The We Town concept envisioned for the west side of Sumas Mountain has tremendous potential, but more than a few question marks.
The developer says the project has the chance to turn Abbotsford into a major tech hub. Eric Vance, an independent consultant, looked into the project for the city and wrote an extensive report on the idea that illustrates how the concept could transform Abbotsford – or never get built.
Five reasons for optimists:
1. A new high-tech hub:
“Employment space purpose-built for large hi-tech employers will form the overwhelming majority of office space at WeTown. It is anticipated that the opportunity to locate to purpose-built space situated in a picturesque community with abundant housing – while still within a large metro area – will prove attractive to large multinational tech firms, and will therefore result in BC attracting large tech operations at a higher rate than in the absence of WeTown. In turn, being home to a higher proportion of large firms will result in more competitive rates of innovation.” - Auguston Town Developments Inc.
2. Abbotsford could become a “smart city”:
“Built with smart infrastructure, including ICT infrastructure and IoT, WeTown will be a showcase of what an intelligent community is and is poised to help the City of Abbotsford grow into a smart city.” - Auguston Town Developments Inc.
3. Spurring innovation:
“The size of the site renders it possible to build space for virtually any desired size of research institution and/or university. Additionally, co-location with major hi-tech firms should spur a virtuous circle of collaboration, partnerships, and innovation. For example, WeTown could facilitate the local agriculture industry to adopt new technologies to enhance its productivity and economic competitiveness.”
“In providing space for research, academic, incubation, and large-scale office uses on the same site, WeTown presents a clean-slate opportunity to construct an environment designed to facilitate the integrated approach necessary for Abbotsford and BC to take positions as economic leaders in the short, medium, and long terms.” - Auguston Town Developments Inc.
4. Attracting a large tech company
“The single most important component of WeTown’s success is the attraction of a large, highly recognized office tenant in the technology field, which serves as a catalyst for attracting subsequent tenants and spurring additional development … North America is replete with examples of technology clusters forming outside the downtown of metropolitan areas, often of a very similar distance as Abbotsford to Vancouver.” - Auguston Town Developments Inc.
5. Fewer drivers, more people walking, biking and taking the bus
“The design concept of a self-contained community at WeTown offers the opportunity to achieve the targeted mode shift from single occupancy vehicles to other sustainable modes including walking, cycling and transit.” - Auguston Town Developments Inc.
Five reasons for skepticism
1. Up-front infrastructure costs
“The concept, in essence, creates a second ‘City Centre’ that is currently not connected to the City’s primary transit corridor and in a location that would require significant municipal infrastructure upgrades not anticipated in the OCP or recently completed master plans” - City staff
2. More commuters than anticipated
“WeTown also assumes that 82% of the housing units will be occupied by people working and studying on the site. It is questionable that such a percentage would choose to live on site given the narrow housing choice selection and the lack of rapid transit. There is no other urban centre, neighbourhood, or community in the Lower Mainland with such a high proportion; the City of Vancouver, for example, is the highest in the region at 68%.” - City staff
3. Uncertain ongoing costs
“A significant share of the initial costs might be borne directly by the developer through mechanisms such as development cost charges and school site acquisition charges, but the ongoing operation, maintenance, asset replacement and other costs would be borne by the City and other public agencies. The WeTown proposal does not address the fiscal impacts of delivering and operating these amenities.” - Eric Vance
4. Back to the drawing board
“The City has just completed its OCP update, along with a number of master plans, which together drive much of the City’s financial planning. WeTown would require reopening many of these plans, which would consume significant City resources.” - Eric Vance
5. A pipeline:
“There is also a Trans Mountain pipeline crossing the site that is not addressed in the Auguston report nor are geotechnical conditions discussed.” - Eric Vance
6. Competing centres:
“WeTown does not align well with the goals of focussing on the continued development of the Urban Core, especially City Centre, creating a compact community and providing a variety of housing options.”
“WeTown would therefore create what would essentially be a second City Centre in Abbotsford seven miles (11 kilometres) from the existing City Centre. Abbotsford’s City Centre is centrally located within the community. In comparison, a second City Centre at WeTown would be on the Sumas mountainside on the eastern edge of the Urban Development Boundary. It would be relatively isolated and would generally not serve a broader area beyond the Auguston neighbourhood.” - Eric Vance