamish, a community that was once home to a copper mine and has since transformed into a community “with a lot of character.” He sees Port Alberni as being a place of similar possibilities.

Matthews said he would like to tie into the industry that exists around the site. He is hoping to retain two buildings from the Somass Sawmill, including the main mill building at the building that contained the head saw. A silo that sits between the waterfront and the main building also caught his interest.

The main building has “got beautiful bones and it’s something that we would really love to be able to keep on site if possible,” he said. “We’ve got to get in and study the building, understand its structural components…We do have a couple of ideas and a couple of users that could potentially use them,” he said. Those could include commercial or community spaces.

Matthews West likes to “activate” a site early and provide interim uses such as a skate park or retail area for a market, he added.

When asked about a marina or boat launch, Matthews said a marina “is just too far ahead to understand what’s possible and what’s not,” but a boat launch is something he sees as “critical to the community.”

Demolition continues at the site, which is closed to the public. Nearly 90 percent of material has either been sold, repurposed or recycled and therefore diverted from the landfill. Funds collected from sales have gone back to the city.

Susie Quinn

About the Author: Susie Quinn

A journalist since 1987, I proudly serve as the Alberni Valley News editor.
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