How To Reach Aldergrove's Potential
Updated: Feb 8, 2019
Introduction - Let’s Put Things In Context
It’s time to be honest about Aldergrove: nobody knows what the future holds. What I do know is that whenever I drive into the area, I’m always struck by its unbelievable potential. It could very easily be one of the most exceptionally cool places to live, work, and play in Metro Vancouver. This would require a lot of out-of-the-box thinking, however, but I’m sure we as a Township community are up for the challenge. If you are someone who wants Aldergrove to stay the way it is, then this article isn’t for you. However, if you believe in Aldergrove’s potential and want to see it realized, take the time to read the article to its conclusion.
When we look at the big-picture, we can see that not only is Aldergrove the ‘Downtown’ for a huge area of rural farmland as well as the industrial estates at Gloucester, it also has a mini-suburb in the form of West Abbotsford. For many people who live on the East side of Station Road, it is much more convenient to do their shopping in Aldergrove than it is to go into Downtown Abbotsford. In the last number of years, the area has been getting some attention. Successive municipal governments have made investments in the form of underground water and sewage pipes and most recently the $35 million Aldergrove Credit Union Community Arena. Both projects were completed in order to provide current residents with badly needed services but also in the hopes of attracting private investment to the area. With so much potential and recent attention by our municipal government, the question needs to be asked: why isn’t the area seeing the higher levels of development that Council and residents have been hoping for?
The answer, obviously, is complicated. While they have the ability to regulate the real estate market, governments at the different levels aren’t very good at creating one. The fact is, the development industry will only build in areas where they believe there is a demand for housing, retail, et cetera, and prospective residents will only move in to an area where there is available housing. This is because, in a capitalistic environment, developers build where they believe they will turn a profit. Many also build with the intent of adding value to the communities, but even they must build to make a profit - or else they won’t survive long term. So before they make any decisions on where to build, a developer will do an analysis on what the market is like in the area, and determine various important details such as how many units they could build, the prices they could charge, and, most importantly, if there is even a demand for their product. In order to determine if there is a market in Aldergrove for new housing, I’ve completed a very quick analysis, focusing specifically on whether or not there is enough demand in the area to justify developers buying land and building homes of various description.
So is there a market for new housing in Aldergrove? Do people want to move in to the area? The answer is a resounding yes. In support of this conclusion, some data mining had to be done beginning with determining the area that Aldergrove officially consists of. According to Statistics Canada, Aldergrove is made up of two Census Tracts(CT), which are shown in Figure One. CT 0506.01 includes most of urban Aldergrove north of Fraser Highway, and CT 0506.02 includes all of urban Aldergrove to the south of the Highway.
After studying the latest available data from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), there were 33 new units of housing built in 2017. You can see the unit breakdown by Census Tract in Figure Two, but the vast majority were single-family homes built South of Fraser Highway. An important metric is “Unit Absorption” which simply means whether the built unit was bought or not. If it was absorbed, it was bought, and unabsorbed means it remained on the market. As you can see in the bottom section of the table, there was only one unit that went unabsorbed in Aldergrove in 2017. An absorption rate of 97 percent would be very attractive to any developer. While this data doesn’t include the number or rate of absorption of older homes that are being bought and sold, it is safe to assume the overall housing market in Aldergrove - at least according to the latest data - is strong.
The “Zone” in Figure Two may say “Langley City and Langley DM”, but what is important is the “Census Tract” Number, which corresponds to the two Tracts in Figure One. We can see that the housing market within the core area of Aldergrove itself is strong, and when we look at the market in west Abbotsford next door, the trend is similar. The City of Abbotsford has a rental vacancy rate of less than 0.5 percent, and we can see how well the new townhome projects just east of Station Road are doing. This would confirm that overall, the market for housing of all kinds in the area is strong. Now, Aldergrove is grouped in the overall scheme of Metro Vancouver’s housing market, and is subject to the same macroeconomic factors as the rest of the region. No one is suggesting that Aldergrove exists as an island and demand for housing will always be strong, however the seemingly prevailing notion that Aldergrove is an area where nobody will build because nobody will buy is misguided.
A second question one might ask is why is it important that the demand for housing in Aldergrove be high? As was noted above, demand has to be high in order for developers to be incented to build houses. Of equal importance, especially for Aldergrove’s Downtown Core, home construction has has to be high in order for the demand for new retail stores, restaurants, art galleries, breweries, fitness gyms and offices to grow as well. This coupling - high home construction and the revitalization of the Downtown Core - has to occur. So what’s happening: why hasn’t Aldergrove bloomed?
Part One - Barriers to a Bloom
In simple terms, there’s not enough people living in Aldergrove for the community to become any more vibrant or exciting. New storefronts and public spaces that make a community an exciting place to be will not arrive unless there are more customers and people living in and visiting the core. The new Community Centre was an excellent investment in the sense of providing Downtown Aldergrove with a destination and a sense of place. However, for the most part, people who live in Murrayville, Walnut Grove, and other neighbourhoods inside and outside of Langley won’t travel all the way to Aldergrove if they don’t have to. The perception is that it’s too out of the way for most people. This is on top of the fact that it is quite the challenge to find parking, and the transit from both East and West is not frequent or reliable enough ( but more on that later).
Luckily for Aldergrove, the road-map to revitalizing the Core Area has already been drawn. Thanks to the efforts of former Township Mayor Rick Green, who spearheaded the use of community engagement to develop the 2010 Aldergrove Core Area Plan(“the Plan”), the community has an idea of how the core may look and how it could get there. However, almost a decade on, we haven’t seen it happen. This is through no fault of the 2010 Plan itself, nor is it the fault of any one group of people or policy. In the Plan, a heavy emphasis was put on the concentration of new, mixed-use developments being built in the Core. This is for good reason, as it’s these types of developments - mid-rise structures with a mix of retail/residential as well as retail/office - that make streets interesting. They produce what planners like to call “Great Streets”, some examples of which can be found on Commercial Drive, Main Street, and Robson Street in Vancouver, or on most Downtown streets in European cities like London, Paris, and Amsterdam. Now, it might be a stretch to suggest that Aldergrove is destined to be seen to be in the same light as some of the world class cities, but it is could certainly become a destination community similar to Steveston in Richmond, or Fort Langley, here in our very own Township.
However, in the near decade that has passed since the Plan was adopted, there have been no significant developments in the Core Area worth mentioning. There is talk of some of the larger landowners in the community finally putting forward redevelopment proposals to Council. Unfortunately, there was a preview of the type of application we might expect during the most recent municipal campaign, and the potential project was, quite frankly, uninspiring. So why is Aldergrove not experiencing the same level of activity that other parts of the Township are, and why are the projects that are coming forward below that standard we should be accepting?
The reasons can be distilled down to two issues: First, the current zoning of the Core Area discourages investment by developers big and small who want to build interesting and creative buildings and encourages old-fashioned (and not in the good way) projects that do little for the community. Second, there is little incentive for a developer to undertake a project in the area, given that right now there are other neighbourhoods inside and outside of the Township which are higher on their priority list.
Effectively addressing these two issues may in reality be problematic for the Township to do, but there are some further tools that could be used in addition to what has already been attempted. The first issue - zoning - is an extremely important one, and it can be solved relatively easily, without requiring much bravery from Council. To planners, developers, and urban policy geeks (yours truly included), zoning is like the holy grail. Beyond that fact that having the proper zoning in place encourages better development, it also simplifies the process and incentivizes developers to build - especially in an area as underserved as Aldergrove. For a very brief explanation of how important zoning laws actually are in the growth of communities, you can check out this article. It’s US-focused, but the same lessons apply to Canada. I won’t get into the nitty gritty details of which zone permits which kind of buildings in the Township of Langley, but if you do want those details they can be found here. Basically, the current zoning bylaws in the Aldergrove Core Area permit the type of buildings we currently see - older, single-story shops with no residences above them. In almost every municipality in Metro Vancouver, the zoning bylaw that permits the mixed-use developments that Aldergrove residents are calling for is known as a 'Comprehensive Development Zone (CD Zone)'. Keep this CD Zone structure in mind, and in Part Two we’ll explore how a simple zoning change would make a huge difference in Aldergrove’s future.
The second issue - incentives may not be as quick or simple of a fix, but there are steps that can be taken to make an incentive program work for all stakeholders. However, with these steps could come the risk of falling through the ‘rotten floor board’ that is the status quo, and Brad Richert does a great job of providing an example of this in his article on one of Councillor Woodward’s recent motions. However, movement never occurs without a push, and that is the purpose of public discourse on topics such as these. This second issue which is acting as a significant barrier to Aldergrove’s growth is a simple case of a lack of incentives. If you’re a typical developer, you are looking for properties in areas that follow two important criteria: One - will the regulations in place, the neighbours, and a number of other factors actually enable you to build what you want to build in this spot? Will it be physically possible? Two - is the market strong enough that your project will make you money? If you put in your own equity, investor’s equity, and use debt to finance parts of the project, will everybody get a competitive rate of return? If a project is done right, a developer could satisfy that second criteria - a satisfactory rate of return - in Aldergrove. As demonstrated in the Introduction, the absorption rates are high enough that if housing units are built, there would be people to buy or rent them. What can’t be forgotten however, is that there is no shortage of communities in the Lower Mainland for developers to build in, and one of the conditions those developers look for in a community is that there be a certain degree of certainty. Specifically, what communities are those? There are two examples right here in the Township of Langley. First and foremost is Willoughby. As we have all experienced, there is no shortage of development activity in that community. It is growing at a breathtaking pace. The second example is in Brookswood-Fernridge, where we have not seen the physical homes and business constructed yet, but we have seen high levels of land transactions, which would suggest that there is interest and activity in the area. We have seen none of this kind of activity in Aldergrove since the creation of the 2010 Plan.
In this author’s opinion, the issue isn’t that Aldergrove is forgotten, nor that the market is such that nobody could build there. The issue is that there are other areas that developers are busy with right now, and they have no incentive to turn their attention to Aldergrove. If they can make their required return in other neighbourhoods, and they know that Staff and Council have those areas on the top of their minds, they are much more likely to buy land and propose projects there. This is the same mentality contributing to why we don’t see large scale redevelopments in neighbourhoods in South Vancouver such as Sunset or Victoria-Fraserview, or in the area around 22nd Street SkyTrain station in New Westminster. These are places that should theoretically be prime for redevelopment, but remain untouched.
There are ways that we could draw developer’s attention to Aldergrove, but as noted above, they require Council to be pushed. If that pushing contributes to Downtown Aldergrove becoming one of the most exciting places to be in Metro Vancouver, then this author says “Push on”.
Part Two - The Fertilizer
Like much of Langley Township, Aldergrove remains surrounded by rural areas and farmland, so it would seem apt to use fertilizer as an analogy to describe what acting on the following suggestions would do for the community. Yes, the author is fully aware that a form of fertilizer is a certain bodily function excreted by bulls, but I will gladly run the risk of my opinions being seen as such, for the sake of creating a dialogue to help turn Downtown Aldergrove into a vibrant, destination spot. Before proceeding, it is acknowledged that these suggestions alone will not solve the issue of low private investment in Aldergrove. They are not suggestions for tax breaks or rebates, but instead offer ways for Aldergrove to become a more attractive place for developers to build high-quality, community-appropriate projects in.
To address the first issue of poor zoning, the suggestion is to pass a bylaw that completes the rezoning of the Aldergrove Core Area. Why? In the Township, practically every new development has to undertake a time-consuming rezoning process in order to build their project. Some developers seek to rezone their properties in ways that make sense and that add value to the area, others do the opposite. It’s difficult to prevent developers from buying land and then attempting to get their property through the application process without giving thought to what’s best for the community, but thankfully, Council can vote to oppose a rezoning when it doesn’t make sense. In the 2010 Aldergrove Plan, there was a page (Page 30) which included proposed rezoning for the area. However, this was just a proposed outline, and did not actually rezone the area, which is still predominantly zoned in an outdated way that doesn’t encourage the type of projects residents are now looking for. So why is a complete rezoning of the area important? Because according to a Fraser Institute report from 2016, the time it takes to get a development application approved in the Township when a project has to get a rezoning permit is 18.6 months, in contrast to it taking only 10 months for an application to receive approval if it doesn’t have to get rezoned. That 8.6 month difference is significant for developers for many reasons, and eliminating it would be a very important factor in attracting more investment to Aldergrove. The entire Core Area should be rezoned to a Comprehensive Development (CD) Zone, which most projects in the area would have to do anyways. Once the CD zone is in place, with special criteria added for rental projects and other factors deemed important by the community, the 2010 Plan would serve as an excellent guideline for developers to follow. They would be expected refer to the Plan for guidance on what to build and where, but would not be faced with the prospect of rezoning, since it was already done. The name for this new zone could be CD-200, which would underscore that is a simple, clear vision for Aldergrove.
The second tool that Council could deploy is extremely simple. That step would be to create a streamlined system whereby applications being proposed for properties in the Aldergrove Core Area are given priority in the application process. This would be a clear signal to the development community that the Township was serious about the development of Aldergrove. By further reducing the timeline a project has to spend clearing regulatory hurdles, the Township would be reducing the financial uncertainty that is limiting development in Aldergrove. This suggestion does not mean the standards for development would be lowered. In fact, if this step is done correctly, it could ensure the highest standards are met by only accepting proposals that met all the criteria set by Staff, which could include items such as a number of rental units, certain types of retail and commercial space, daycare space, medical space, and the list goes on. Developers want certainty in projects, and if they were satisfied that if they followed the criteria and their application process was completed in a timely fashion, they would be far more predisposed to looking at Aldergrove for development.
With an increase in residential construction as a result of these changes, there will be more people living in the Core Area of Aldergrove. This means that the long-awaited improvements to transit services in the area can finally occur. The common goal among transportation planners is to deliver service that becomes reliable enough to users that the users no longer have to plan their trip, but can safely assume their bus will be there. The rate at which this state of reliance usually occurs is when bus service arrives every 8-12 minutes. Currently, the only meaningful transit route connecting Aldergrove with Downtown Langley and then to the SkyTrain occurs approximately every 30 minutes. While the level of service required for users to reach a state of steady reliance on transit is distant for Aldergrove at present, it is not impossible. According to widely accepted planning practices, the ideal level of service that’s been described requires a population base of 10.4 people per acre in order to have the ridership levels needed to justify improved service. With the solutions put in place to address the issues brought up in Part One, Aldergrove could expect to see enough density in the Core combined with the less-dense surrounding areas to achieve the population required to support better transit. This will only help to improve the attractiveness of Aldergrove as a place for businesses to open offices, as well as retailers to set up shop in the community.
Some readers may suggest that the above proposed steps do nothing but benefit developers. I would respectfully disagree, especially as someone who promoted the idea of offering tax-breaks during the 2018 municipal election campaign and who has since realized how little that does to promote development, and instead rewards developers for doing nothing. These two new suggestions are simple, would be effective, and would be a way for the municipal government to simplify the process of development while ensuring the high standards of Aldergrove’s residents are met.
It is not a foregone conclusion that Aldergrove will see the redevelopment it deserves. With rising construction and labour costs as noted in this Business in Vancouver article which discourage smaller, community-minded developers with less financing available, and with stricter mortgage rules, builders might chose to concentrate on fewer projects. If that happens, Aldergrove will continue to be neglected. Despite the market correction that we’ve seen in the last few months and the perception that it could be the beginning of a bursting of the housing bubble, there is still plenty to be optimistic about if you live in or frequent Aldergrove. However, the flames of that optimism have to be stoked by by the Township, but unlike previous steps the Township have taken to encourage growth, the steps proposed won’t be a burden on taxpayers.
There is a reason for a dose of caution in all this optimism: should developers set their sights on Aldergrove and begin to buy land and build new homes and stores, there will inevitably be upward pressure on prices, and what was once an affordable part of town could become something some residents fear: an unoriginal, unaffordable, Yaletown-esque neighbourhood. This is, unfortunately, an unavoidable consequence of redevelopment; however all is not lost. If Council was inclined, they could make the investment to secure several sites in the Core Area to set aside for affordable housing, which could be built by working with not-for-profit developers such as Catalyst. There are also parking challenges that will need to be dealt with, namely with finding suitable sites to build underground parking, but those can be worked out through negotiations with developers.
Despite these obstacles, and the challenges of overcoming a Council that may not have the stomach to make the necessary changes, there remains cause to be boundlessly optimistic in Aldergrove’s future. We have a choice to make: we can be a community which points out problems and issues without proposing actual solutions to them, or we can be a community that moves away from that thinking. One of the many take-aways from my meeting people on their doorsteps and coffee shops during the 2018 municipal campaign, is that I believe that people from every community within the Township are eager to stop just talking about what needs to be fixed, but to suggest and then implement what the fix might be. The future for Aldergrove is bright, and we can take simple, concrete steps to help it reach its full potential. There’s just under four years left in this Council’s term, and their job is to help make Aldergrove the best it can be. I implore Council: don’t waste that time.