How new transit-density rules may transform Fraser Valley downtowns

In Chilliwack, Abbotsford, Langley, and Mission, new provincial rules will axe parking requirements and allow taller buildings

The downtowns of Chilliwack, Abbotsford, Langley, and Mission could all soon see their skylines grow, whether local politicians want them to or not.

New provincial housing legislation is set to make it much easier to build tall housing towers up to 10 storeys high in the centre of all four Fraser Valley cities. In some areas, that development has already been green-lighted. In others, the new development rules could have a profound impact.

Today, we’re considering how new rules will set the stage for taller downtown apartments, and how changes to parking requirements may have an even more profound effect.

The desire for density

Earlier this month, provincial housing minister Ravi Kahlon announced he was introducing new legislation to make it significantly easier to build dense neighbourhoods surrounding key transit hubs.

The new rules, which are expected to easily pass the NDP-dominated legislature, aim to boost the supply of housing in a province where homes are increasingly unaffordable. They have been widely applauded by housing advocates and economists and they accompany other proposed rules aimed at reducing barriers to building denser homes on larger single-family lots.

The rules laid out last week will keep municipalities from blocking the construction of apartments in areas surrounding transit hubs.

The goal is to boost the supply of housing in spots where more residents can help create efficient and sustainable transit systems. Those systems, then, can help reduce some of the trickle-down costs of that development. (On a per-home basis, denser development requires fewer roads, and less sewer and water infrastructure than do suburban communities.)

The transit component is also key because the theory is that its availability will reduce local residents’ need to drive and—crucially—park their vehicles. And parking requirements are frequently cited as an obstacle to building new homes—or a factor in driving up the cost of those homes. As part of the new rules, the province will force cities to remove parking requirements for areas near transit hubs and bus exchanges, though they can still require developers to create parking for those with disabilities or for commercial buildings.

So what does this mean?

In places like central Langley, the new rules will create de facto approval for towers up to 20 storeys tall within 200 metres around new SkyTrain stations, buildings up to 12 storeys within 400 metres of stations, and eight-storey projects will be permitted in an 800-metre radius.

You can read the specifics for yourself here and here.

More modest rules will be coming to mid-sized communities like Chilliwack, Abbotsford, and Mission that are located outside of Metro Vancouver. In those places, apartments up to 10 storeys will be permitted in close proximity (within 200 metres) to bus exchanges, and six-storey buildings will be de facto allowed within 400 metres of the transit hubs.

Some of the details are still unclear, including the specifics of how the province will define a “bus exchange.” But what we do know allows us to consider the changes coming to Fraser Valley downtowns.

The legislation will require around 30 municipalities to create “transit-oriented development” areas where the rules will apply. The province says it expects around 100 such areas to be designated across the province.

In Chilliwack, Abbotsford, Langley, and Mission, there are a half-dozen spots that are almost guaranteed to be designated as such transit-density hubs. There are also some potential locations whose future will be less certain. Municipalities have until June 30 of next year to define their areas.

Throughout this piece, we have used an online app created by Langley resident Josh Messmer to envision and predict the scope of the Fraser Valley’s transit-oriented development area. You can use the app yourself here.

Here’s how the transit areas might look:

📷 Josh Messmer

Langley City

Because the largest density guarantees will surround rapid transit stations, the Fraser Valley location that one might predict will be most impacted is the area around Langley’s new SkyTrain station. But that’s actually probably not the case. The rules may only slightly influence massive change that was already likely to come either way to the area surrounding the station, at the intersection of 203 Street and Fraser Highway.

City planners had already green-lighted the type and scale of projects the province is trying to promote. Instead of having to fight through traffic to get into Vancouver, residents along the Fraser Highway will be able to hop on a SkyTrain. And the city, developers and others had already made plans in anticipation of the area suddenly becoming infinitely more desirable as a place to live.

Langley City’s newly adopted Official Community Plan anticipated that and already mostly allows the type of dense buildings close to SkyTrain that the new provincial rules hopes to promote.

The new transit-development rules will have some impact. They won’t require developers to meet certain conditions to obtain a “density bonus” in order to build to a certain height. Some parcels may find themselves narrowly within an area that allows for larger buildings. Public hearings won’t be necessary for projects that align with the city’s plans, potentially avoiding politically fraught debates. And, vitally, parking requirements seem likely to be all but nixed.

That last one—intended to make buildings cheaper to construct and give residents more incentive to actually use transit—may bring the most friction. But Langley City also has more time to adjust than other parts of Metro Vancouver, where parking is already at an extreme premium and transit options already exist.

The rules will also affect an area just to the east, in the area surrounding the city’s bus exchange at the corner of Glover Road and Logan Avenue. But there too, the city’s existing official community plan permits larger residential buildings, and the changes are likely to have a minor impact

📷 Josh Messmer

Langley Township

To the north, in Langley Township, the Carvolth Bus Exchange will also trigger a new transit-development area. Much of that area has already seen recent developments that are unlikely to come down soon. The tight radius surrounding the exchange also includes a stormwater detention pond and Highway 1.

There are still a handful of vacant lots, however. Recent years have seen six-storey buildings erected on similar sites nearby, and the new rules will make slightly larger eight-storey buildings possible.

The big Langley Township question may concern the arrival of a rapid bus line down 200 Street and whether that will trigger the new development rules.

A rapid bus line on that road between Langley City and Maple Ridge has been in the works for a considerable amount of time, but was formally announced as a priority last week—even though the province hasn’t actually committed to providing funding.

The information released from the province is unclear about how it will treat new rapid bus stops. Some documents released stipulate that the densest, “Type 1A,” transit areas will be permitted near “rapid transit” stops. (Rapid buses are generally considered a form of “rapid transit.”) But other documents define such “Type 1A” areas as being located specifically around SkyTrain stations.

If rapid bus stops are considered the same as SkyTrain stops, it could supercharge development along the impending rapid bus line along Langley’s 200 Street corridor.

The terminus of the bus line is likely to be near the Langley SkyTrain station. And though rapid buses have fewer stops than typical routes, the line seems likely to have at least two stops in the Township. The likeliest locations would be at 200 Street’s intersections with 96 Avenue north of Highway 1, and at 80 Avenue south of the highway.

Another station would be possible near 86 Avenue and the Carvolth Park and Ride.

The 96 Avenue intersection is already in a built-up section of the township with few residential buildings in the area. But a stop at the 80 Avenue intersection next to the Langley Events Centre would be close to large, still-vacant parcels of land likely to be developed soon. If the area gets a rapid bus stop—and if that stop meets the province’s rapid transit definition—Langley Township may have no choice but to permit tall towers around the intersection.

📷 Josh Messmer


Like Langley City, the scale of apartment buildings permitted in downtown Mission will be much different than most of the structures that currently exist in the area. But also like in Langley, the transit-oriented development rules won’t be a vast departure from guidelines already set out by the community’s Official Community Plan.

The city’s 2017 Official Community Plan already permits dense developments in the downtown core surrounding the West Coast Express station—the town’s likely transit-oriented development area. Indeed, the OCP permits First Avenue high rises exceeding the density required by the province’s new rules.

And yet, aside from a couple mid-sized buildings, no developers have started putting up towers in the area.

The big change in Mission could arise from how a lack of parking requirements may alter the financial calculations of builders. Without a requirement to add tens of thousands of dollars to each unit in order to build underground parking stalls, it could become much more financially attractive to build apartments next to the West Coast Express. That, coupled with new rules that won’t require public hearings for buildings that align with a community’s Official Community Plan, could finally trigger the redevelopment of downtown Mission.

Or it might not. Nobody has tried any of this before.

📷 Josh Messmer


Of all the communities impacted, the new rules may have the greatest impact in and around Abbotsford’s historic downtown and its Montrose bus exchange—an area where current policies limit the scale of new buildings, but where large numbers of properties have been bought with an eye to redevelopment in recent years.

The area surrounding the exchange has only seen a couple buildings erected in recent years. More are planned but most are in the range of four to six storeys tall. The new provincial rules will automatically allow all buildings within 200 metres of the Montrose Bus Exchange to be (modestly) denser than the maximum currently allowed. That will allow builders to construct slightly taller buildings with far fewer headaches.

But the biggest changes could come at the north and south end of the larger, 400-metre perimeter surrounding the exchange. Immediately south of the exchange, across McDougall Avenue, multi-storey apartments up to eight storeys tall will be permitted in a small neighbourhood that is currently dominated by single-family homes and where the Abbotsford’s current OCP only permits gentle infill density.

North of the exchange, meanwhile, the 400-metre perimeter includes nearly all of the city’s historic core. In the four-block area surrounding the Montrose/Essendene intersection, current city rules restrict new buildings from exceeding three storeys. Those rules are in place to “maintain a historic main street character of small scale retail.”

The province’s new rules will nearly double that height allowance, while also eliminating requirements for each building to have dozens, or hundreds, of parking stalls. (The idea, again, is to encourage the use of transit and reduce barriers to the construction of new homes.)

Abbotsford has another bus exchange, of course, on Bourquin Crescent. That exchange is in an area where significant density is already permitted and expected as Sevenoaks Mall is redeveloped. However, the exchange is also expected to be phased out, with BC Transit and the city already planning to spend millions to upgrade the Montrose Exchange. The choice to invest in Montrose over Bourquin now looks like it will also significantly alter the planning future of Abbotsford—and its historic downtown.

Finally, it’s possible HighStreet will be considered a transit-oriented development area, owing to the various buses that stop there. While denser homes are already being constructed across the street from the shopping centre, the designation could allow for denser housing along Cardinal Avenue and on a handful of surrounding roads.

📷 Josh Messmer


The small scale of Chilliwack’s downtown—like that of Abbotsford—is also likely to create significant changes in nearby neighbourhoods.

The city’s downtown transit exchange sits on Spadina Avenue, squeezed between a library, grocery store, and museum. Most of the area surrounding the exchange already has been designated to permit highly dense apartment buildings. The ambition there is significant: the area is defined as the town’s “uban quarter,” where towers up to 18 storeys tall would be permitted.

But one of the largest potential changes could take place just to the east, across Young Road. The 400-metre perimeter surrounding the exchange will automatically permit apartment buildings as high as six storeys tall. Like in Abbotsford, that perimeter stretches into a neighbourhood of single-family homes that the city has designated to be preserved as a “village walk heritage area.”

The city’s OCP notes that the area “is one of the city’s first residential neighbourhoods and an important link to the city’s past” with a variety of heritage homes and buildings.

The provincial rules would seem to greenlight the bulldozing of those structures without remorse, though it’s unclear if or how small-scale exceptions will be made.

The provincial rules are aimed at boosting density and overcoming councils that put barriers in the way of the construction of homes near transit. But in Chilliwack and other smaller communities, such transit exchanges are also occasionally located in older parts of town where precious few historic homes remain.

The province has said it will only define bus exchanges once the legislation passes, suggesting the plan remains somewhat flexible. Cities will be expected to create their own transit-oriented development areas, but it’s possible that a city like Chilliwack (or Abbotsford) will be able to create an area that isn’t circular in nature, but which bulges in one direction to permit a modest carve-out in another.

📷 Josh Messmer

Chilliwack has another transit exchange of sorts, located off of Luckakuck Way, near its malls. That exchange is unlikely to trigger significant alterations from its current trajectory: much of the area is commercial in nature and while mixed-use buildings are anticipated for the area, they are already permitted to be denser, multi-storey apartment structures.

In Chilliwack, perhaps the biggest impact from the new rules will come from the removal of parking requirements near bus exchanges. While that will impact car-dependent cities across the valley, no municipality will be more affected than Chilliwack: its bus exchanges sit on a floodplain where building underground parking was already banned.

Instead, parking must be built above ground. Above-ground parking, while not necessarily more expensive than underground parking structures, can create major obstacles to the construction of attractive and functional high-rise buildings. The removal of parking requirements will remove those complications, making it simpler to just build homes and let the occupants figure out if they need a car and, if so, where to park it.

Highway park-and-rides and the funding question

The legislation has been unveiled with many questions still unanswered, including, crucially, just what a bus exchange is.

Although a handful of exchanges in the Fraser Valley are obvious, it’s also possible that others will be designated by the province—or even created by municipalities on their own.

The most obvious locations for such additional designated exchanges in the valley are at park-and-ride stops along Highway 1 where the Fraser Valley Express regional bus currently stops. If those stops are considered bus exchanges, it could have a modest impact on several spots, including the commercial area surrounding the Lickman Road park-and-ride in Chilliwack, and FVX stops in Abbotsford at Whatcom Road and McCallum Road.

The province is likely to face some push back from municipalities. But in the Fraser Valley especially, the new rules and the rationale behind them are also likely to generate forceful requests for more transit funding.

The rules depend on more people taking transit, but in recent years, BC Transit has lacked provincial funding to boost service even on well-used routes like the Fraser Valley Express. IF the goal is to encourage people living near transit hubs to use transit to get to and from work, there will need to be buses that actually make that possible.

If you read and appreciate our stories, we need you to become a paying member to help us keep producing great journalism.

Our readers' support means tens of thousands of locals in the Fraser Valley can continue getting local news, and in-depth, award-winning reporting. We can't do it without you. Whether you give monthly or annually, your help will power our local reporting for years to come. With enough support, we’ll be able to hire more journalists and produce even more great stories about your community.

But we aren’t there yet. Support us for as low at $1.62 per week, and rest assured you’re doing your part to help inform your community.

Join us, make a difference, and become a Fraser Valley Insider member today.

- Tyler, Joti, and Grace.

Join the conversation

or to participate.