The Alder is Gone: What Now?
On November 16th, 2020, the Alder Inn came down. What was a controversial building while it was standing was perhaps even more controversial during the discussions on whether or not to tear it down. As a member of the Aldergrove Heritage Society, I wish more people had appreciated the history of what used to stand in that spot, and I wish more of the building could have been salvaged before it came down. However, what’s done is done, and it’s time to imagine what can be built on what is perhaps the most prime real estate in Aldergrove. In the report to Council on October 26th, 2020, Staff discussed the future redevelopment of the site. While the possibility of a mixed-use redevelopment of the site should excite everyone, there should be some worry as to what the actual plans of the Township are. A timeline doesn’t exist publicly yet, but we can all be certain that there have likely been many behind-the-scenes discussions on what will be done with the properties. It would be great if we could do something creative and bold with the site, but my gut is telling me that the likeliest outcome for the site is that it will be re-sold into the private market for a private developer to deal with.
However, there are two ideas that are much more exciting, would create long-lasting and positive effects for Aldergrove’s downtown core, and would serve as a respectful replacement for the landmark building that used to sit on the site. I’m already on the record as saying how much of a mistake it would be to simply sell the properties back to the private sector, and I still believe that to be true. It is incredibly rare to have publicly-owned land in such a prime location, and with a huge influx of private-sector condos being built in the downtown area in the coming years, there is no guarantee that a private builder would do anything with the properties any time soon. It could very likely sit as an empty lot in the heart of Aldergrove for the foreseeable future.
So, what could be done?
Option One - Mixed-Use, Affordable Housing
Well, the most immediately feasible thing to do would be for the Township to partner with any number of non-profit organizations and build a mixed-use, below-market project that is targeted towards families. What could this look like? Imagine townhomes along 30th Avenue that are secured at below-market rental rates for families who are struggling - and with the majority of Canadians living paycheque to paycheque and with COVID-19 only making things worse, there is no shortage of families who could benefit from these units. Maybe even build these homes as live-work units, so that families can run businesses out of their homes, keeping more dollars in the local economy and adding to Aldergrove’s vibrancy. Then, on the site of the old Alder Inn and the parking lot to the South, how about a mixed-use development targeting both seniors and youth. If you’re in need of some inspiration to imagine what that might look like, look no further than Chilliwack, who are in the process of approving exactly what I’m proposing in their downtown core.
As for the commercial/retail portion of the site, there are no shortages of worthy community groups that are in need of space, and a publicly-owned building in a prime location would be perfect. First and foremost, the Fraser Valley Regional Library would be a perfect tenant to have at this location. Relatively accessible by transit, almost equal distance from all the schools in Aldergrove, and a quick walk from the Community Centre, this location would allow the library to expand in a new location and build on the amazing services it already provides. An additional tenant could be the Food Bank, although with the Kinsman Centre vacated by the library, that could be another possible location for them. I would also be remiss - conflict of interest alert - if I didn’t point out that in conjunction with the library, space could be set aside for desperately needed archival space for the Aldergrove Heritage Society. How appropriate that on the site of one of Aldergrove’s historic places, the Heritage Society could find the space to properly celebrate and protect the community’s history. While any of these tenants would be perfect for the site, there is also no reason why additional retail units could not be included and leased out to businesses at market-rates, to help pay the mortgage on the properties and reduce the burden on tax-payers.
Option Two - An Urban University Campus
The second option for the site is even more out-of-the-box, but would provide Aldergrove with a huge boost to the local economy and create a very unique downtown core. The University of the Fraser Valley (UFV) has been faced with a lack of space to grow for almost a decade, and with growing enrollment numbers and an increasing-array of course offerings, a compact, modern and urban satellite campus would serve them well. By working directly with UFV in building the new campus, the Township could solidify a significant tenant for the downtown core of Aldergrove. The amount of students, staff and educators that would be coming and going from the campus building would serve as a new and welcome customer base for both the existing and future businesses in Aldergrove.
Every community needs to develop various reasons for people to visit the downtown core, and the combination of the Community Centre and Pool, and a university satellite campus would be incredible for the future prospects of downtown Aldergrove. Learning from other successful initiatives helps show the way and thus we could look to another local institution for guidance on how a project like this could be successful. Trinity Western University (TWU) has had their main campus in Langley for decades, but in recent times they also found the need to expand. TWU has had an urban campus in downtown Richmond since 2015, and just this year opened a second campus in Richmond’s city centre.
These urban campuses are perfect examples of long-term, stable tenants that every community needs, and a campus on the old Alder site would complement the redevelopment of the Aldergrove Mall rather than competing with it, like a privately-led development would. Further, a Township-led development of any kind would make it easier to be creative with some of the more restrictive bylaws that will make redevelopment of any of Aldergrove’s downtown properties difficult, especially parking and setback requirements. Policies such as these discourage good development, but I believe with the right proposal, the community would see the benefit of reconsidering these types of rules on future projects as well.
What’s helpful when considering the above ideas is that the hardest part is already done. The Township already owns these properties, and thus the initial outlay of tax-payer money to buy properties - which is almost always met with trepidation - has already been addressed. Now, in my opinion, municipalities should be hesitant about becoming property developers. However, with the need for a project to keep the momentum going in Aldergrove, the Township has the opportunity to work with community partners on necessary projects if the private-sector is otherwise hesitant to initiate them. As we imagine what the world will be like after COVID-19, I hope we can start to imagine a more ambitious and proactive Township of Langley, where ideas worth discussing are not immediately dismissed as out-of-reach or too idealistic. If Richmond, Vancouver, Port Coquitlam, and now Chilliwack can initiate projects like these, why not Langley?