Better transit. A more vibrant downtown. An easier place to walk around.
When Abbotsford adopted its new official community plan (OCP) a year ago, the city’s goals and ambition was largely greeted with enthusiasm by the public.
But 14 months later, and the route the city is taking to get to that more cohesive and sustainable community – in particular focusing new building in areas close to the city’s commercial core – has been meeting some resistance from neighbours, and prompting questions about whether denser neighbourhoods will be the new norm.
The response from council, again and again, is a clear “Yes.”
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At a series of public hearings in July, council were told by residents that they didn’t like seeing their neighbourhoods changing. Parking and traffic was a concern, as were the loss of stands of trees and the inevitable increase in noise that comes with more people living closer together.
“I think you guys are making a big mistake,” one Horn Street resident said about an infill proposal to build single-family houses on a largely treed property in central Abbotsford. “You guys are silly.”
A proposal for the subdivision of a single lot into two, resulted in one neighbour telling council:
“Densifying it is not going to help us. It doesn’t seem right that you can put two houses on a lot that’s really not big enough for two houses and double the cars.”
And in a question that has been asked of council several times this year, another person asked if projects that saw lots subdivided and coach houses proposed would become the new norm.
The response from Mayor Henry Braun was blunt.
“Are we going to see more of this? Yes, you will see more of this.”
Two days after the meeting, Braun told The News that the public shouldn’t be shocked by anything that resulted from the OCP.
“I don’t know how much more public consultation we could have had,” he said, referencing the years-long process the city went through. That process involved multiple public events meant to collect feedback, and the city recorded more than 8,000 “interactions” with residents.
Braun said that having drawn a fixed urban development boundary, the city made the decision that “we’re going to go up, and not out.”
Still, he said there is some flexibility. Braun said council will listen to complaints and may “tweak” the OCP, if need be.
At the July 31 meeting, despite the objections of several speakers, council gave the go-ahead to a six-storey apartment building on Eleanor Avenue, on a street that today only features single-family homes. But council also voted to defeat a smaller project in Huntingdon that had been recommended by staff, and described as abiding by the OCP.
Councillors blocked a proposal to build a coach house, even though staff said it aligned with the OCP.
“I think we need to give a relook at Huntingdon,” Coun. Ross Siemens said. Given the distance to grocery stores and other amenities, Siemens said increasing density in the area may not actually accomplish the goals set forward in the OCP. “I think we’re cramming far too much in and I think we’re asking that neighbourhood to make too much of a sacrifice.”
Braun later told The News that the city will have to consider just how much densification it wants in areas like Huntingdon, west Abbotsford and Matsqui, where services may not match those of the downtown core.
“The OCP isn’t perfect,” he said. “We never claimed that. There may be a few tweaks down the road.’
Still, no councillor has expressed objections to the overarching goal of fitting the majority of newcomers to Abbotsford into existing neighbourhoods. That strategy forms the core of the city’s plan, and while it can be changed by council through a simple majority vote, the nine serving until the next municipal elections next fall, have repeatedly voiced support for the principle.
In addition to those goals, the increasing cost of homes, and the shortage of rental housing has increased the pressure to densify.
The price of a typical house in the city has risen by nearly $300,000 over the last two years, and apartment and townhome values have also skyrocketed. Meanwhile, Abbotsford had the lowest rental availability in the country, as of last fall.
Those factors have incentivized developers to push a range of projects forward, and increasing the supply of multi-family homes – and purpose-built rental housing in particular – is a goal of the city’s affordable housing strategy; homelessness advocates say a chief cause of the rising number of people without homes is a simple lack of spaces in Abbotsford.
Opposition hasn’t been constant. Many infill projects – in which single-family lots are subdivided, and the number of homes in a certain area rise by only one or two – have skated by without significant objections.
But others have generated concern. In March, for example, a proposal to build 26 homes on what was seven lots at the eastern end of George Ferguson Way resulted in opposition from neighbours concerned about traffic and the general increase in density. Nevertheless, council voted to allow the project to proceed and suggested staff could address and hopefully mitigate concerns involving traffic.
At that public hearing and others, residents have voiced concern that one project foreshadowed more change to come. Such predictions aren’t out of line; land use rules are usually consistent over a broad area, so one new development is often an indicator of what other developments would be permitted.
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The goal is that densification will lead to neighbourhoods that are better served by transit and closer to commercial centres and residents’ jobs, while at the same time decreasing the amount the city has to spend to provide amenities and services like roads and sewers to each resident.
But the long-term ramifications are often less pressing and obvious than the imminent diminishment of one’s privacy or views.
Abbotsford’s mayor, though, believes that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Braun spoke several times last week about how the city has grown exponentially during his 60-plus years living in Abbotsford, and that the one constant has been more people living closer together.
Still, he’s not shocked that residents push back when their neighbourhoods threaten to become more compact.
“Densification, I think for the average citizen, is a great idea until it’s right next door.”
Check out our video below for an overview on which areas will see some of the most densification in Abbotsfod.
There are a couple ways to see the city’s map, which designates land use for every property in Abbotsford’s urban core.