Inside the plan to ‘rethink’ Abbotsford for a population of 200k

Council gave two readings earlier this week to a new Official Community Plan. A public hearing is slated for June 20.



It’s a bright Tuesday afternoon in May, and South Fraser Way near Gladwin is a bustle of activity. Cars roll through intersections, nose into and out of parking spaces, and wait in line for ATMs or a burger.

It’s a busy place, and yet at times there can be few people visible, other than behind a car’s window. The same absence of pedestrians applies to many other built-up areas of Abbotsford, from the historic downtown to McMillan and even the Gateway complex at Marshall and McCallum.

On Monday, though, council adopted the first two readings of a plan which aims to change that and more.

It’s understandable if the words official community plan do not set one’s heart racing. And yet, the contents of Abbotsford’s new OCP represent a fundamental shift not just in city policy, but in how the city thinks of itself and its place in a quickly changing and increasingly crowded Lower Mainland. The consequences that could flow from it – from small initiatives like urban beehives to larger dreams, such as a rapid transit connection to Vancouver – will likely drive conversation and debate for decades to come.

What is an OCP?

Once adopted by council, an official community plan outlines where, and in what fashion, a city will grow. It tells developers and planners where the city wants to see homes built, where retail businesses are welcomed, and where industry should set up shop. It will also help the city plan infrastructure upgrades, transit routes, capital projects and even things as basic as where sidewalks will be built.

Most OCPs are set for a specific time frame – often 10 years – but Abbotsford’s could be in effect for much longer because its plan is based on an outcome – 200,000 residents. And with around 140,000 people now calling the city home, Abbotsford would reach that population in 2040 if it grows by 1.5 per cent each year.

The cores

Abbotsford’s new plan focuses on the creation of multiple hubs, including a “city centre” along South Fraser Way, “urban centres” in Clearbrook, the historic downtown, at Marshall and McCallum roads and in the planned UDistrict. The plan envisions the majority of all commercial development taking place in these cores, along with 14 other “neighbourhood centres” spread around the city. For each type of centre, the plan lays out land use types and streetscapes that will be promoted.

Now dominated by huge expanses of parking lots, a much denser city centre is envisioned. To do this, the plan advocates for mixed-use buildings that include both residential and commercial uses, similar to the La Galleria development currently under construction. The facades of all new buildings will need to at be at least three storeys tall. A proposed regulation that would have capped building heights at 16 storeys was eliminated in the version given two readings this week, although Mayor Henry Braun says, “I don’t expect to see a lot of high-rise buildings off the bat.” Instead, Braun, who calls the plan “a game-changer” for the city, foresees many more five-to-six-storey buildings, and cites Paris as an example of a dense city that largely eschews soaring buildings.

South Fraser Way, meanwhile, would be transformed into a pedestrian- and transit-friendly “urban boulevard,” with storefronts that front busy sidewalks and public spaces. Parking, meanwhile, would largely move underground. The plan also envisions a better link between the city centre and nearby Mill Lake Park. Currently, a trail runs from the lake to the edge of the parking lot of Sevenoaks Shopping Centre.

Buildings in urban centres would follow that model, although on a smaller scale, with building heights initially limited to six storeys. Neighbourhood centres would further scale down the idea, with less density and building heights capped at six storeys. Once the OCP is adopted, staff would move on to creating plans for the individual centres.

The neighbourhoods

Beyond the slogans and the mission statements, the plan’s overarching goal – and it’s one not universally beloved – is to increase density and pack more people into the same space. By doing so, the goal is to improve the city’s ability to provide better services to residents more efficiently while decreasing the reliance on, and space allocated to, vehicles.

Of the 60,000 people the plan aims to accommodate, it envisions three-quarters of the new homes built in existing neighbourhoods. The aim is to achieve that through densification and infill, as lots get subdivided and multi-family buildings replace single-family houses. One-quarter of Abbotsford residents already live in townhomes or condos, and that number is forecast to rise. The remaining quarter of growth would come in new neighbourhoods based almost exclusively on Sumas Mountain and in the McKee Peak area.

No new residential development would be permitted outside of the current urban development boundary.

The theory is that increasing density in specific neighbourhoods will bring with it a cascade of positive effects. Stores – from cafes and restaurants to grocery stores and pharmacies – will thrive with more nearby customers nearby, who will be able to walk rather than drive to those stores and their jobs, decreasing traffic, and the space and funding needed for major roads. More homes closer together means the city will spend less per person on water and sewer, especially since most will be located in areas already serviced. Fewer cars would mean the city could allocate more space for bike lanes, trees and other green space around thoroughfares. And a more concentrated population would give an expanded transit system more paying riders.

As Coun. Ross Siemens said Monday, dreams of a rapid transit line like SkyTrain one day connecting Abbotsford to Vancouver requires the city to “build the population in place that gives us the case to work with provincial and federal counterparts to expand that system.”

Creating a denser city will also lessen per-person CO2 emissions among residents, as people drive less and walk more, and as more people live in multi-family buildings that are more efficient than single-family homes.

The study areas

In looking to the future, planners foresee a time within the span of the OCP when Abbotsford will run out of space for industry and be in need of a large “active park” with a variety of sports fields. Two potential sites for each use have been identified, but all four are located within the Agricultural Land Reserve, which bars the use of designated farmland for non-farm purposes.

The plan proposes the city study whether to ask for the removal from the ALR of two large chunks of land – one north of the airport, the other adjacent to the Langley border, just north of Highway 1 – for future industrial uses. As for the sports fields, the plan suggests looking at land east of UFV, and adjacent to DeLair Park. The Agricultural Land Commission – which considers the impact to agriculture, but also factors in how a project would benefit a community – would have the final say on the issue.

The dissenters

The process to create the city’s new OCP has taken two years, with comments being solicited from the public throughout that time period. And while staff say the vast majority of the 7,750 “interactions” with the public have been positive, acceptance hasn’t been universal.

Recent feedback submitted suggests some resistance to the prospect of removing land from the ALR. “There must be better alternatives,” one person wrote.

Some chafed at the city’s motives for allowing more development, while others questioned the wisdom of reducing parking options. And one person questioned whether people will end up returning to their cars as soon as the weather turns cold and wet.

Earlier this month, a group of rural property owners on Sumas Mountain raised concerns that rules governing the building of structures on land with steep slopes or in environmentally sensitive areas will increase red tape and costs. However, the city says that nothing will materially change.

The policies

The plan is huge, and beyond the detailed land-use mapping that forms its base, it includes multiple policies that will direct how the city grows over the coming years. They include: protecting the views of Mount Baker and other “natural features;” supporting the construction of a variety of different housing types and sizes for different income classes; increasing the amount of non-market housing by using a housing-first approach, and promoting shelters for the homeless or those at risk of homelessness.

Although Abbotsford’s agricultural land policies will mainly be addressed through the AgRefresh review, the OCP suggests a few ways the city can support agriculture within its urban area, including by allowing “small-scale commercial urban food gardens” and “supporting additional urban agriculture activities that encourage self-sufficiency, such as keeping bees in the urban area.”

The catch

Despite the expansive ideas, the bold proclamations, and the two years that have gone into its creation, Abbotsford’s new plan can be changed at any time by council. While the current mayor and council have enthusiastically promoted the plan and voted unanimously to give it two readings earlier this week, any future council elected by residents could implement major changes or even start anew. That might be unlikely – especially in the short term – but council can also amend the OCP at any point in the future.

Indeed, OCP amendments for developers are relatively common. Some are minor, while others – such as for shopping centres or other large developments – can dramatically impact the direction a city’s future growth takes. It will be up to future councils to decide how closely developers will have to abide by the OCP in order to get approval to build their projects.

And then there’s the matter of how the vision actually gets built. The plan will only be successful if developers, business owners, and residents can be inspired to follow its lead. On South Fraser Way, for example, that will require owners of structures that don’t fit within the OCP’s vision to consider rebuilding their sites. The OCP can’t force property owners to sell to a developer of a mixed-use apartment/commercial building, but it does suggest incentives to encourage the redevelopment and conversion of “vacant and underused properties, including parking areas adjacent to South Fraser Way.” Whether the thoroughfare ever becomes a tree-lined boulevard like that envisioned by planners rests, in large part, on private property owners.

The hearing

Council has now forwarded on the OCP to more than a dozen governmental agencies for comment over the next month. After the city assembles that feedback, the new OCP will proceed to a public hearing on June 20, at which time the community will get one more chance to offer their views. After consideration of the feedback, council can vote to further change the plan before adopting it, which may take place either the following week, or at some point after if changes are sought.

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