Demolition in a vintage rental neighbourhood

High Style Living

Five years after tower construction first jumped the Skytrain line at Metrotown, the City of Burnaby continues to enable the destruction of 1950s and ’60s era rental housing in the area.

Rick McGowan, a neighbourhood activist and townhome owner, estimates that 560 rental units have been replaced by owner-occupied condo towers, or are slated for demolition. More worrying, he says, is the fact that there is no end in sight.

Rental units on Willingdon Street. The building has been recently purchased, but not yet re-zoned for demolition.

Rental units on Willingdon Street. The complex has been recently purchased, but not yet re-zoned for demolition.

McGowan recently gave me a brief tour of the streets of south Metrotown, historically known as Maywood. “If you live in Metrotown as a renter, there’s a good chance your place will be demolished,” he said. “These are long-term renters, and they’re being told they need to leave their community.”

This matters because, as noted elsewhere on this site, rental housing is already in short supply in Metro Vancouver. The amount of purpose-built rental housing construction in Metro Vancouver was  almost nil during the 1990s and 200s. The Burnaby city government highlighted this issue in a 2007 statement on housing policy, but minimized the role of local authorities in facilitating rental housing construction.

“The region needs about 3,500 additional market rental housing units to be built each year. Currently virtually no purpose built rental stock of this type is being constructed by the private market. Between 15 to 20 percent of individuals and families in the region are in core need for non-market housing… In Burnaby alone, there are over 13,000 households in core need for affordable housing (and rising). There are no sustainable housing programs available to address the magnitude of this need for low-income individuals and families. The current estimate of homeless people in the region has nearly doubled since 2002 from 1,121 to 2,174….

While these issues have serious impacts and implications for the health, quality of life and economic viability of our community, they are beyond the mandate, resources and tax base of Burnaby and other local governments to address on a direct basis.”

Residential tower construction viewed from the Metrotown shopping centre

Residential tower construction viewed from the Metrotown shopping centre

In a December 2015 newspaper article, city councillor Colleen Jordan was quoted as saying that Burnaby regrets the loss of the old rental units, but local government can’t force developers to build rental housing.  Strangely enough, in Vancouver, the city next door, the Zoning and Development bylaw “requires redevelopment projects with six or more dwelling units to replace every demolished rental unit.”

Alternatively, as McGowan points out, Burnaby Council could just say “no” to rezoning requests.  As noted in our earlier post on the Burnaby Heights neighbourhood, the City is prepared to impose strict limits on the densification of streets dominated by single-family housing.

One argument for tearing down the three-story walkups is that they have reached the end of their useful life. McGowan denies this, and says the buildings could last another generation if they were properly maintained. He says that in New Westminster, Burnaby’s neighbour to the east, a combination of property standards policies and other pro-rental policies have allowed the city to maintain a healthy stock of affordable rental housing.  New Westminster has pledged that “For properties containing purpose-built rental housing, [there will be] no support for rezoning to higher density developments or variances to increase the building height.”

McGowan also questions the aesthetics of unmixed tower development at a time when that development model is falling out of favour in Vancouver. “We’d like to see more diversity, mid-rise and low-rise, and not just a focus on density.”

Walkup apartments on Dunblane Avenue, east of the mall

Dunblane Avenue, east of the mall; west side of the street

Dunblane Avenue, east side; mutant Vancouverism, anisolated townhome duplex with towers

Dunblane Avenue, east side; an isolated townhome duplex with towers

As noted in my previous post on Metrotown, the 2010 land use map for the area contemplated extensive residential densification, and Burnaby has not yet (to my knowledge) stepped past the proposed boundaries. In the process, however, long-term residents are being evicted, the form of densification is open to question, and much of the benefit appears to be flowing to unknown Asian buyers. One feature of Burnaby’s current housing market, according to an authoritative survey, is that the city ranks last among municipalities in Canada in the availability of affordable and accessible housing.

To give local government its due, Burnaby is now showing some support for social and non-profit housing, although this will not help Metrotown renters in the short term. The City’s “Community Benefits Program,” a fund based on developer contributions, created a total of 19 affordable or special needs units from 1997 through 2014. More recently, the City established a Housing Fund to be financed from development charges.  Mayor Corrigan reported in late 2015 that the Fund has already leveraged the creation of 257 new non-market housing units. With the dedication of City property for further new housing, something that was ruled out in the 2007 statement quoted above, Burnaby hopes to see new co-op or social housing developments on Hastings Street and on 18th Avenue. McGowan, on his Metrotown Residents’ Association blog, counters that at least some of the new non-market housing will simply replace other social housing that is being demolished.

A developer-funded community social centre in a new Metrotown tower. The low-rise building in the background is slated for demolition.

A developer-funded community social centre in a new Metrotown tower. The low-rise building in the background is slated for demolition.

North Surrey’s LRT landscape

The proposed light rail transit network in Surrey, British Columbia showing potential station locations (City of Surrey website, January 2016)

The proposed light rail transit network in Surrey, British Columbia showing potential station locations (City of Surrey website, January 2016)

In a November 2015 post we described a possible route for the Arbutus transit extension in the City of Vancouver. This line would feature both high residential density and major employment nodes along much of its length.

Surrey’s light rail transit proposal, by contrast, traverses long stretches where current density is very low. As an example, this post shows something of the current state of the Guildford leg of the proposed Newton-to-Guildford “L” line. Fraseropolis associate Robert J. Smarz and the editor visited hypothetical station locations along 104 Avenue from Surrey Central to Guildford on a recent Saturday morning.

Waiting for redevelopment: '70s-era retail next to Surrey Central station

Waiting for redevelopment: ’70s-era retail next to Surrey Central station

Our tour suggests that for at least the first decade, the function of the trains on 104 would be to carry passengers from the Guildford Town Centre, which combines mall development with medium-density, to jobs at Surrey Central, or to Skytrain; and also to bring riders the other way, and support retail and commercial job growth around Guildford Town Centre. Much of the land between the two centres is undeveloped.

At the end of our walk, we had essentially travelled from mall to mall — from the Surrey Central mall, large but in need of refurbishment, to the Guildford shopping complex, larger (#13 in Canada) and slightly more sparkly.

Skytrain at Kwantlen

At Surrey Central station, January 2016: an elevated train passes in front of a future Kwantlen Polytechnic University site.

Vacant space in a struggling commercial building at 140 Street Station

Vacant space in a struggling commercial building at 140 Street Station

As a photographic outing, this one is difficult. Some nearby residential streets are not bad, but visual interest on 104 Avenue is sparse. From Surrey Central to 140 Street, 104 Avenue is dominated by strip malls and automotive joints. The phantom 140 Street Station lies in a power line corridor, with only one of the four corners of the intersection currently developed.

Looking diagonally across the 140 Street intersection towards Surrey Central. The current land use where we are standing appears to be a Southeast Asian child care facility housed in a trailer.

Looking diagonally across the 140 Street intersection towards Surrey Central. The current land use where we are standing appears to be a Southeast Asian child care facility housed in a trailer.

The empty 104 Avenue Centre, Surrey, seen from 103A Avenue

The empty 104 Avenue Centre, Surrey, seen from 103A Avenue

Between 140 and 144 avenues we find an imposing four-storey office complex covering an entire city block. This development is reported to have sat empty since its completion 18 (!) years ago,  except for the presence of a security guard or two.

At 144 Street, the station site is more appealing at first glance than the 140 Avenue site. The Surrey Board of Trade occupies an office building near the northeast corner, beyond a gas station. The northwest corner has acquired a functioning shopping centre, commercial building and apartment building.

104 Avenue near 144 Street, looking west.

104 Avenue near 144 Street, looking west.

But here’s the thing: Most of the land north and west of the buildings pictured above is park or ravine, as far north as 108 Avenue. To the south, we have a four-block-deep zone of single family dwellings hemmed in by a very large (70 square blocks) area of park and ravine. In other words, much of what should be the pedestrian catchment area for the 140, 144 and 148 Avenue stations is green space. Aggressive development along 104 Avenue would eventually offset this, but the resolution of this customer shortage seems a long way off.

104 Avenue at 148 Street looking east

104 Avenue at 148 Street looking east

104 Avenue between 144 and 148 streets presents us with car sales lots on the south side and vacant or vacant-ish land to the north. A large supermarket sits 200 metres west of the 148 Street Station site, and there is housing to the east of 148 as shown here, including a couple of towers.

Beyond 149 Street we enter an urban landscape, with storefront commercial facing low-rise apartments, but this ambience vanishes quickly as we cross 150 Street and gaze over the seven-plus city blocks of parking that surround the Guildford Town Centre malls. The proposed terminus of the “L” line sits at the end of this well-paved prospect.

LRT terminus: 104 Avenue at 152 Street looking west. It seems likely that the LRT turnabout would sit on our right.

LRT terminus: 104 Avenue at 152 Street looking west. It seems likely that the LRT turnabout would sit on our right.

Our January 13, 2016 post on the City of Surrey’s LRT strategy brought two well-informed responses from opponents of light rail transit. Correspondent Brendan Dawe rejected my suggestion that LRT would help to build a walkable village-style environment around transit stations.

If [the train] is going at something approaching rapid transit speeds, then it’s outright pedestrian unfriendly – it’s a fast train going down the middle of a street. If it’s to be operated with the sort of priority over the street that makes practical use of the capabilities of rail transit, than it will require reduction in potential pedestrian connectivity by limiting cross walks and signal pre-emption.

This is a valid point, especially since the pedestrian experience on 104 Avenue (for example) is already uninviting, with high volumes of vehicle traffic and noise. The comment suggests at least three points for the City of Surrey and the regional transportation authority to consider:

  • LRT is not as cozy a mode as the streetcar, and should not be sold as such.
  • Surrey and TransLink will need to work hard to assess neighbourhood priorities and integrate them into LRT design. In the Sunnyside section of Calgary’s C-train system, trains co-exist with pedestrians and with established and new housing, as shown in videos posted by Chris Vasquez and by Kigo Transit. It needs to be mentioned that Calgary has made extensive use of elevated trackway and green space to reduce the frequency of at-grade crossings.
  • Surrey and TransLink are facing an articulate and committed segment of opinion that is opposed to LRT. The “Skytrain for Surrey” proposes to extend the existing elevated train system approximately 17 kilometres from King George Station southeast to downtown Langley, and introduce rapid bus along  both 104 Street and King George Boulevard. If LRT is to win out, the authorities need to identify and engage motivated allies at the community level, starting about now.

 

 

 

Light rail for Surrey: “Eyes on the street”

The pedestrian arcade under the Skytrain line at Surrey Central station, 2011

The pedestrian arcade under the Skytrain line at Surrey Central station, 2011

The City of Surrey posted its animated vision for light rail transit in 2011, and set up a rapid transit office in the same year. A detailed route plan is finally on the way, we are told, but there is no clarity on who will pay for construction.

Surrey is British Columbia’s second largest municipality by population, and ranks twelfth in Canada as of this post. Under former mayor Dianne Watts, city government invested heavily in the Surrey Central precinct to create a focus for advanced education, culture and technology. Surrey wants to compete with  Vancouver in terms of national profile, employment quality and career opportunity. Rapid transit is part of that story. The hub of the proposed LRT system is to be located at Surrey Central, with connections to the Skytrain line that feeds into Burnaby and Vancouver.

Shown in broad strokes in the regional mayors' 2014 transit proposal, the proposed new Surrey LRT lines run from Guildford (east-west), Newton) (south to North) and downtown Langley (diagonal), converging at Surrey Central

Shown in broad strokes in the regional mayors’ 2014 transit proposal, the proposed new Surrey LRT lines run from Newton to Guildford in an L (south to north and then east), and from  downtown Langley to central Surrey.

The C-train on Seventh Avenue in downtown Calgary (Rail for the Valley)

The C-train on Seventh Avenue in downtown Calgary (Rail for the Valley)

This would be the first light rail transit system in B.C., although LRT has been operating in Calgary, Edmonton and Ottawa for many years and has proven to be popular. A 2015 consultant’s report for the City of Surrey highlights the economic benefits from construction, but also claims a number of long-term benefits from system operation. LRT, the report says, will provide a pedestrian-friendly, human scale and urban-style neighborhood design form of transport that offers both eyes on-the-street and from-the-street visibility, is compatible with lower density portions of the lines, and adds lighting and other amenities that enhance community ambiance, comfort and quality.”

Surrey business groups and some community groups have created a pro-LRT coalition called Light Rail Links. However, there is pushback from those who favour Skytrain technology. Their arguments, which dominate many of the chat threads on news sites, are summed up on the Skytrain for Surrey site. This appears to be the work of a lone contributor named Daryl dela Cruz, but its search engine presence is strong.

For the Skytrain partisans, LRT is too slow, it doesn’t move enough people, and it may conflict with vehicle traffic. As a confirmation of the last point, Calgary saw four vehicle/LRT collisions in December 2015, one of them fatal. The three surviving motorists were all charged with trying to race the train. The safety of LRT is, therefore, up for debate. I would point out, however, that mayhem and death is common on our roads even where there is no LRT in sight. The three top crash locations in Surrey produced  more than 500 collisions in 2013.

Skytrain, Lougheed Highway, Burnaby

Skytrain near the Brentwood mall, Burnaby

The fact is that Skytrain and LRT are different creatures and have different functions. Skytrain is the rapid transit equivalent of a freeway. It moves large numbers of people over long distances. It’s expensive to build, its elevated guideway is ugly, it seems to propagate tower development rather than village development,  and even then the towers are often deficient in commercial services. The intention in Surrey, judging from the consultant’s report, is to use LRT to build neighbourhoods rather than flying over them, and also to build a more densified local economy rather than shipping people to other jurisdictions.

Funding for Surrey LRT is a muddle partly because the Metro Vancouver transportation authority’s funding plans were based on a tax increase that was voted down in 2015. Surrey City Hall deserves credit for carrying the cost of LRT project development, but it cannot proceed to construction without regional dollars. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised federal cash for Surrey in the 2015 election campaign, and the BC Liberal government says it will “aggressively lobby” Ottawa to make good on this promise. However, a federal contribution — through a “P3 Canada Fund” set up by the former Conservative government — was always part of the LRT calculation. The key question, in my view, is whether the provincial government will play a constructive part in putting together a regional funding package.

The City of Surrey’s LRT website says the public is to be consulted in 2016 on “community integration, which will look at elements like access to stations, roadway changes to accommodate the new line and components of station design and construction management.” A June staff report to Surrey City Council said consultation work was to be completed in time to meet a March 2016 submission deadline for the P3 Canada Fund, with the submission to include “additional engineering design, geotechnical work and  preparation for environmental assessment.” However, there is no sign that any consultation events are planned. Perhaps community engagement has been deferred to the next planning round.

 

A Fraseropolis report for 2015

Ambleside, District of West Vancouver

Ambleside, District of West Vancouver

The purpose of Fraseropolis.com is to describe livable, walkable communities in Metro Vancouver and the Fraser Valley, and provide status reports and information links related to public services in the region.

The site has operated since 2011, and had a modest record year in 2015, with just over 18,000 page views and 10,000 unique visitors. July 9, 2015 was a record day, with 338 views, mostly related to a post on possible outcomes from Metro Vancouver’s transit referendum. Continue reading

Does British Columbia need elected school boards?

Hastings School, Penticton and Franklin streets

Hastings School, Vancouver

Last year, property owners in British Columbia paid close to $1.9 billion to support  elementary and secondary schools through property taxes. It works out to thousands of dollars per homeowner over time, but if you’re childless like me, you may never have asked where the money goes. I ignore the school board ballot at local election time because I don’t know the people or the issues.

In December 2015, the Government of Quebec introduced legislation to eliminate elections for local school trustees. Only five per cent of the electorate filled in their school board ballots in the most recent election. The government plans to operate the school system through local administrators, with input from voluntary local advisory committees made up of parents, school employees and community members, up to a maximum of 16 people per committee. Over time, it will look for ways to share services across school districts. Continue reading

Walking in circles at Lougheed Town Centre

The Lougheed Town Centre mall with 1970s apartment towers

The Lougheed Town Centre mall with 1970s apartment towers

Who would choose a mall parking lot as a place to take a walk?

By the common definition, Lougheed Town Centre is a second-tier mall at the eastern edge of the city of Burnaby, with a Walmart and a London Drugs. Alternatively, it’s a nearby rapid transit station and a different set of parking lots. Continue reading

Follow-up on a fatal crash and a homeless camp

1-DSC_2442On May 18 of this year we published a letter to Doug Bing, a member of the British Columbia Legislature, about a fatal crash on a provincial highway near our home in suburban Maple Ridge. The layout of the highway intersection where the crash took place had been unsafe for years.

In recent weeks, technicians have installed a low-tech improvement at the problem corner. This modest screen, pictured above, deters southbound drivers from making the last-minute lane switch that was putting all directions at risk. If the pylons get mowed down, they can be re-installed. Thanks to Mr. Bing for taking in interest in this issue. Continue reading