Nanaimo’s Secret

Nanaimo is a paradox.  For those arriving by ferry or float-plane from Vancouver, its beautiful, sheltered harbour is the gateway to a dispiriting four-lane crawl of strip malls, used car showrooms, superstores and drive-throughs. The town prospers and grows despite its unpromising reputation as a resource-based town reliant initially on coal, then forestry and pulp.  Its downtown has been refurbished and re-organised to highlight a sparkling new conference centre but, in the evenings, Nanimo’s residents steadfastly stay put in their suburban enclaves at the foot of Mount Benson.

Nanaimo and its harbour

Lively, unlovely, underwhelming Nanaimo’s biggest paradox is also it’s best-kept secret. Just over the hill from the newest sub-division of competitively priced homes, along a rural, paved road, is one of Vancouver Island’s hidden gems.  To get get to Nanaimo Lakes, you leave the main Island Highway just south of town and follow the Nanaimo River Road inland for 20 kilometers to a robust yellow gate.  Sometimes the gate’s open and sometimes its manned.  Beyond the gate a private road connects four lakes in a beautiful river valley that stretches 27 kilometers to the Island’s mountainous spine.

Nanaimo is the nearest Island 'gateway' to Vancouver

This whole valley is in the hands of a single owner, TimberWest, and is devoted to growing trees.  When you stand on the shore of the first lake (imaginatively named First Lake) you are struck by the solitary peace.

As you turn slowly through 360 degrees, taking in the scenery, the close proximity of the surrounding steep hills describe a giant, natural

‘room’.  Between First Lake and the head of the valley lie two more substantial lakes, a series of side valleys punctuated by smaller lakes and a long-abandoned ski hill called Green Mountain. This quiet, private landscape with its fast-flowing river and numerous tributaries comprises at least 20,000 acres; or enough space to accommodate the city of Nanaimo and all its 80,000 inhabitants.

The solitary beauty of Lake Two on a February morning

It’s no coincidence that TimberWest consistently features stunning photography of Nanaimo Lakes in its Annual Report and any other publication it can think of.  The company recognizes that the growing city of Nanaimo creeps inexorably closer to the Valley every year, reinforcing the belief that Nanaimo Lakes could have other uses than simply a tree farm.

So the future looks bright; a fast-growing community in a beautiful and accessible part of the world, a magnificent piece of land and an owner with aspirations.  It would seem that the ingredients are in place to create a special place of international standing and repute.

If only that were the case.

Instead, it is more likely that before long, the table will be set for a lengthy, expensive battle for the hearts and minds of the community and its elected local government.  On the one side will be TimberWest, its consultants and any development partners it might have recruited facing, on the other, an array of conservation groups, concerned citizens and individuals with specific reasons to

maintain the land in its current form.  In the case of large and significant land use changes, this combative process can be best described as a grueling and wasteful war of attrition.

The Nanaimo River, connecting First Lake and Second Lake

But does it have to be this way?  When the future use of a privately-held piece of land, so extensive and environmentally challenging as Nanaimo Lakes comes into question surely all those involved deserve to be engaged in a consistent, clear, open, timely and fair process.  And why shouldn’t there be a role for the Provincial Government in the consideration of land that is of national significance?  The answer to these questions is to be found in the way that the rural fastness of Vancouver Island is governed and planned.

Nanaimo Lakes is outside the city boundaries and falls under the planning jurisdiction of the local Regional District, an agglomeration of seven sparsely populated ‘electoral areas’ and four municipalities where the  majority of the region’s 150,000 residents reside.  Nanaimo Regional District is about to publish the first draft of its most important land use tool; the Regional Growth Strategy.  With its stated ambition to depart from previous efforts, it’s too early to tell whether or not this Strategy will be yet another one-size-fits-all blueprint for the region’s land use. It’s unlikely, however, that it will acknowledge the fundamental issue that has led to the re-evaluation of Nanaimo Lakes; that the forestry industry on Vancouver Island is undergoing a seismic change that has a direct bearing on the future use of its land base.

Looking west across Second Lake and the results of second-growth logging

Instead of preserving Nanaimo Lakes as a gated tree farm, accessible only to unwitting trespassers and those able to book a spot on its single primitive camp site, it should be possible to bring all the stake holders and governments (including First Nations) together to engage in and create a visionary plan for this land.

Imagine a valley, this close to the region’s largest and fastest growing population centre, planned so that it exceeded all of the sustainability targets set by the Regional Growth Strategy; whose forest was subject to the highest standards of stewardship while providing wood for local value-added manufacturing; whose lakefronts became public trails and open spaces, reserved for all; whose rivers and mountain tops generated energy for the entire region; that included a significant conservation component and whose settlement pattern provided a new model for sustainable rural living.

A blanket prohibition on development, based on the increasingly tenuous argument that growth in rural areas is unsustainable, helps no-one in the case of Nanaimo Lakes.  Large-scale conservation opportunities disappear, the lakes remain private, the opportunity for all to enjoy a rural lifestyle continues to diminish and the land-owner retreats behind its yellow gate to grow, harvest and export another crop of second-growth timber.


2010: The Year of the Prefab…again

It doesn’t make sense. That’s the rational reaction when you watch the construction of a stick-built house. Yet another dumpster full of waste material on its way to the local land-fill; the structure’s exposure to the elements; the endless coming and goings of the army of sub-contractors; the inevitable delays that come with too many cooks in the kitchen (and the bathroom, and the den, and the attic….).

Will today's stick-built home be tomorrow's museum piece?

What does make sense is prefabrication. Few argue with the apparent benefits of prefabricating houses; manufacturing and assembling components in a controlled environment, exploiting economies of scale and minimizing construction time. Better quality, shorter lead times, lower costs. And yet prefabs (as the homes themselves are often called) continue to be viewed by most people as the quirky exception to the rules of home construction.

However, times are changing and we must all be prepared to reinvent ourselves; including the construction industry. Is the age of the prefab about to dawn?

A typical prefabricated Sears & Roebuck home

Maybe that’s what Sears, Roebuck & Company thought in 1908 when it began shipping pre-cut ‘kit’ houses, sold by catalogue throughout the United States. When the last kit was despatched a third of a decade later, the company had sold homes to almost 100,000 customers; the equivalent of 3,125 a year. The age of prefabs had yet to dawn.

Perhaps the Second World War would change things. ‘No homes for heroes’ was the reality in every blitzed city in post-War Britain. Prefabs were one solution to the appalling housing shortage that awaited returning soldiers. Bomb sites became building sites. In-fill, the dream of today’s urbanists, became a reality.

'Homes for Heroes'. Prefabs in Catford, south east London.

Little clusters of wood-framed, flat-roofed, single-story, two bedroom ‘cottages’ replaced the traditional brick buildings that had been flattened by Hitler’s bombs.

Poorly insulated with only 600 square feet of space, these homes were expected to last 10 years. Sixty-two years later, the UK government designated 21 prefabs on the Excalibur Estate as being of historic significance. One or two are still occupied by their original owners; most have been renovated several times, a remnant of the 150,000 prefabs that were built. Hardly a vision for the future.

Sixty-one years later. The Excalibur Estate, Catford, London

The Excalibur Estate, 62 years old and still going strong.

America’s post-War housing crisis was handled differently. In 1945, the Levitt family used mass-production techniques to construct new homes. Every element of the building process was systematized and honed to lever the maximum economies of scale. The numbers speak for themselves. Four thousand acres of land acquired 25 miles from Manhattan; 17,400 homes built; 82,000 families housed; 150 identical two-bedroom homes completed every week.

Levittown, NY.

Long Island’s Levittown, the first sprawling suburb in America, was the antithesis of ‘in-fill’. Two more Levittowns followed, both in Pennsylvania.  Like the British ‘prefabs’, Levittown offered many of those returning from the War their first experience of home ownership. The cheaply built, mass-produced ‘boxes’ were recognized for what they were; starter homes.

Levittown, NY.

It was the emergence of trailer park living during the 1950s that, on the one hand, created a new, highly profitable market for prefabricated construction and, on the other, stigmatized the concept for decades to come. For many, this was truly affordable housing. The ‘pad’, complete with utility ‘hookups’, was rented and on it was placed a factory-built ‘trailer’ between 12 and 16 feet wide and up to 60 feet long. Between 1959 and 2007, over 12 million ‘manufactured homes’ were built in the United States. That’s an average of almost a quarter million units every year for 49 years.

The mother of all trailer parks...

In 1973, the peak year of production, 580,000 units were trucked along the nation’s highways, from factory to home site. But by 2007 that number had fallen to 95,000, or a sixth of the peak year. Was the dream of the prefab fading?

Not if you read Dwell Magazine or were frustrated by shortages in skilled construction labor or appalled by the apparent waste and rising material costs inherent in stick-built housing throughout the first decade of the new century.

A prefab in the woods. The Dwell competition winner.

In January 2003, Dwell Magazine challenged 16 architects to design and construct a prefabricated home for $200,000 or less. In editor Allison Arieff’s words; “I learned that countless modern architects and designers had tried their hand at prefab—from Le Corbusier to Frank Lloyd Wright to Philippe Starck—yet their efforts had resulted in a series of noble failures”. Here was a chance for a group of less well-known designers to succeed where others had failed. The winning home, designed by Resolution:4 Architecture, opened (after much blood, sweat and tears) on July 10th, 2004. It’s a modern, airy, well-lit home, seductive and uncompromising on its large wooded lot. But forget Henry Ford. As Ms. Arieff is first to admit, this was the equivalent of a BMW. She recommends a construction budget of between $125 and $200 per square foot (depending on location) – excluding, of course, the cost of the land on which to build it.

Mass production on a scale that would enable prefabs to out-compete stick-built construction in terms of cost, while at the same time avoiding the accusation of dreary ‘ticky-tacky’ homogeneity, remains elusive. Perhaps the age of the prefab will never dawn; at least not in the way that the builders of Levittown (or any of its smaller versions) might have dreamed. Construction technology will no doubt continue to develop and become more modular and pre-assembled in nature thereby reducing cost, improving quality and eliminating waste. But will the majority of us be living in truly prefabricated homes in the immediate future?

Maybe we should think of prefabs as special buildings that fit certain circumstances better than conventional forms of construction. For instance, where repetition and simplicity prove to be virtues rather than failings. Fifteen years ago I had the pleasure of staying in a simple cabin on Lake Martin, Alabama. The cabin was one of many that had been built by the Russell Corporation on its considerable land holding around the wooded edge of one the largest man-made lakes in the USA. Families would rent the cabins on leases long enough to encourage a sense of ownership and establish the Lake as a weekend and Summer getaway. Each cabin was, in today’s parlance, ‘light on the land’, sited in a clearing rather than on a lot and was comfortable rather than conspicuous. Lake Martin, in those days, was a spectacular playground that ensured that the cabins were appropriately inconsequential and simply a means by which generations could come together to play.

In these more straightened times, one can easily imagine a return to this type of lakeside getaway, where the natural environment dwarfs the built environment and the lake side is shared by all. Architectural repetition and simplicity become virtues, along with living off the grid and minimizing one’s carbon footprint.

And that may be the future for prefabs; minimizing the impact of humans as they enjoy spectacular recreational settings. Using more and more efficient manufacturing techniques to reduce waste. Creating shelter quickly and efficiently in order to control costs and enable recreational developers to construct a critical mass of buildings in the minimum time possible. Maybe not attainable in 2010 but something to dream about over the coming years.

Rails to Trails

Even from the air you get some sense of its immensity. In contrast to the dense green forest canopy, the bleached, gray timbers of the abandoned trestle stand out clearly. Almost 130 feet below the old rail bed, the Koksilah River is barely visible.


The Kinsol Trestle, spanning the Koksilah River

This is the Kinsol Trestle. In 1920, it was one of the world’s largest wooden structures completed by the Canadian National Railway, for the world’s largest lumber company. This was an age of superlatives; the trestle was 615 feet long, 135 feet high and built to carry trainloads of immense old-growth logs along an ambitious route between Victoria and Nootka Sound on the west coast of Vancouver Island. Even the trestle’s title carried weight, derived indirectly from the nearby and grandiosely named King Solomon’s Mine.

However, ambition and money ran out at Cowichan Lake. The rail line stopped at Youbou, a considerable distance short of its planned destination. Nevertheless, the Kinsol Trestle carried lumber trains for almost 60 years, until, on June 6th 1979, the last load of logs made the vertiginous river crossing.

Historic Picture

The last load to cross the Kinsol Trestle. June 1979

For the last 30 years, the Kinsol Trestle has served as a dormant, decaying reminder of the Canadian forestry industry as it once was. Meanwhile, the rail bed on either side of the river has been transformed into Vancouver Island’s link in the Trans-Canada Trail.  South of the Koksilah River the trail follows a ridge above  Shawnigan Lake and eventually connects with the Galloping Goose Trail. To the north, the trail meanders through the Cowichan Valley, crossing and re-crossing the fast-flowing Cowichan River, all the way to Cowichan Lake. The only break in the 120 kilometer trail is the Kinsol Trestle. In it’s current state of disrepair, it’s unsafe for walker or cyclist.

But not for much longer. After many years of fund-raising and a healthy slug of support from the Federal and Provincial stimulus package, work is about to commence on a $6 million trestle refurbishment program that will connect the south and north sections of the Trans-Canada trail. Some have questioned the logic of sinking so much money into a structure that is less than 100 years old while others are quick to point to the trail and trestle’s importance  as a world-class recreational amenity for locals and tourists alike.


The trestle, towering above the Koksilah River

It would not be surprising to find some of the trestle refurbishment program’s biggest proponents among the owners of larger tracts of land that abut the trail. Especially when those tracts are on the edge of existing communities. Take, for instance, the 1,000-acre TimberWest property overlooking the western shore of Shawnigan Lake. This recently logged land is bounded by almost a mile and a half of the southern section of the Trans-Canada Trail, a ready-made public footpath that leads through the woods to the Kinsol Trestle, less than 4 miles to the north. Compared to  a golf course, a trail system is not only more economical to build and maintain it is also cited increasingly as a ‘must-have’ feature by potential purchasers in new planned communities.


A refurbished rail trestle on the Galloping Goose Trail, near Victoria

The Kinsol Trestle is a unique and spectacular connector between Shawnigan Lake and the Cowichan Valley and it is destined to become another important link in Vancouver Island’s burgeoning trail network. For the price of five or so golf holes, the community will be restoring part of its proud industrial heritage and opening a breath-taking and truly memorable river crossing for cyclists, walkers and those who simply want to stand and stare in wonder at one of the largest wooden structures in the world.


'Keep Off'...but not for much longer!

Got Land? Give it away!

Lets say that you have a million acres of land at your disposal.  That your plan is to raise its value from hundreds of dollars an acre to thousands. Your land is in a beautiful but remote area.  And it’s devoid of roads, waterlines and sewer.  What do you do next?

A Panhandle sugar sand Beach

A Panhandle sugar sand Beach

In 1997, Florida’s St Joe Company addressed this question head-on.  It had sold its solitary paper mill but still owned 1 million acres of land. Its Board was now intent to harvest  value from real estate instead of pinewoods; especially the miles and miles of Florida beachfront St Joe owned.  One problem: the land was located in the eastern Panhandle, the Sunshine State’s slowest growing, least known corner.  Building lots and finished homes were cheaper there than anywhere else in Florida for good reason; it was beautiful but inaccessible, rural and light-years behind the rest of the State in terms of it’s amenities and infrastructure. It was the ‘Forgotten Coast’; the ‘Redneck Riviera’.

St Joseph Bay, Florida

St Joseph Bay, Florida

So what did St Joe do?  It began giving away its land.  Not to people like you and me but to organizations capable of changing the face of the region.  First, to Florida Department of Transport who needed land to widen the single highway that connected the Panhandle communities.  Then to Ascension Health to build a new hospital next to the beach.  And then, in hundreds of acres, to the local Airport Authority to replace its small, environmentally challenged facility in Panama City.

The company was not content to be simply a catalyst for change, standing by as the regional economy reacted to St. Joe’s investment in real estate development. No, it was going to lead growth by inducing infrastructure investment in the only ways it knew how; with lots of low value land, some money and strong community leadership. And one other essential thing – patience.

Next year, the new Panama City Airport will open, providing new routes into the region. And not content to rest there, the St Joe Company has entered into a financial arrangement with Southwest Airlines to provide low-cost flights.  Improved four-lane highways will speed arriving visitors to some of America’s finest beaches. Ascension Health will complete another hospital on land donated by St Joe, this time in Gulf County.  Patience has been stretched to the limit by a deep and painful recession. The St Joe Company is a very different, much smaller and less ambitious organization than it was five years ago but the region in which its remaining land is located has changed markedly and within a few months will be accessible to the world in a way that no one would have dreamed about in 1997.

Sunset on the Panhandle of Florida

Sunset on the Panhandle of Florida

And what of the land owner? How has it benefited from its largesse?  By one measure, its land value has risen from just over $2,000 per acre in 1999 to a current $5,000 per acre.  Most of its remaining 580,000 acres are within 15 miles of the beaches.  For the last 10 years, it has worked diligently winning the right to build about 40,000 home sites on a small proportion of its land, served by the first new airport to be built in the United States since 9/11, new roads and first-class healthcare.  Patience may be a virtue but, in this case it seems, it is about to offer its own rewards.

What Next for Vancouver Island?


Climbing the west Coast Trail

Last week a friend from Florida emailed me.  Just back from Vancouver Island, she couldn’t wait to tell me she’d hiked the daunting, spectacular West Coast Trail – and loved every minute.  Then my neighbor stopped by, excited by his next ‘big idea’, conceived as he watched the growing numbers of touring motorcyclists cruise past his modest business in the Cowichan Valley.  Once again, Vancouver Island’s diverse attraction was underscored for me, this time by Harley riders and a hard-core trekker.

It’s an easy day’s drive on a four lane highway from Victoria in the south to Campbell River, about half way up the Island.  This is the most populated segment of Vancouver Island.  From time to time the road touches the coastline to your right but you’re always aware of the Island’s heavily forested, mountainous spine away to your left.  Almost every mile of your journey offers another tempting stopping place or intriguing detour.  If you have the time and turn west to cross the mountains to Tofino the reward is a spectacular journey that ends on the wild and barely inhabited Pacific west coast.

It’s this kind of experience that gets under your skin and turns many a casual visitor into prospective resident.  But island living is a romantic notion often undermined by stark practicalities like finding a job, accessing healthcare, or just getting around.

Victoria Harbour

Victoria Harbour

Vancouver Island, though, is bigger than many people realize (you can fit Jamaica into it almost three times), has pretty good roads, over 750,000 residents, balmier weather than anywhere else in Canada, a bustling Provincial capital, a growing agricultural community, good hospitals and schools and a broad-based economy. Plus quite a lot more.  Little wonder then that the last five years has seen the Island tip from being dependent on forestry and fishing to a diversifying second-home and retirement destination underpinned by a wide range of service and other industries.

Of course there has been some froth, especially in the real estate market. At one point it seemed like every low-cost flight from Calgary was full of prospective retirees, second-home purchasers and investors.  Developers up and down the Island scrambled to cash-in and ride the coat tails of Victoria’s new, 2,000 home Bear Mountain Golf Resort, the first stop for many a potential purchaser.  Home prices rose on a tide of market exuberance, alienating many locals and encouraging the major Vancouver Island landowners to review their land holdings.

The Mountain Spine, north of Nanaimo

View from the Highway, near Campbell River

And then the market turned.  Calgarians stayed home and fretted about the fall in oil prices.  The economic malaise south of the border undermined confidence, froze lending, spooked investors and precipitated the suspension – or worse – of several development projects.  The major landowners re-evaluated, retrenched and refocused on their core business.

A year later, following a beautiful British Columbian summer and a modest recovery of the local housing market, it’s time to consider the future for the largest of Vancouver Island’s landowners.

Four forestry companies control almost all of the private land in the southeast quadrant of Vancouver Island.   Island Timberlands and  Western Forest Products (both Brookfield entities), Hancock Timber Resources (a subsidiary of Manulife) and TimberWest own over 1,500,000 acres of mainly contiguous real estate, including lakefronts, mountains and land in the Agricultural Land Reserve. Each has taken a different approach to the real estate boom of the last five years.

TimberWest and Island Timberlands have the most land, much of it in the path of development.  TimberWest has created a real estate arm, called Couverdon, to execute a development strategy that was devised with the help of international planning firm EDAW.  Brookfield, meanwhile, quietly introduced another of its companies, Carma Developers, to the Island Timberlands properties, especially those on the northwest slopes of the Malahat. Some of Hancock’s  Comox Valley land was transferred to community and resort developers who have, so far, met with varying success in rezoning it from managed timberland. Western Forest Products were the most aggressive and controversial of all, offering for sale former Crown land, including a much-loved beach a short drive west of Victoria.

On paper, all four companies have intriguing property that lends itself to a wide range of uses.  However, it has been tough to convince Vancouver Island communities to allow the forestry companies to rezone their private land to achieve higher, better and more profitable uses.


Qualicum Beach

To begin with, many of the Island’s residents have grown up enjoying the private forests for recreation, often with the tacit, and sometimes open, agreement of the landowner.  The forests have also provided jobs to generations of Islanders, creating complex and emotional relationships between working families and the forestry companies.  And then there are those who see no reason to make it easy for the powerful forestry companies to become wealthy real estate developers.  Finally, there are the First Nations, intent to claim aboriginal rights to land that the Dominion granted in the late 19th century for the construction of a railroad and which was subsequently sold to the forestry companies.

The stage would seem to be set, not for the unleashing of unprecedented real estate development as some fear but, for a battle of attrition between communities and forestry companies up and down the southeast quadrant of Vancouver Island. And, sadly, the passing up of a unique opportunity for Vancouver Island.

As unbending and remote as the forestry companies sometimes appear, their vast contiguous land holdings offer considerable potential to the communities that they encompass.  With every proposed rezoning and development of former forest land comes the opportunity for communities to acquire, in exchange, land that contains the source of their drinking water, places for parks, trails and green belts, land for agriculture, industrial use, affordable housing, hospitals, schools and other social facilities.  The list is limited only by one’s imagination because the land base on which the forestry companies can draw seems limitless in scale.

Campbell River

Campbell River below the peaks of Strathcona Park

Taken a step further, here is an opportunity to address some of Vancouver Island’s   most important long-term land use issues including striking a realistic balance between town and country living.  Visitors appreciate Vancouver Island for its diverse rural and urban places, as well as its spectacular mountain and coastal scenery.  How will the Island conserve open space around its towns while sustaining demographic growth and job creation for its residents, their children and grandchildren?  Should a home in the countryside be exclusive only to those able to afford a faux farm and a Range Rover?

And what about all of the mountains, lakes and lakefronts owned by the forestry companies?   How can they be made more accessible to Island residents and visitors while maintaining their environmental integrity and essential beauty?

It is wishful thinking to expect the Provincial Government to pursue a comprehensive, long-term approach to the alternative use for forestry land in the path of development on Vancouver Island. The debate on the future of this land will continue, most likely, in a piecemeal fashion in rural Regional Districts and urban Municipalities up and down the Island.  I hope that the land owners and the communities have the vision and courage to pursue this unique opportunity that they face together; to unlock the value of this land to strengthen Vancouver Island’s reputation as a place of boundless beauty and strong, healthy sustainable communities.

A crowded West Coast beach

A crowded West Coast beach