Development defines a community.
How and where a municipality decides to allow growth, and what it should look like, elicits strong reactions and a wide range of opinions from citizens and the business community.
Abbotsford is no stranger to those complex and polarizing issues, which includes debates over appropriate land use and differing opinions on how and where a city should expand or build.
There have been hotly contested debates – practical, philosophical and emotional – involving projects put forth in recent years.
But with less developable land available each year, the city will eventually be compelled to emphasize infill and multi-family developments.
In 2008, a number of multi-family projects were being considered, including Mahogany at Mill Lake tower and Vicarro Ranch, both of which are yet to rise from the ground.
Vicarro Ranch is a 383-acre proposed development that covers five areas, allowing for single-family and duplex lots, townhouses and apartments, with a total combined potential density of 1,400 residential units – 580 single-family, 120 duplexes, 260 townhouses and 440 apartment units. Those who voiced reservations expressed concerns about the impact of traffic on Whatcom Road, as well as the impact on the environment and wildlife, plus potential effects on the waterfalls at the end of Harvest Drive.
The Mill Lake tower development will consist of a 26-storey tower and a four-storey apartment complex at 2180 Gladwin Rd.
Originally proposed in 2009, the request to build the high rise was originally denied by council after a large group of protesters opposed the development at a public hearing. They raised concerns regarding the structure, the largest to be built in Abbotsford, including aesthetics and loss of sunlight. A year later, a second public hearing took place and council gave the green light to Quantum to construct the building, given some design changes.
A worldwide economic downturn around that time pushed new factors into the development equation, which is now being reviewed for future planning.
Public hearings must be held for projects that require official community plan (OCP) or zoning bylaw amendments, meaning they fall outside the city’s current plans for that specific location, giving those who feel their property will be affected by any potential changes an opportunity to speak.
Siri Bertelsen, the city’s manager of planning and development, explained that in the case of the zoning bylaw, the city has seen many applications for development variance permits, which “tells us the zoning bylaw isn’t working.”
The city is currently updating both the zoning bylaw – phase one has been adopted by council – and the OCP in order to bring the documents, which govern how the city develops, up to date.
Mark Neill, the city’s director of community planning, explained that the OCP must be updated to reflect the new realities of the city. He said over the last 60 years the city has grown from about 17,000 people to 140,000. BC Stats projects that Abbotsford’s population will rise to 206,000 by 2036. Neill said the growth has been generally outward and the OCP was set up to reflect that type of development. But now the city is starting to push up against its urban development boundaries.
“Now you are starting to see that growth start to turn back into the city centre.”
And as the city and developers navigate through the changes occurring in Abbotsford, residents have an opportunity to provide input on what will happen in their neighbourhoods.
The city has opened the OCP process to public consultation over the next 18 months. Though opinions on how a city should develop are usually varied, the city’s planners are looking for guidance from those who live in the city. A flood of opinions, ideas and feedback wouldn’t be daunting, explained Bertelsen.
“That’s every planner’s dream.”
Getting this input from the community may help alleviate future frustrations.
The divide between the vision of a developer can often come into conflict with what a neighbourhood and its residents envision for themselves – with concerns often raised about increases in density.
But, as Bertelsen explained, if 100,000 more people were to come to Abbotsford, the OCP is necessary to help outline where they would live, how they would get around, where they would work and play.
The increasing focus on multi-family was influenced by dwindling developable land, as well as the population increases Abbotsford has seen since 2006.
In the 2011 census, Abbotsford recorded 133,497 residents, a 7.4 per cent increase since 2006. B.C. Statistics reports Abbotsford now boasts 139,000 people, and the majority of residents live in single-detached homes.
According to Statistics Canada numbers, there are 46,450 occupied private dwellings in Abbotsford. Of those, 20,265 (43 per cent) are single-detached homes, 900 apartments (1.93 per cent) in buildings five storeys or more, and 11,115 (23.9 per cent) apartments in buildings with fewer than five storeys.
In Abbotsford since 2008, multi-family projects have ebbed and flowed, as economic conditions and the housing market have changed.
In that year, a total of 54 building permits were issued for multi-family developments. In 2009 that dropped to 36, rose to 58 in 2010, and fluctuated to 42 in 2011, 62 in 2012 and 50 in 2013.
Local developer Diane Delves, CEO and president of Quantum Properties, said there is more interest now in multi-family projects, due to a recovering economy and a shift in buyers’ attitudes towards townhouses and condominiums.
Quantum Properties anticipates breaking ground for the Mill Lake tower this year.
The economic recovery and upswing in development is “slower here than Vancouver,” she explained.
“Abbotsford was very strong in the mid-2000s to 2008, and all projects [that were] in the works in 2009 are done,” Delves said.
While there has been a slowdown of multi-family residence construction since 2008, Delves said the municipality is still interested in more densification, as opposed to consuming ever-smaller pieces of land that could be developed into single-family homes.
Colin Hogan, owner of Focus Architecture, agrees that Abbotsford is coming out of the downturn.
“It’s improving, but it’s improving slowly.”
The idea of blending residential and commercial/retail – with businesses below, and two to three storeys of apartments or townhouses above – is popular in many other countries, and is catching on in Abbotsford.
“I have some development clients who don’t want to build just residential without a commercial component,” Hogan said.
One such project in Abbotsford is Hudson’s Loft, located on Gladwin Road at Garibaldi Drive. The first phase sold out in two and a half hours last July, and consists of a six-storey building of 67 homes with a combined value of $18 million. The project is designed to augment the downtown core with upscale shops, fresh-food markets and restaurants.
These types of developments have become an oft-referenced example of what should happen regularly. They have also created communities that are densified, and offer a number of services and amenities within walking and biking distance that buyers are starting to desire.
And Mill Lake is a great spot in which to place multi-family development, according to Hogan.
“That’s our waterfront,” he said.
He believes that more towers will begin rising in Abbotsford as people become more contemporary in their concepts of living spaces, and the demographics shift.
Before it was seniors or those who couldn’t afford a house who purchased a condo, said Delves.
Now buyers are seeing it as a lifestyle choice. They’re older, usually affluent after successful careers and having owned real estate for a long time, and are more focused on a particular quality of life – one that doesn’t include yard work, and is aimed more at having fun and travelling, for example.
There’s also the reality of an ever-shrinking land base. According to City of Abbotsford numbers, there is 540 hectares (1,335 acres) of developable land remaining within the urban development boundary for urban residential. Some of the land is unusable due to steep slopes and streams.
For industrial development, there is about 260 hectares (640 acres) of land left, according to the interim industrial land status report. This land also includes vacant and potential properties, but excludes Abbotsford Airport. The 260 hectares also does not include allowing for development constraints such as streams.
But while space is becoming more scarce, there is a glut of condominiums in Abbotsford, according to Fraser Valley Real Estate Board (FVREB) president Ray Werger.
“There is currently an eight-month supply in Abbotsford for condos,” said the 22-year veteran of the real estate industry. This figure is derived from taking monthly unit sale numbers contrasted with how many units are available.
Werger said the condominium market, especially in the six-storey-plus category, has seen significant sales drops since 2008 to the tune of 15 per cent across the FVREB’s coverage area. From 2013 to 2014, that number has dropped 55 per cent for units located within concrete buildings higher than 12 storeys.
So while Werger said the city is doing everything right in terms of working towards higher density, buyers aren’t snapping up the properties.
The townhouse market, conversely, is strong. In year-over-year statistics, there has been a 26 per cent increase in townhome sales, because they are a great option, size- and price-wise, for those new to the housing market, or those seeking to downsize.
The demand for single-family homes is still high, said Werger, with an 11 per cent uptick recorded since this time last year.
As for why there’s less demand, the reasons are varied, but the FVREB president pointed out it’s a good time to be interested in purchasing these types of properties.
“Somebody now can get a great deal.”
– with files from Alex Butler
By the numbers:
Total number of permits:
Residential: 673 (242 for new construction and 431 for improvements)
Multi-family: 62 (43, 19)
Residential: 664 (302, 362)
Multi-family: 42 (27, 15)
Residential: 873 (385, 488)
Multi-family: 58 (20, 38)
Residential: 712 (290, 422)
Multi-family: 36 (11, 25)
Residential: 758 (342, 416)
Multi-family: 54 (28, 26)
Residential: 1,041 (525, 516)
Multi-family: 121 (104, 17)
Residential: 879 (405, 474)
Multi-family: 64 (43, 21)