Protecting the past while planning for the future in Abbotsford’s historic downtown

Plan for future emphasizes need to maintain historic feel of neighbourhood

The two new major plans headed to public hearing for the final time won’t finally answer the question of “Where is Abbotsford’s downtown?”

But maybe that’s OK.

After years of work – including surveys, workshops, and community presentations – two neighbourhood plans will go before the public next week.

The plans – one for Abbotsford’s historic downtown, the other for the city centre area around the South Fraser Way mall – come nearly three years after the city adopted a new Official Community Plan. The OCP was a new city-wide plan for the next two decades, but left specific land-use questions about Abbotsford’s two most-prominent commercial areas for the future.

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The two plans seek to answer those questions in starkly different ways. Whereas the plan for the historic downtown is focused on retaining the neighbourhood’s character, the city centre plan seeks to lay the groundwork for radically densifying the area and creating a more urban and modern feel.

READ THE PLAN HERE

Historic Downtown

People were once scarce in the city’s traditional downtown, Coun. Ross Siemens recalled last fall.

“I remember when we could shoot a cannon down there and not hit a car,” Siemens, whose family has owned Hub Motors for years, told his fellow councillors.

Were that still the case, the plan headed to council this week might look a little different. But times have changed, and the historic downtown has enjoyed a renaissance. A scarcity of parking is now one of the most-frequent complaints.

The new neighbourhood plan hopes to build upon that success, while putting rules in place to maintain the small-city feel of the historic downtown.

Since the city embarked on its ambitious Plan200K project five or so years ago, most projects have revolved around the idea of building a vibrant, more-walkable and livable city.

But the plan for the historic downtown, which already possesses many of the characteristics the city hopes to foster elsewhere, stands out for its focus on preserving the past and the present.

The historic downtown plan would limit to three storeys or less all new construction in a “historic centre” composed of the four blocks surrounding the Essendene/Montrose intersection. New buildings would also be required to fit into the small-scale downtown feel of the area, with traditional architecture guidelines and façade materials like brick, cement board, and wood siding.

The plan also designates six different buildings that must preserve their historic façades, or reconstruct them after any future development.

Those include, on Essendene Avenue, Hemingway’s Books, the “Essendene Mall,” and another brick building that is currently home to Original Hot Yoga. The other buildings are the Fraser Valley Inn, the old post office on Montrose Avenue, and the Old Court House on Laurel Street.

Despite the cap on building heights, the area’s residential population is still expected to increase dramatically over the coming years.

The Upper Montrose apartment building is under construction, while plans are in the works for more than 500 housing units at the old Clayburn Brick Plant site at the north end of the neighbourhood.

Taller mixed-use and residential buildings up to six storeys tall will be possible in the area surrounding the four core blocks. But there, too, new buildings include some sort of nod to the past.

All new buildings will have to have some “historic influence.” That doesn’t necessarily mean buildings have to look like they were built a century ago, but it will mean that they should blend in with the surrounding neighbourhood by using similar materials and colours.

Infrastructure

The plan lays out the long-term vision for the area’s road system, and declares all road improvements “particularly at intersections, [be designed] with a priority placed on pedestrians and cyclists.”

Perhaps the most controversial idea is the plan to decrease the number of travel lanes on Essendene from four to two, with a centre turn lane.

The new space would be used for larger sidewalks and off-street bike lanes. South Fraser Way, McDougall and West Railway would also get bike lanes separated from vehicular traffic.

Siemens said last month that those changes are “not going to happen overnight,” and will take place alongside other changes to the road system to deal with traffic flow.

The plan envisions extending Montrose’s tree-lined divider on Montrose south to George Ferguson Way, albeit without the fencing currently in place. Montrose itself would be extended northwest, throughout the brick plant site to McCallum Road.

With limited space on some roads, the plan suggests ways to convert parking spaces into temporary “parklets” to provide space for street amenities and restaurant patio seating.

A “signature gateway plaza” at the intersection of Essendene and West Railway is proposed and could be accomplished by closing a short stretch of Montvue Avenue.

Parking

As the historic downtown has bloomed in recent years, parking constraints have become a regular source of complaints.

At the same time, city surveys suggest that most people are willing to walk a block or two from their parking space to their destination.

The plan suggests that the city could better use the parking that currently exists.

The neighbourhood, as a whole, “has sufficient parking supply that is not effectively managed,” it says, and suggests conducting a study to consider how to better manage parking.

That study could also consider whether the city should build a parkade. It notes that the city currently owns a ground-level parking lot between Montvue and West Railway avenues that could be home to a parkade in the future.

Reality

Turning the plan into reality won’t happen overnight – if ever. Many of the proposed changes will happen only as the neighbourhood changes over the years with money from developers. Other aspects could be accelerated if the city decides to use its own money into projects such as creating new plazas or redesigning streets.

The two neighbourhood plans will go to a public hearing on Monday at 7 p.m. at Matsqui Centennial Auditorium.


@ty_olsen
tolsen@abbynews.com

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