Futuristic development on Abbotsford hillside met with optimism, skepticism

Consultant warns plan isn’t currently economically viable, but council tells planners to consider it

A massive new proposed development in Abbotsford’s northeast corner could become a high-tech employment hub and home to nearly 30,000 people. Or it’s an ill-fated idea in the wrong place at the wrong time that could stall the city’s current plans in exchange for uncertainty and potentially huge new infrastructure costs.

Abbotsford council came to starkly different views Monday on whether the possible rewards of the We Town development outstrip the risks.

Last year, the developer of Auguston submitted a concept plan for a new community that Coun. Ross Siemens said looks like it could be from Dubai.

Called “We Town” and located just south of Auguston, the concept envisions massive highrise apartment and office buildings that would be home to high-tech companies and a small city worth of people. The concept imagines a self-contained, high-density community where almost everybody who lives in the development works at We Town businesses, and vice versa.

The concept is so large – with 15 million square feet of floor space – and would have such wide-reaching effects, the city quietly hired a consultant to evaluate it last year after it was submitted. Consultant Eric Vance returned this week to tell council that, although the project is exciting and could have a huge economic impact on the city, it is neither economically viable nor practical at the moment.

Vance said the project’s touted 18,000 jobs would provide “out of the ballpark” economic development, if fully realized. And although the project could also suck up some of the energy and activity that may have otherwise found a home in the city centre, Vance’s report says the development would still bring a huge employment boost to Abbotsford, while boosting the municipality’s tax revenues.

But Vance warned that other parts of the concept don’t add up. At the core of the We Town concept is the idea that it will be a place where people will both work and live; the developer says 82 per cent of working residents would be employed at We Town. But that figure, Vance told council, is “very, very ambitious.”

In Vancouver, he noted, only 68 per cent of those employed both live and work within the city limits.

PHOTOS: See renderings of the architects’ We Town concept

RELATED: As house prices rise, Auguston developer looks to build rental apartments

Vance noted that almost all the 12,500 homes at We Town would be apartment units, and that their average size would be just 800 square feet. His report warns of a “disconnect between the projected population and the assumed total residential floor space.”

“If people can’t find the housing they wish in We Town, they’re going to start looking elsewhere, ” Vance said.

That, his report says, would increase traffic and the need for the city to expand its roads to accommodate thousands of new commuters driving up to We Town.

Vance also questioned whether the developers actually have as much land to build on as they believe – once the area’s riparian areas are taken into account – and whether their 20-year timeline is too ambitious. And his report points out that the developer doesn’t discuss what it plans to do about the Trans Mountain Pipeline that bisects the site.

Despite those findings and others within 300 pages worth of reports, staff concluded that they still can’t say whether the project justifies re-opening Abbotsford’s much-touted Official Community Plan, which didn’t imagine a project like We Town.

Vance told council that there are still too many question marks to say whether the project makes sense over the long term.

Mark Neill, the city’s director of community planning, told council it is up to them to decide whether endorsing a project like We Town is appropriate at the given time. He said the OCP included a plan to add around 15,000 people in new neighbourhoods on Sumas Mountain. The We Town concept would force a rethinking of those plans.

“It’s 30k people,” he told council. “It’s essentially planning for another city in Abbotsford.”

Neill said council has to ask themselves: “Are we fast-tracking history here?”

Faced with that question, council came to two different conclusions.

Six councillors said the concept is too large not to further consider, and said planning staff should consider We Town as it ramps up work to determine how the McKee Peak neighbourhood should grow over the next two decades.

“When someone comes with billions of dollars to any city, when someone comes with high-tech jobs, when someone comes with a concept that is this large in scope, you just don’t say no,” Coun. Bruce Banman said. “This could be the foundation for the high-tech sector that we need for our university kids.”

Coun. Sandy Blue said the concept could be reconciled with the larger goals of the Official Community Plan and the city’s evolution beyond its horizon.

“In my view this is a game-changer, generational in nature,” she said.

And Coun. Patricia Ross said she worries about Abbotsford missing out on a plan that could succeed elsewhere.

“I think we’re kidding ourselves if they aren’t going to take this concept and move it to another town.”

Couns. Dave Loewen, Kelly Chahal and Les Barkman also agreed the idea should be further explored.

But Mayor Henry Braun warned that the We Town concept is at odds with the city’s long-term plans for the area.

“The We Town project is a great concept, but the proposal, in my view, is in the wrong location and a complete departure of what was envisioned in the Official Community Plan for this area,” he said.

Braun said the scale is too large for its site, noting that the square footage of the plan is 13 times that of Sevenoaks Shopping Centre and High Street combined. And given its costly infrastructure requirements, if We Town does move forward, Braun said the concept doesn’t warrant the considerable staff resources and consultants fees that further consideration will demand.

Coun. Brenda Falk also expressed worries about the scale and uncertainty of the project.

“I think of the long-term consequences if this project doesn’t go forward as proposed,” she said. If it were to stall at some point before completion, she said it could become a major blight on the landscape.

Coun. Ross Siemens also said he is worried about the unintended consequences of moving on the concept.

The optimists, though, held the day, and voted in favour of city planners considering the concept as they shape the course of development in Abbotsford’s northeast corner. Braun, Falk and Siemens voted in opposition.

Do you have something to add to this story, or something else we should report on? Email:
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