Willingdon lands sale shocks Burnaby city hall

The Willingdon lands, site of the Maples Adolescent Treatment Centre, have been sold. - MARIO BARTEL/NEWSLEADER
The Willingdon lands, site of the Maples Adolescent Treatment Centre, have been sold.

The sale of the provincial Willingdon lands last week caught Burnaby city hall by surprise, said Mayor Derek Corrigan.

Musqueam and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations bought the 16-hectare (about 40-acre) property for $57.9 million.

The land is at the corner of Willingdon Avenue and Canada Way, across from BCIT. It is currently home to the Burnaby Centre for Addictions and the Maples Adolescent Treatment Centre.

The two First Nations, along with Squamish First Nation, also have bought the 3.6-hectare (almost nine acre) Liquor Distribution Branch warehouse site in East Vancouver.

The sale is part of a move by the provincial government to sell off surplus land to balance its budget.

“Absolutely, I was shocked when I heard that the lands were being sold to First Nations,” said Corrigan on Friday.

“We had negotiated with the provincial government on acquiring the lands after we heard they were putting them up on basically, a fire sale. We wanted to step up. We knew how important those lands were to potential future development in the BCIT area. And so we were prepared to pay market value for them.”

The city had told the province it was interested in buying the land.

“And subsequently they just pulled the rug out from underneath our feet and sold it to First Nations.”

The last Burnaby had heard from the province, it told city staff it had to consult with local First Nations about the sale of any provincial land.

“We said, ‘OK, when would you like to try and make this deal happen?’ And they said, ‘well, we’ve got to go through that and then we’ll call you.’ And the next time we heard was that they had sold the lands.”

Corrigan believes the province was in a hurry to get the money by March 31 to balance its budget.

The city also had the financial ability to buy the property in short order, “but it’s bad decisions to go out and simply fire sale provincial lands,” he noted.

Burnaby’s proposal that the lands be the location for a new Burnaby Hospital “fell on deaf ears,” he said.

“We accepted that if we wanted to do something with those lands we had to stand up and do something. We proceeded in good faith to get appraisals and all the things we had to do. And then they sold it.”

The province first discussed the property with the City of Burnaby in 2012 and informed the city when it was being put up for sale, said Technology, Innovation and Citizens’ Services Minister Andrew Wilkinson in an interview Monday.

“Essentially at the same time, the government has an obligation to consult with relevant First Nations where they have claims to Aboriginal rights and title,” Wilkinson said.

“The City of Burnaby asked for an exclusive period, and they were granted one, in which they could do their due diligence and figure out what they wanted to do and if they might be making an offer.

“That due diligence period expired. And the First Nations said they would purchase it from us for the full appraised market value and so we said, ‘OK, you’ve got a deal.’”

Wilkinson did not know when the city’s due diligence period expired but said the sale closed on March 21.

“They had ample opportunity to come to commercial terms on the deal and make an offer and they didn’t do that,” he said.

“And so as soon as the exclusion period was over the First Nations were ready to go as a commercial consortium and they went ahead and made a deal.”

The province will lease the property back for three years to give it time to relocate existing services currently operating out of the site. As for what the Musqueam and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations will do with the land, “they’re acting like any other commercial entity whether Aboriginal or not,” Wilkinson said. “They are subject to local zoning and bylaws.”

The Willingdon property had previously served as a youth detention facility. In 2009 the province proposed building a new remand prison facility there, which met with huge public outcry. The province eventually decided to build the facility in Surrey instead.

But before that decision, Burnaby council rezoned the site to prevent a prison being located there.

It is now zoned to allow for what the city considers appropriate uses for the site: high tech industries and head offices, vocational and post-secondary institutions, health and community services and supporting uses such as commercial, mixed-use and residential.

As it’s outside the Brentwood Town Centre area, it’s not a location where city hall wants to see a lot of residential development.

Any residential would have to be a supporting use, such as student housing, Corrigan said.

“Hopefully we’ll be able to work with the First Nations that got it. It’s not their fault the government did what they did, they just took advantage of it. They bought it knowing what uses we would permit.”

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