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Port approves Seaspan drydock expansion on North Van waterfront

Residents of neighbouring condo towers are disappointed in the decision to expand the drydock facilities to the west
Seaspan's Vancouver Drydock in July 2021. The port has approved an application to expand its water lease to add additional dry docks. | Paul McGrath, North Shore News

The Vancouver Fraser Port Authority has approved a controversial plan by Seaspan to expand its drydock facilities on the North Vancouver waterfront.

The decision on the drydock expansion, issued Tuesday, will allow Seaspan to expand its existing facilities at the foot of St. George’s Avenue to the west, towards Burrard Pier, including adding two additional drydocks and a work pontoon.

Nearby residents who had opposed the plan said they were disappointed in the decision.

The company has said the drydock expansion is needed to consolidate all of its ship repair work at the Vancouver Drydock site, while Seaspan Shipyards at the foot of Pemberton Avenue becomes fully dedicated to building large ships like the joint support ships for the Canadian Navy and icebreaker for the Coast Guard.

Seaspan has said the expansion will expand drydock capacity by about 30 per cent and result in approximately 100 new jobs on top of the 150 people already working at Vancouver Drydock.

Project generates controversy

But the project has also generated significant controversy since Seaspan first applied for the expansion permit more than two years ago.

Lower Lonsdale residents who live in several high-rise condominium towers on the North Vancouver waterfront have repeatedly voiced concerns about the negative impact of additional noise and light from the expanded drydock operations, as well as an impact on views.

Neighbouring residents and the City of North Vancouver also expressed views that an expanded drydock should be built to the east of the existing drydock – away from the residential towers and the Shipyards waterfront area.

Seaspan has promised to use “dark-sky-friendly” lighting and to put up lighting shields for lights facing residential towers. The company has said it will also advise the community if high-noise-generating work is taking place outside of regular working hours and promised to measure noise both during and after construction.

Location of new drydocks a concern

But the location of the new drydocks has remained a sticking point.

Throughout the application process, the company maintained that building new drydocks further to the east isn’t feasible because Seaspan needs space for barges to move in front of its on-shore “W” building, as well as direct access to the dry docks via a service pier.

In a letter approving the project, Andrea McLeod, project and environmental review director at the port, said the company had demonstrated the expansion couldn’t be built further east “due to project operational and economic constraints.”

In the letter, McLeod acknowledged there had been “strong public opposition to the project” and concerns voiced by both Linda Buchanan, the mayor of the City of North Vancouver, as well as MP Jonathan Wilkinson.

“While it was a challenging decision due to the proximity to residential areas, the project will be located within a known industrial area – an area that has been historically used for industrial, marine and port activities for decades,” said McLeod, in a press statement.

“We did not take this decision lightly,” she added.

McLeod said public feedback has resulted in mitigation measures intended to reduce noise and light impacts. Seaspan will also apply several of those mitigation measures to its existing drydock operations, she said.

Neighbours disappointed

Chris Thorson and Al Parsons both live in high-rise towers on the North Vancouver waterfront and have been active in voicing concerns of nearby residents.

Contacted Wednesday by the North Shore News, both said they were “extremely disappointed” in the decision and in not being informed of it directly by the port authority, despite being involved in many stakeholder discussions on the project.

“We had a huge uphill battle to get our concerns heard in a such a way to make it seem like we weren’t NIMBYs,” said Thorson.

Both Parsons and Thorson said they haven’t had the opportunity yet to look through all 61 conditions attached to the permit, but they expect the drydock expansion will impact their quality of life.

Both said they are still not convinced the drydock expansion couldn’t be built to the east of the existing one.

In a statement, City of North Vancouver Mayor Linda Buchanan said she was concerned by the decision made by the port and would continue to advocate on behalf of the community.

So far, there’s no word on when the project will start. Seaspan must fulfill several conditions, including submitting a construction communications plan, before any work can start.

No one from Seaspan was immediately available to comment on the project approval on Wednesday.