The era of mega-developments dawns on Abbotsford

Abbotsford's Official Community Plan envisions a walkable "city of centres." Is that dream finally becoming a reality?

By Tyler Olsen | August 11, 2021 |1:18 pm

In 2014, the City of Abbotsford began work on a plan that, when completed two years later, promised a wholly reimagined city. Dubbed “Plan 200k,” Abbotsford’s new Official Community Plan envisioned a walkable “city of centres” where the car no longer ruled but co-existed with other types of transportation, and where 200,000 residents lived in denser neighbourhoods, closer to the places they worked and shopped.

Seven years since work on the plan began, Abbotsford has grown from 140,000 to 160,000 people. That 200,000th resident will arrive sooner than anticipated, but changes to the city’s streetscape have thus far been modest. Apartment buildings have gone up, but the transformative promises made by the plan have yet to materialize. That is partly a function of how cities evolve; Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither will Abbotsford 2.0. But three recently revealed projects may finally provide a kickstart to the plan’s most transformative elements.

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Last month, the public got the first look at a huge new apartment and townhouse project planned for a large block immediately north of Highstreet Shopping Centre. The project would create seven apartment buildings (with a total of 734 units) and 22 blocks of townhouses (157 units) in what would become one of the densest neighbourhoods in the city.

Last fall, the city gave the thumbs up to an even larger development in the centre of town across from another mall. Emco Developments plans to build several towers on the north side of South Fraser Way, a stone’s throw from Sevenoaks Shopping Centre. The first stage would see the construction of twin 18-storey towers that would be home to 300 apartments for seniors. Additional towers—some as high as 30 storeys—would feature commercial space and other amenities.

And in late 2019, the city gave the go-ahead for the first project of the bunch, one slated for a cleared industrial site just north of the city’s historic downtown and which would feature around 600 homes, roughly divided between townhomes and apartments. Construction has yet to begin, but the builder has recently applied for the development permits needed to start work.

The projects involve three different builders and are each unique in their own way. But they share a complexity, size, and urban focus that hasn’t been seen from any other recent major developments—and which bring the potential to dramatically alter three core commercial centres. If completed as envisioned, each would provide homes for more than 1,000 people in Abbotsford’s busiest shopping areas. That is seen as transformative on its own, with planners hoping that denser commercial centres will snowball into more development. Residents would provide customers for local businesses, and those businesses would themselves attract more residents. At least that’s the plan, and the way dense, vibrant city cores tend to be created.

A drawing of a walkable city centre
Abbotsford’s vision for a dense, walkable city centre. • 📸 City of Abbotsford

The developments are a critical part of how the city hopes to make good on its promises of useful transit, pedestrian, and biking infrastructure. Only a tiny portion of Abbotsford’s transportation budget is currently spent on sidewalks and bike lanes. Mayor Henry Braun has said the city has been banking on developers to pay for much of the promised infrastructure. That can happen both through the developers building public amenities themselves—all three developments are tasked with constructing roads, plazas, and other amenities—and by helping pay for the city’s own projects.

Builders pay development cost charges to recoup costs growth imposes on a city. Each of the three developments is slated to pay the city at least $8.5 million, if the projects are fully built out. That money will be divvied up between a variety of infrastructure needs, including water and sewer. But about $6 million will be specifically slated for road improvements.

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That won’t go too far. The city’s transportation plan suggests upwards of $110 million is needed for walking and biking infrastructure; $20 million is needed just to rebuild South Fraser Way. But $2 million from the Emco development would provide a start. Similarly, money from the two other developments can be used to start to shape Abbotsford’s city of centres into the transit-, bike-, and pedestrian-friendly places envisioned in the plan.

That, of course, is just the potential. Whether that takes place will depend on city officials and politicians who ultimately set the direction of spending. For five years, the city’s philosophy towards paying for the most ambitious parts of its long-term plan has been less Field of Dreams and more: “When they come, they will help build it.”

The age of mega developments has arrived. Will a new Abbotsford follow?

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Tyler Olsen

Managing Editor at Fraser Valley Current

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