The Departure Bay walkway has been decades in the making. Will it ever get built?

Ever since Nanaimo’s iconic downtown waterfront walkway was developed, the city has planned to extend it. But critics say the barriers to building it are only getting bigger.

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When local architect Ian Niamath was first approached about a project for the Nanaimo waterfront in the early 1990s, the request from the then-Harbour Commission was simple: “We have a parking problem, can you solve it?”

The result became one of the city’s standout features: the downtown waterfront walkway, which snakes around the ocean from Pioneer Plaza through Swy-A-Lana Lagoon and on to the yacht club.

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“Our contribution with what we were attempting to do [is] create a place that people would go, people would want to go. So just like, showing off the valuable asset that Nanaimo had, which is the waterfront,” says Niamath, who was born in Trinidad and attended Regent Street Polytechnic’s school of architecture in London, England. 

Originally, the waterfront area featured just a tiny footpath with two or three benches, says Niamath, so when he proposed the design of Pioneer Plaza to take care of the parking issue, he included a walkway that led past various small shops that then connected to the nearby Swy-a-Lana Lagoon. A bridge spanned one end of the lagoon, below which were concrete retaining areas that mimicked tidepools for children to walk and play within.

Nanaimo architect Ian Niamath stands in front of the winding ship-themed staircase white masts at the Nanaimo waterfront.
Niamath’s design for Pioneer Plaza made a variety of nods to history, such as a winding ship-themed staircase, and took existing features into account, like the large oak tree was planted where settlers first arrived and the maple trees growing on the steep bank below Front Street. Julie Chadwick/The Discourse

“There were no public open spaces in Nanaimo where the public could gather to do a variety of things. So we insisted that we provide a public space. And that’s why the top of the plaza is the way it is,” he explains, describing the inclusion of features like a fountain for people to sit around, a giant chessboard and landscaping that cascades down the walls to hide the parking area. 

“We reintroduced the people part of it… So when you walk along there, you know, it’s not just the walkway, it’s more than a walkway. It’s a piece of Nanaimo meeting the sea.”

Niamath acknowledges that one of the first things people do when they have visitors in Nanaimo is to take them down to the waterfront. “I love going down there sometimes and just seeing how it’s being used, which was always the way it was intended.”

Niamath stands at the Nanaimo waterfront where a popular walkway was built.
“We were building a parking lot, basically. But there was no way I was gonna build a parking lot without it being a very nice parking lot,” says Niamath. Julie Chadwick/The Discourse

At the time, Niamath’s team envisioned a walkway that extended for two kilometres along the ocean, from downtown to the Kin Hut at Stiil’nep (Departure Bay beach). In 1998 they drafted a design and report that included the cost of the project, which was then estimated to be between $6 and 8 million.

The design featured an elevated walkway much like the one downtown, built on piles so the tide could flow below it, with stairways every so often so pedestrians could walk down to the beach. They did not want to touch the “geotechnically unsafe” bank in the Cilaire area nor disturb the natural features of the beach, says Niamath. 

Now more than two decades later, these plans have been refreshed at more than three times the price tag. But critics say the original challenges associated with the project haven’t gone away, leaving many to wonder if it will ever get built. As one reader asked: “What happened (again) to the Departure Bay walkway?”

What happened to the original Departure Bay walkway plans?

Over the years the city has maintained a long-term vision for the walkway that extends 13 kilometres from Stiil’nep to the Nanaimo River estuary in the south of town, divided into six sections (or phases of expansion).

This summer, the city revived public interest in the walkway by considering a section deemed a priority based on feedback, which runs along the beach from the B.C. Ferries terminal to the Kin Hut building at Departure Bay (shown in pink in the image below, from the city’s 2017 Nanaimo Waterfront Walkway Implementation Plan).

At present, the proposed walkway for this section is a raised on-beach design (shown below), and cost estimates are in the range of $25 to 30 million. Because the city would need to borrow money, the decision to move forward would likely have to go to a referendum. In its brochure for the project, the city says the cost would work out to about $37 per year, per household. 

The city's 2017 Implementation Plan  shows a rendering of the raised on-beach option currently being considered for the Departure Bay walkway next to the elevated boardwalk option.
The city’s 2017 implementation plan shows a rendering of the raised on-beach option (right) currently being considered for the Departure Bay walkway. Rendering from the City of Nanaimo

The desire for a walkway is clearly supported by residents, with approximately 80 per cent of survey participants in favour of the proposed Departure Bay segment of the walkway, and 15 per cent not in support, according to the results of the city’s public consultation. Despite this, there are still a number of challenges that could stand in the way of making the project a reality.

“I think broadly, the community likes the idea of the project. Certainly, there’s work we need to do with the neighbours, the folks who live in Cilaire, the folks who live on Battersea and Randle Road, the folks who are adjacent to the project, we need to work with them a bit more closely because they have concerns,” says Bill Corsan, the city’s director of community development.

He also acknowledged that though the city has had some discussions with Snuneymuxw First Nation, who have important village sites along the waterfront, “there’s lots more work to do there as well.”

The city is required to work with the nation on a government-to-government level as set out in their renewed protocol agreement and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). When contacted, Chief Xumtilum (Michael) Wyse declined to comment for this story.

Despite being identified as a priority, the section of walkway that runs through the Cilaire neighbourhood is widely recognized as the most challenging. According to the city’s implementation plan, some of these issues are ecological and geotechnical, which include slope instability, erosion of the steep Cilaire Bluffs, environmentally sensitive second-growth forest on the bluff, fish and marine habitat, and more.

There’s also the problem of upland property owners’ riparian rights. According to common law, anyone who owns waterfront property can’t legally be prevented from physically accessing the water. This includes the construction of something like a trail (or walkway) that runs in front of the property. It’s one of a list of concerns with the project that neighbourhood residents have expressed, along with things like safety and the local environment. The city has repeatedly acknowledged this is a key complicating factor and it potentially represents its most significant hurdle. 

While the foreshore is considered a public space and subdivisions like Cilaire must include public beach access every few hundred meters, the city would still have to secure permission from the landowners to move ahead. 

There are more than 30 landowners adjacent to the proposed route to negotiate with, all of whom have to agree to waive their riparian rights. In 2006 the city acknowledged that most of these property owners were not in support of the project, and there’s little evidence the situation has changed.  

“If negotiations fail, the city might seek special expropriation legislation from the province, but the federal government might also intervene,” says former mayor Gary Korpan via email, who investigated the issue extensively during his tenure as mayor. “Such a process would be lengthy, costly, and raise huge protests by property rights advocates.”

What do local residents say about the Departure Bay walkway plans?

When Sherry Durnford relocated to the Cilaire neighbourhood six months ago from downtown, she says she was initially enthusiastic about the walkway plans. However, when she looked into it in further detail online, she found a city-made “fly-through” video of what was proposed and became distraught.

“It just made me cry. I just thought, ‘Oh my god’. We’ve already done so much that’s resulted in climate change, and to keep on doing this, it’s like…we don’t realize climate change is happening,” she says. “They’re going to be basically changing the whole shoreline.” Durnford references a provincial study she saw years ago which explores the risks to shorelines on eastern Vancouver Island, saying she believes at least part of the problem is human activity.   

In a presentation to city council on Oct. 4, Durnford outlined her concerns about maintaining the area’s natural habitat and ecology, and the land and marine animals which depend on the shoreline, among other issues. Durnford says she has talked with other residents in the area and that they share the same worries.

In exploring its options, the city had originally proposed a $12 million plan for an elevated walkway in the Cilaire section that would be built for sea-level rise and have minimal environmental impacts. The $3.5 million raised on-beach path currently proposed would offer neither of these benefits, according to the city’s implementation plan, shown below.

One reason the city recently moved away from an elevated walkway design was that the engineering study they commissioned showed it would involve building a temporary access road on the beach to put the piles in, which would then be removed. This seemed like a high-impact method as well as a waste of money and effort, says Corsan, so they favoured the on-beach design using a “green shores” approach towards waterfront development, which he feels addresses some of the ecological concerns.

“It’s a project that could have been done 20 or 30 years ago and I think it would have been built like the seawall in Vancouver,” says Corsan, who acknowledges the concerns of local residents. “But the impact of the project would have had a lot more disadvantages whereas now, where we can actually be much more knowledgeable about ecology and shoreline movements and marine environments and certainly a connection back to the First Nations.”

The beach is shown in its natural state with driftwood and ferns.
“They’re going to destroy this natural shoreline,” says Cilaire neighbourhood resident Sherry Durnford, who presented concerns to council on Oct. 4, 2021. Photo submitted by Sherry Durnford

So why didn’t the Departure Bay walkway project happen decades ago?

In 2005, the city decided to remove $1 million in funding that was earmarked for the walkway project in their Five Year Financial Plan ($200,000 per year for five years), upon recommendation from city staff, to free up funds for the New Nanaimo Centre (NNC) project.

At the time, the city’s then-finance director Brian Clemens told the Nanaimo Daily News they were pushed to defer capital expenditures like the walkway because of their planned contribution of $52 million towards the $100-million NNC.

The following year, in a unanimous vote, city council decided to not proceed with the Departure Bay section of the walkway plan (again, upon recommendation from city staff) due to what councillor Bill Holdom described to Daily News reporter Robert Barron was “very formidable obstacles” in trying to move it forward.

Those obstacles — primarily the upland property owners’ riparian rights — are what killed the plans back then, and they remain today, says Korpan, who oversaw the NNC project, among others, during his 15-year tenure as Nanaimo’s mayor from 1993 to 2008.

“This is the reason why the project has always stalled,” he says, adding that the city is simply not entitled to act upon the riparian property without the permission from all upland owners, which he does not believe they will secure due to residents’ ecological concerns as well as possible crime, vandalism, trespassing and noise that the increased traffic in the area could bring. 

“For the city to put out a suggestion that this walkway is possible in the near future without having talked to the upland owners about their riparian rights and access to that area is a total waste of money. It raises false expectations among the public, it raises false fears among the property owners who are directly affected and it’s just a joke,” he said.

He added that there was a “lost opportunity” to build the walkway in the 1970s when the city obtained permission from the area’s upland riparian rights holders to build a temporary road along the beach in order to install one of the main sewer lines.

An image shows the beach near Departure Bay dug up during the installation of sewage lines.
A photograph from around 1970 shows the road construction involved in building one of the sewer lines in the Departure Bay area. Photo courtesy of Nanaimo Community Archives

As for accusations that the city was “raiding its bank accounts” to find funds for the NNC, as was stated in the book Nanaimo Between Past and Future, published in 2005 by the Friends of Plan Nanaimo (who were opposed to the project), Korpan scoffs: 

“That’s total malarkey,” he says. “There was no project that went unfunded because of the conference centre. This idea that there was some kind of budget for [the] Departure Bay walkway that was surreptitiously slipped into the conference centre, that’s bullshit.”

There was no budget for the project because “we never got past the part of getting access and legal rights to do it,” he says.

In a later email he says he doesn’t recall the walkway fund deferral but it was “not unusual for lower priority projects to be delayed or dropped” if council had higher priorities and shorter timelines. He asserts that the decline of Nanaimo’s downtown had been fought over for decades and in his view, the NNC was one of the only projects that developed wide support, and that’s why they made it a top priority.

What can be done?

Though Niamath has not been consulted regarding the other proposed sections of walkway, nor is he on any planning committees, he remains upbeat about its future.

“If we can get a walkway and it’s to be used by the public, so that the public has access to the waterfront and the beach areas, I think that that would be a miracle,” he says. “I would love to see that happen.”

The City of Nanaimo is not alone in grappling with these types of projects. In 2012, the City of Vancouver backed away from expanding the seawall to connect two popular Kitsilano beaches due to intense opposition from local landowners.

In Kelowna, after several years of negotiations with private landowners and the province to build a 120-meter-long waterfront path, construction came to a halt due to the discovery of First Nations artifacts, according to Kelowna’s Daily Courier

Cheaper alternatives to the current proposal also exist, insists Durnford, who says she feels that an enhancement of the existing natural path at the high tide line with gravel and well-placed stones could be possible. It would be not only cheaper and easier but work much better with the existing natural environment. In an email, she acknowledged that high tides would present a barrier in some places.

This sentiment is echoed by local residents and city hall watchdogs Lawrence Rieper and Ron Bolin, who were both involved with Friends of Plan Nanaimo and say they are primarily concerned about the walkway’s estimated $30 million price tag and the way that cost has increased over time.

“Thirty million dollars for a road on sand and rocks in the middle of the sea, I think it’s looney tunes,” says Rieper, “I’m not against it, it’s just the price. It’s ridiculous. We haven’t got money to throw away. We’ve got an ecological crisis which is upon us.” 

If people want to explore the Departure Bay area they would prefer to see the existing roadways and beach access in the Cilaire area and along Battersea and Randle roads enhanced and utilized, says Rieper, though he acknowledges it isn’t as accessible for all ages and abilities as a flat, on-beach walkway would be.

The Newcastle Channel section of the 13-kilometre vision for the walkway, just south of the Departure Bay section, was also identified as a priority for investment by the public in the city’s implementation plan and could be pursued as a cheaper, and likely less controversial, option.

As one reader wrote to us: “Newcastle Channel is a beautiful waterway that is, in this area, bordered by boarded up or depressed businesses. There has been planned for a long time an extended waterfront walkway to the ferry terminal, why has this not been completed? A review of the site using Google Earth shows no great impediment along the one-kilometre route except at the shipyard which would result in a short detour from the waterfront to Stewart Ave.”

As for where the Departure Bay walkway currently stands, Corsan says there is still a lot of work to be done and hurdles to overcome. In addition to consultations with Snuneymuxw First Nation and property owners in the Cilaire neighbourhood, approvals are also still needed from the province which has jurisdiction over the foreshore, the federal government and other entities like B.C. Ferries.  [end]

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