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ABOUT NELSON: The fight against Walmart for a Nelson waterfront property

Donna Macdonald writes about the site where Shoreline now sits
The Shoreline development is being built on a site that could have been home to a Walmart. Photo: Donna Macdonald

by Donna Macdonald

As I watch townhomes rise at the Shoreline site next to the mall, I think back to 2001 when the BC Buildings Corporation (BCBC) put that site up for sale, ending its life as a boneyard for highways maintenance vehicles.

The proposed sale was of keen interest to the many who value our waterfront. Feelings ran high about the best use for this land, and they soared when the spectre of a standalone Walmart Superstore, complete with a 500-car parking lot, emerged. What? On our waterfront?

Many people, including Mayor Gary Exner and several councillors, liked the idea. They thought a big box store would be good for Nelson, establishing the city as a commercial centre, creating jobs and spin-off economic activity. This argument was bolstered when the mall owners (GWL Realty) published a slightly menacing editorial. They warned of the danger of Walmart leaving town, which would lead to the demise of the mall and much more.

Many other people (including me) thought we could do better, that housing, green space for people and keeping our Nelson-sized Walmart was a better choice. And so the battle lines were drawn. It didn’t help that notes from a meeting the previous year between city officials, Walmart and GWL had been made public by Councillor Gord McAdams, creating suspicion of a done deal.

Before putting the land on the market, BCBC asked the city if they wanted to buy it. In July, council met in the old City Hall, while 400 people gathered on Ward Street. There were placards and signs (No Big Boxes), a petition with 4,300 names calling for better planning, and chants: “We want to be heard, So we’re saying it loud. We want a waterfront, That makes us proud.”

All kinds of people were there. My favourites were the line of senior women, sitting in their lawn chairs, holding signs calling for seniors housing . A few people spoke, including a pastor who urged the city to “just buy the damn land.” Big cheers for that! Sadly council didn’t take his advice. Word came down from council chambers that they had voted against acquiring the property. It was too risky. Leave it to the private sector. See what the market brings.

That was a blow, and there were tears, but still hope that a purchaser, other than a big box store, would step up. Then in September, an ad appeared in the Journal of Commerce, allegedly placed by Walmart (although they adamantly denied any knowledge of it). The ad invited submissions for plans for “a building along the waterfront, in Nelson, B.C.” Specifically on the BCBC-owned site.

On Oct. 1, BCBC finally listed the property for sale, with a closing date of Oct. 15. And that’s when local heroes bravely prepared a formal offer to purchase. A group of about 20 investors, including prominent names like Martin, Catley, Diamond, Leatherman, Elliott and Horswill, pooled resources. With their own funds and expertise, the Central Waterfront Group (CWG) successfully purchased the 2.74-acre property for $1.1 million.

Hurrah! Then began years of design and planning, trying to include affordable seniors’ units, artist lofts and other community wishes. It was a large and ambitious project and at that time the city wasn’t really ready for it. It took four years to get all the permits for the project, and then the developer CWG had worked with bought the land, as agreed.

But during all that time, prices for everything were steadily rising and then 2008 brought us a global recession. The developer had financial problems and eventually a bank took possession of the land. At some point later, Culos Development purchased the site.

Now we have Shoreline, not quite what was envisioned 20 years ago. It’s billed as “upscale” with prices ranging from $350,000 for a micro-unit to $1.2 million for a penthouse suite. But as a former CWG member told me, it’s better than an empty weedy lot!

A lot of people, from the petition organizers to the CWG, deserve to be acknowledged and thanked for their efforts. We came very close to losing a significant chunk of our waterfront to a parking lot and big box store.

Donna Macdonald has lived in Nelson since 1972, and is the author of Surviving City Hall, a memoir of her 19 years on Nelson City Council. Her column appears monthly.