We've Bought the Alder Inn; Let's put it to Good Use.
With the news on June 24th that the Township of Langley had purchased the Alder Inn building and two neighbouring properties for $5.4 million, the reaction was understandably mixed. On the one hand, you had many people who were happy to see the adult entertainment portion of the business go and saw it as a new start for Aldergrove. On the other, there were folks who were unhappy with the decision for various reasons, with one of the main issues being the fact that the Township had now set the precedent of buying property to close establishments they don’t approve of.
Whichever side of the argument you fall on, one thing that can’t be argued is that the taxpayers now own very prime real estate in the middle of Downtown Aldergrove, which many residents agree is due for revitalization and growth. The Township has spent taxpayer dollars to acquire prime real estate in an area that has been in need of investment, and now that $5.4 million has been spent to acquire these properties, this author believes they should be put to good use.
As a Member and Director of the AlderGrove Heritage Society, the author obviously believes in the value of preserving buildings that are of a certain age and character. The current Alder Inn building, built in 1948, certainly fits the ‘age’ criteria of what would be appropriate to protect, but I don’t believe many would argue the building itself has character or is an architectural masterpiece. If the original ‘Western Home Hotel’ still stood on the site, the feeling would be different. With the building as it currently stands, and with the two other properties currently used for parking, the Township has an amazing opportunity to spur the growth it wants to see in Aldergrove, while also generating consistent revenues for the Township moving forward. preserving a steady revenue stream from publicly-owned property.
There are three options for the site now that it’s in public hands. In the spirit of being optimistic, we’ll begin by exploring what is the most interesting and productive option the Township has at its disposal. This is the option that would require the most forward thinking from Council and would have the best long-term consequences. The Township has gone on record to say they have no immediate plans for their new properties, which is promising, because this means we have the time to get it right.
With Option One, the Township keeps ownership of the land and through a Request for Proposal (RFP) process, partners with a developer who specializes in rental construction to construct a mixed-use development. The partnership would entail Township offering a 99-year lease on the site to the developer, while retaining ownership of the land itself, similar to how the University of British Columbia has developed their University Endowment Lands. The agreement would allow the developer to build appropriate but significant density on the site, up to 8 or 10 storeys, in exchange for also constructing retail units on the ground floor. Another perk of this option is that the current restaurant could continue to operate in the new building, if the owner so desired. The revenues from either the retail units or a portion of the residential units would be paid to the Township of Langley on a yearly basis, with the proceeds flowing into the Langley Affordable Housing Fund (LAFH) that will finally be set up in accordance with the Official Community Plan from 2016. With a steady supply of revenues now flowing into the LAFH, the Township could look to create the same arrangement with other properties it owns across the municipality, and then begin to use the funds in the LAFH to either incentivize the construction of affordable housing, or build it themselves.
The reason this option is the most interesting, besides all the reasons listed above, is that our community sees desperately needed rental units built. While they might not be the "affordable" units that are accessible to every single income bracket, they would offer badly needed supply in a market with a vacancy rate below 2%. As many builders will explain, the main reason few rentals are built is because it's extremely difficult to make a profit on them. A huge part of this is the high cost of land, so by offering builders adequate density on land they didn't have to buy outright, there is likely to be interest in partnering with the Township on such a project.
The second option would be partnering with an organization or developer to construct only ‘affordable’ units on the site. While there are organizations that are able to do so, a property in the core of Downtown Aldergrove like the one now in possession of the Township would be best used to generate a steady stream of income for the municipality. Partnering with a builder who will construct only affordable units at below market rates will be difficult for a number of reasons, with one of the most significant being the revenues from such a building would likely not even cover construction costs. Nor would the building likely be architecturally bold, unless a very significant amount of density was allowed; perhaps even upwards of 20 storeys. While it might be possible to partner with a builder who is willing to build only affordable units, due to the costs associated there is unlikely to be any meaningful commercial aspect to the project, and to not have any commercial at the corner of 272nd and Fraser Highway would be foolish.
While the appeal of this option is obviously the units of affordable housing that could be built here, the reality of the situation is that the newly acquired properties have the potential to be used for a development that will help the Township construct even more affordable housing down the road. The temptation will be strong to use these properties for affordable housing only, and while this isn’t a bad idea, it’s not the best one for the properties we have.
In the final and least inspired of the primary options, the Township could look to sell the properties back to a developer in the private sector. For some people, this will be the best use of these properties because it’s a simple solution that immediately raises the Township several million dollars once it’s sold. The funds generated from the sale aren’t guaranteed to be reinvested in the community either, and could easily be used up in the multitude of other line items that appear in the Township’s Capital Budgets. The municipality also loses the opportunity to have a really meaningful say in what is constructed on the site, and also loses out on the future revenues from a profit-sharing agreement such as the sort proposed in Option One. It is the author’s sincere hope that the Township acts with more ambition and innovation than to simply sell the properties off, and rightly or wrongly, this author is holding out hope that it will.
It’s not everyday that a municipality takes such a drastic step as to purchase several properties just to ensure a controversial business can no longer operate. While personally of the belief that Aldergrove can now begin its transition and the perception of the community can change and grow in a positive way, this author also strongly believes purchasing the properties was only a small step in the right direction. The other properties that were part of the acquisition were parking lots, so development of those will come with no opposition. Redevelopment of the Alder Inn itself will come with the normal opposition, and it could potentially be worthwhile to include hotel space in any new project, but redevelopment is necessary. There are so many possibilities for this site and for Aldergrove, and the Township of Langley would be neglectful in its duties if it let this opportunity pass it by.