The city selected Matthews West from a list of 16 organizations and developers that expressed interest in developing the 43-acre waterfront property where milling operations were curtailed indefinitely in 2017.
The city purchased the site through expropriation from Western Forest Products in 2021. The purchase included five parcels for a total of $5.3 million, according to the city's project website that includes the preliminary vision for the project.
“The redevelopment of the Somass Lands is an exciting and transformative milestone in Port Alberni's history and we are honoured to partner with the city to further their vision," said John Matthews, president of Matthews West.
"We look forward to the upcoming work on the site, engaging with the community, and working hand-in-hand with the Hupacasath and the Tseshaht First Nations on this exceptional development opportunity.”
Matthews West developed Bow Tower
Matthews West is a subsidiary of Matthews Southwest, which is based in Dallas, Matthews told RENX in an interview.
Matthews Southwest develops and invests in various North American and international markets and asset types including hotel, retail, office, industrial and residential.
The iconic Bow office tower in Calgary is among the company's projects.
Matthews said his team was attracted to the Port Alberni project because it provided similar challenges and opportunities as other waterfront projects they've worked on.
"We saw a lot of parallels between Squamish and Port Alberni," Matthews said, noting they’re both situated between an economic centre – Vancouver, in the case of Squamish, and Nanaimo in the case of Port Alberni — and a major tourism centre in Whistler and Tofino, respectively.
Matthews said the firm recognizes Port Alberni's connection to nature and feels equipped to deal with the complexities of developing a waterfront site with the unique infrastructure that's required.
"We really want it to be this true mixed-use site," Matthews said. Once the partnership is finalized, they'll dig into the site vision and start working with the city, residents and First Nations to assess what people really want and need.
A chance to "recreate" the city’s waterfront
Port Alberni Mayor Sharie Minions told RENX in an interview last week that she was a member of city council when the mill's operations were curtailed.
"I saw a lot of potential in this site and I really ran for mayor on the platform of utilizing the Somass lands to revitalize our community and really recreate what Port Alberni is," Minions said.
"It is a very exciting project for us and I really believe it's transformational for the community."
The city selected Matthews West partly because of the company's experience developing sites in Squamish and working with First Nations.
"We felt like it was a great fit there," Minions said.
"We also really just were inspired by the vision that they presented to us and . . . it was really important to me that we found a developer that aligned with really understanding that this is such a pivotal project for the community."
Minions said the leadership of Hupacasath and Tseshaht First Nations shared their input on the development team selection and will remain engaged to help advise on the master plan that will soon be developed for the site.
Once the final development agreement is finalized in the coming months, Matthews West will develop the master plan it will present to the city. Minions said she hopes that plan can be developed in about a year, but also doesn't want it to be rushed.
Ownership arrangements for the property and its eventual assets remain to be decided. Ultimately, the city envisions a mixed-use neighbourhood that blends a variety of housing, commercial space and light industry.
Access to walkable waterfront is key
"We have a gorgeous waterfront in our community that has largely not been able to be accessed and enjoyed by our public," Minions said, adding the goal is to ensure everyone has access to the redeveloped waterfront.
The preliminary vision sketches out elements including a boutique hotel; light industrial space; ‘maker’ space that could potentially include a brewery or distillery; mid-rise multifamily buildings and townhomes; office and retail space; and a food processing hub among other features.
The master plan will direct the final choices on what gets built.
The vision also aims for plenty of park space and a multi-use path along the waterfront.
Oceanfront, Cheekeye lands among Matthews' projects
Matthews West remains focused on a couple of major projects in the Squamish area as well, including the 100-acre Oceanfront Squamish, which includes the 11-acre Oceanfront Park.
The site, on the shore of Howe Sound, is now fully serviced and is moving through the first phase of development, the company said.
Oceanfront, a partnership with Squamish Nation, will eventually provide over a million square feet of employment space, over 400,000 square feet of education space and around 2,800 multifamily homes.
The company is also working with Squamish Nation to develop the Cheekeye Lands in Brackendale, near Squamish.
The Cheekeye neighbourhood development plan includes:
- a mix of housing that could eventually include 537 small and medium single-family lots;
- 678 multifamily homes, (including 85 affordable and 85 market-rental homes);
- a neighbourhood commercial hub;
- and 130 acres of greenspace including public parks and trail systems.
The partnership is also responsible for the construction of a major debris flow mitigation system on the Cheekeye River that would protect the area from landslides.
Once the construction of the debris flow mitigation system is complete, it will be owned, operated, and maintained by the District of Squamish and will make way for the construction of the residential development.
Construction of the debris shield is expected to start next year, the company said.