Two apartment buildings hint at new housing challenges in Abbotsford

Can schools keep up with growth in BC's fastest growing neighbourhoods? And what happens when new apartments displace old ones?

By Tyler Olsen | July 20, 2022 |5:00 am

Proposals to build new apartment buildings in Abbotsford are rarely controversial affairs.

But two proposed projects next door to one another hint at emerging challenges in a fast-growing city in which densification and growth haven’t previously stirred much debate or concern.

The buildings themselves are not the problem (at least at this point). Rather, the challenges are around people: where incoming young residents might attend school, and where departing ones might go when their homes are torn down.

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Students in

Both developments are located within walking distance of Abbotsford’s historic downtown and in an area previously identified for densification in the city’s Official Community Plan.

The larger of the two developments would be a six-storey, 140-unit apartment building on a property, 33886 Pine St., that was purchased by the developer for $6.2 million in 2019. It would replace a structure that, Assessment BC records show, dates back to 1909, but has been highly modified over the past decade. In recent years, the building has chiefly been used by small private schools, most recently Sterling School. But last fall, the Abbotsford School District rented it after Upper Sumas School was flooded.

For the development to proceed, the property must be rezoned and needs a relatively rare OCP amendment. That’s because although the land surrounding the Pine Street property is designated for mid-rise apartments, the former school site itself is designated for “Institutional” uses in the OCP, reflecting its historical use. (That reflects a quirk of Abbotsford’s OCP: it has no problem slating residential and commercial properties for new purposes in the decades to come; but the creators rarely gave properties used by non-profits or governments land use designations that differed from their existing purpose.)

The need for an OCP amendment requires a more-extensive approval and consultation process. And that early consultation has turned up a concern that is increasingly common in Abbotsford: the availability of schools. The Pine Street concerns echo those of some neighbours of the Cooper farm, which is also the site of a new development proposal. (this isn’t the second project we teased about earlier.)

Across BC, residents frequently fret about the impact of new developments on local schools. In many cases, the worry is unjustified because the schools have space, or it is misplaced because municipal politicians that handle development applications don’t have power and jurisdiction to plan and fund new schools. That job falls to school boards and the provincial government, and municipalities generally trust they will keep their side of the bargain.

But in Abbotsford and some other communities, residents have particular cause to question whether any necessary new schools will actually get built or expanded.

Abbotsford has some of the most-crowded schools in the entire province, with many of its classrooms operating at maximum capacity. That is partially a choice of the local school board, which chooses to maximize the size of classes for financial efficiency and to free up cash for programs and other priorities. But it’s also a function of the rapid growth of the city in certain areas.

Schools in the western part of the city have seen enrolment decline in recent years, while those in the east—where much of the recent growth has been concentrated—have seen increasing numbers of students.

The proposed building (and its neighbour) are in the catchments of Margaret Stenersen Elementary, William A. Fraser Middle, and Yale Secondary. Of those, Margaret Stenersen was closest to reaching class size capacity, according to data analyzed by The Current last year. And in 2016, the school district reported that William A. Fraser was over capacity. In its latest capital plan, the district listed an eight-classroom addition to William A. Fraser as its second-most pressing need, pegging the cost at $11 million. (An expansion of nearby Abbotsford Middle is at the top of the list.) The sixth item on the board’s $180 million capital project wishlist is a 12-classroom addition to boost capacity by 300 students at Yale Secondary.

Despite that long-term capital plan, and new schools are being built, such facilities depend on funding from the province. Abbotsford has gotten a new school recently: a new elementary on nearby Eagle Mountain that will open this fall. That will take some pressure off nearby schools, including Margaret Stenerson, but it doesn’t solve the space crunch for middle or high school students.

Abbotsford has also green-lighted a tremendous amount of new buildings in and around its historic downtown. It is also completing work on a new plan for undeveloped land on Sumas Mountain that could welcome upwards of 15,000 new residents over the next 20 years. Those projects are likely to increase pressure on local schools, and they come at a time when the provincial government, meanwhile, has indicated—though not outright said—that it has scaled back its plans to build new schools.

Mission’s school district was recently told that the province has frozen new school projects. And while the province disputed that assertion, the district said Mission’s new $87 million high school has been delayed for as much as six years. That would seem to call into question whether Abbotsford’s school supply will grow much over the next decade.

Abbotsford council didn’t object to the two proposed buildings after getting a first look at the plans in early July.Staff said they were in contact with the school district about the ramifications of development on local schools. The project will head to a public hearing in the weeks to come.

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Tenants out?

Meanwhile, next door, off of George Ferguson Way, another developer wants to demolish a pair of two-storey apartment buildings and erect a six-storey, 68-unit building. That project mostly aligns with Abbotsford’s strategy of increased densification and mimics many recent new builds except for one fact: it will require the eviction of the occupants of those 12 units.

Most Abbotsford apartment projects thus far have seen buildings replace one or two single-family homes. (The one outlier has been the central Abbotsford plan to erect several towers just north of Sevenoaks Shopping Centre; that not-yet-complete project required the demolition of more than a dozen homes previously occupied by residents.)

The developer of the George Ferguson Way project has proposed a tenant relocation plan that goes beyond the minimum required by the province: they would give tenants a year’s notice, along with free rent for the last four months, and a $500 moving allowance. That was applauded by council at the July meeting, though Coun. Ross Siemens suggested that the plan be tweaked to instead pay for four months rent at a tenants’ new home.

“I think this might be the beginning of other developments coming forward where we might see people who are going to be dislodged while a bigger building is being built. “

Abbotsford Mayor Henry Braun agreed with Siemens that such projects that displace renters are likely in the future, as developers look to tear down older apartments and build larger ones (inevitably with higher rents).

“Council [and staff] will probably have to address its mind to: what do we do when we get a 50-unit, or 100-unit demolition,” Braun said. “What happens to those displaced tenants? We’ve seen lots of discussion about that in Metro Vancouver jurisdictions and I think those are going to come visit us in future years.”

And while council suggested that the city needs a better plan to handle and help such people, they didn’t tell staff to actually start work on such a project. (Braun said such a proposal should come at another time.)

Meanwhile, the project in question is also headed to a public hearing.


Join more than 25,000 other Fraser Valley residents by subscribing to our newsletter. Every weekday morning you’ll get a new feature story and other stories, news, and events from Chilliwack, Abbotsford, Langley, Mission and the rest of the valley. See a recent newsletter here.

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Tyler Olsen

Managing Editor at Fraser Valley Current

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