Abbotsford is growing quickly, reaching a population of just over 153,524 (according to the 2021 census) as more and more families move east from pricier cities such as Vancouver and Burnaby, but there needs to be places to put them.
Mayor Henry Braun says that means finding more efficient ways to use the community’s available land – and densification is the key, as addressed in the city’s Official Community Plan (OCP).
Whereas, say, five years ago roughly 75 per cent of all residential units were single-family and 25 per cent were multi-family, those numbers have now flipped – and then some.
Braun said, of the 5,137 in-stream applications – many still in the system from 2020 – for residential construction, 95 per cent are multi-family units (townhouses and apartments).
“(The) densification is starting at doing two-lot splits with a coach house or legal suite to people acquiring 10 to 12 lots and putting up four- or five-storey buildings – and we’re seeing more and more of that,” he said.
In 2021, construction wrapped up on 1,394 housing units in Abbotsford, while work began on 843 units. Most of these – 430 – were apartments.
This compares to 2020, when construction wrapped up on 903 units – including 489 apartments – and work began on 1,014 units.
Some of the residential building taking place in 2022 is the restoration of homes damaged in the catastrophic flooding that occurred in mid-November. As of the end of January 2022, 55 permits had been issued for such work, with the city waiving permit fees for those who qualify.
Braun said most of the new developments are no more than three or four acres, but there are some plans underway for a few massive projects.
One of these is a 734-unit apartment-and-townhouse project at Mt. Lehman Road and Cardinal Avenue, north of Highstreet Shopping Centre. It entails seven mid-rise apartment buildings and 22 townhouse units.
Braun has recused himself from any city council discussions on the proposal because his brother owns a nearby property, but said there are still many hoops for the developers to jump through before it can proceed. This includes development approvals from the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure – with significant road improvements required – and the Ministry of Environment.
Braun said much of the OCP focuses on development in the downtown core.
“Our citizens want a city centre, and that is what our plan is about. So the densification and the highrises are going to be in our city centre. They’re not going to be in the farthest reaches of our community,” he said.
A major project planned for the downtown area is 900 apartment units which Emco Developments hopes to building on the north side of South Fraser Way, just northeast of Sevenoaks Shopping Centre.
The planned first phase is a pair of 18-storey towers to house 300 seniors under the care of the Mennonite Benevolent Society, with half of those units assisted living.
The other two sites on the five-acre property would be developed in subsequent phases. The second site could see a building as high as 30 storeys, with a mix of commercial, office and residential space in it and two smaller buildings. The third site would see a pair of buildings, one up to 14 storeys tall.
In exchange for being able to build at a higher density, the developer has guaranteed that more than 500 units at the site will be rental housing in perpetuity.
That’s meant, in part, to address a shortfall of rental housing. Abbotsford’s rental vacancy rate was below one per cent in the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s latest report, remaining one of the lowest rates in the city’s history.
Braun said there have also been talks about the potential for highrises on the Sevenoaks Shopping Centre property at the corner of South Fraser Way and Gladwin Road, as well as on the south side facing Mill Lake.
“In 20 years, I can see that site redeveloped into commercial and residential, and at West Oaks Mall as well,” he said.
There are also ongoing talks about the development of the 60-acre Cooper dairy farm property on McMillan Road. Braun said a development application is making its way through the process and “probably” includes a combination of single- and multi-family units, with maybe some commercial uses.
Last year saw ground-breaking on one of the city’s largest residential projects – The Rail District in historic downtown Abbotsford.
The “master planned” community by developer Infinity Properties is located on the 19-acre site of the former Clayburn Brick Plant property east of McCallum Road and north of George Ferguson Way and Pine Street. The multi-year plan entails building five new neighbourhoods, with the first phase consisting of 91 two- and three-bedroom townhouse units.
The next three phases – one townhouse site and three of apartments – are awaiting development permits. In all, the project includes 650 residential units, as well as 80,000 square feet of retail and office space.
Other long-term projects in the works include the 1,400-unit Vicarro Ranch development on Sumas Mountain and the 500-unit UDistrict project.