Revisiting Downtown Maple Ridge

Donair reduced

Greater Vancouver’s Livable Region Strategic Plan, adopted in 1996, identified downtown Maple Ridge as one of eight town centres of regional significance. A year or two later Maple Ridge City Council agreed to finance an ambitious town centre development with an arts centre, office complex, recreation centre and park space, all aimed at bringing people and investment to the city’s core.

The planning and execution of the project split the community and created long-term political instability. In five of the six local elections since that financing decision, the incumbent mayor has been kicked to the curb. Downtown Maple Ridge has improved; but it remains a focus for civic conflict more than civic pride. In the single election where a mayor was re-elected, his opponent staged a concerted attack on central area investment, including an “unnecessary” sewer line replacement, and collected 40 per cent of the vote.

I toured the area on a recent Saturday morning with co-tourist Bob Smarz. I’m frequently downtown, but this was my first Fraseropolis assessment of the commercial zone and nearby housing since 2012.

Maple Ridge's central area as defined on the municipal website

Maple Ridge’s central area as defined on the municipal website

On the positive side, Maple Ridge is in better shape than other historic town centres in the Fraser Valley (Chilliwack, Abbotsford, Mission, Cloverdale). There has been ongoing low-rise condo and seniors housing development around the downtown perimeter.  Most of the services needed to anchor a high-functioning urban village are in place, especially with regard to diverse and competitive food markets, good restaurants, and health and beauty services. The Saturday farmers’ market is very good, and is perhaps one of the few features that brings people to Maple Ridge from outside.

Less positively, there are still extensive vacant lands in the commercial core and south of Lougheed Highway. Key commercial spaces have changed hands since 2012, but there has been very limited construction — in a decade when six of the other seven Metro Vancouver regional town centres have been transformed.

The slow pace of development is often blamed on vagrancy and crime. There are two homeless shelters in the southwest corner of the downtown core, and their customers spend most of their time on the street. Sex trade workers ply their trade two blocks from the central square. The rate of property crimes is high, by rumour at least, and this is reported to have spurred a large chain retailer to leave the area recently for a highway location.

Haney Plaza in the Maple Ridge commercial core. The anchor structure, built as a Safeway supermarket, has been a liquidation outlet for 20 years; a second large retail space to the west has been leased by a series of discount retailers, and is currently vacant.

Haney Plaza in the Maple Ridge commercial core. The anchor structure in the centre right, built as a Safeway supermarket, has been a liquidation outlet for 20 years; a second large retail space to the west has been leased by a series of discount retailers, and is currently vacant. This site is subject to a multi-tower residential and commercial development proposal that is now several years old.

Dewdney Trunk Road, south side

Dewdney Trunk Road, south side

Just as critical for me, and for Mr. Smarz as we toured the area, is the lack of a pedestrian magnet in a commercial zone that sprawls over more than 20 city blocks. This can be blamed partly on the absence of a rapid transit line, which might tend to collect retail and high-density residential development around a central station.

In the absence of transit or a pedestrian focus, local councils have permitted the construction of car-oriented shopping centres as a way of keeping business in the city centre. The result is a patchwork of malls where customers who arrive by car are subject to ticketing if they walk off the property. The managers of Haney Plaza, shown above, have aggressively ticketed their own customers even though their parking lot is often three-quarters empty. Perhaps as a result, most small shopfronts on the opposite side of Dewdney Trunk Road are vacant.

The city government’s downtown tax incentive program has enabled cosmetic improvement in the downtown since it was launched in 2010. The website of the Business Improvement Association — another fairly recent innovation, meant to shape up the core — presents dozens of photos of new awnings, doors and windows on downtown properties.

In terms of new construction, I count two all-commercial structures added in the past five years — a pocket casino and, very recently, a mixed food market/office building. There’s a new Walmart, but it moved into the old Target, which had moved into the old Zeller’s. The new Thrifty’s Foods replaced a flea market which replaced a Safeway’s. The new film studio — a quasi-industrial use, really — moved into the old bingo hall, which spawned the new casino — smallish, but a sure money-maker for the City.

A recently-constructed plaza, 227 at Dewdney - edge-of-town development in the core

A recently-constructed plaza, 227 at Dewdney —         edge-of-town development in the core

For what it offers, the downtown core is highly dispersed, to the point where it is probably not walkable for some older residents in the perimeter. The diagonal distance from the Trattoria corner to London Drugs is 1.5 kilometres, taking the would-be shopper past the vacant shops on Dewdney Trunk and through perhaps 500 metres of vacant properties and parking lots. And for whatever reason, the core is continuing to push outwards. The new Meridian Meats market is actually in the automotive precinct, surrounded by auto glass and auto repair shops.

The City recognized the need to bring new residents into the core as long ago as 2000, but prehaps four new mid-rise residential buildings have been added to the dispersed business district since that time, and the most recent tower construction dates from the 1980s.

Fraseropolis.com supports the development of walkable urban villages. We evaluate neighbourhoods across southwestern B.C. from the perspective of the hypothetical resident who wants housing choice and the maximum range of nearby services combined with minimum automobile use. Ideally, this type of development brings diversified opportunities for locally owned businesses, stable rental situations, more customers for public transit and a reduced per capita environmental footprint. The current rapid rise in real estate values in reducing the affordability of all types of housing, but on balance it should increase the demand for smaller housing units that are close to services.

Tower development proposal, northeast of City Hall

Tower development proposal, northeast of City Hall; construction date TBD.

Baptist Church seniors housing tower, 1980s

Baptist Church seniors housing tower, 1980s

The Maple Ridge Arts Centre and Theatre (2003) seen from the central park

Maple Ridge Arts Centre and Theatre (2003) seen from the central park

 

 

The working poor in Metro Vancouver

Walmart

The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, a left-leaning research centre, has published a report on the incidence of poverty among working people in Metro Vancouver.

The 35-page study by CCPA economist Iglika Ivanovna has major flaws as an advocacy piece, but it delivers the useful reminder that “having a job is not a guaranteed path out of poverty.”

“Metro Vancouver’s booming economy relies on a large group of low-paid workers to provide security, catering, cleaning, administration and other services,” says the report. Those earning minimum wage, even full-time, are left well below Statistics Canada’s Low Income Measure. Figures from 2012 shows that every municipality in the Vancouver region accommodates a significant population of low-income workers.

2012 Low Income Measures StatsCanIn the Metro Vancouver region, Richmond had the highest incidence of working poverty in 2012, followed closely by Vancouver, Burnaby and Surrey. Federal estimates indicate a spread of poverty into other areas between 2006 and 2012, with rates rising rapidly in super-affluent West Vancouver and the District of North Vancouver as well as Coquitlam.

In total, the federal cut-off puts more than 100,000 Vancouver-area working people in the low-income category. These are not students, or adults living with parents; they are independent adults trying to make a living, with or without partners. An estimated 42 per cent had dependent children in 2012. The various levels of government have created subsidies and programs for people at the low end, but access is uneven and the value of many programs sags as living costs rise.

Unfortunately, the CCPA report has serious gaps. What we learn about the poor, ultimately, is that they don’t have enough money. The reader is left to imagine the consequences for individuals — the struggle to find housing, the lack of access to education and training, the kids who lag behind their peer groups, the health impacts — as well as the costs to society.

And in fact, the author makes no effort to argue that Ottawa’s Low Income Measure is really a measure of deprivation. Friends of CCPA will take it on faith that a family living on less than x,000 dollars is at serious risk,  but other audiences may be more skeptical.

Distribution of the working poor in Vancouver and the inner suburbs, 2012. In most neighbourhoods the proportion of low-income earners in the working population is between 5 and 10 per cent; the heavier shading indicates 10 to 15 per cent.

Distribution of the working poor in Vancouver and the inner suburbs, 2012. In most neighbourhoods the proportion of low-income earners in the working population is between 5 and 10 per cent; the heavier shading indicates 10 to 15 per cent.

“Working Poverty in Metro Vancouver” offers a list of recommendations for the reduction or elimination of poverty. Many are aimed at the provincial government, including calls for a higher minimum wage, investment in social housing, the enforcement of employment standards and a $10-per-day child care program.

Payday loanThe urban development directions that are proposed on Fraseropolis.com would also support low-income workers, for example:

  • Build the frequency and reach of public transit to give low-income people more employment choices;
  • Implement federal and provincial tax changes to drive the construction of rental housing; and,
  • Design suburban cities around urban villages to give working adults, kids and seniors have walkable access to recreation, personal services and shopping.

 

The amalgamation of cities

"Implementing reclaimed material along the banks of the woonasquatucket river." Lifted from daftdetroit.wordpress.com

“Implementing reclaimed material along the banks of the woonasquatucket river.” Lifted from daftdetroit.wordpress.com

Some of the most critical problems in B.C. urban life can be linked to our multi-municipality system of regional government. The lack of a sustainable funding formula for public transit in Metro Vancouver, for example, can be blamed in part on years of dithering by mayors. Our local housing and homelessness policies are a mish-mash, with some municipalities clearly offloading social problems onto others.

In Ontario, a “common sense” provincial government took the drastic step of eliminating many mayors and councils in the late 1990s. The most populous region, Toronto, imploded from six cities into a single mega-city. In Ottawa, 11 municipalities merged into one. Across Ontario, 229 municipalities, or more than a quarter of the total, were wiped from the map to achieve cost savings and more efficient decision-making. Continue reading

Touring B.C.’s Southern Interior

 

Hedley

Hedley

A recent four-day trip through the South Okanagan, Central Kootenays and the Shuswap Valley reminded me of the benefits of slowing down. I would have liked to really get to know these landscapes and villages — what you see here are only glimpses. Thanks to co-tourist Dominic Kotarski for bringing his global perspective, and to the excellent Hume Hotel for a welcome in Nelson.

Many of these towns — Princeton, Hedley, Midway, Greenwood, Kaslo, New Denver — were at their peak in 1900 or before that, riding a boom in silver. Our guide at the volunteer-run historical centre at Sandon said the now-abandoned town was “the Fort McMurray of its age,” the place where young men came to make their fortune. Continue reading

Passionate about Esquimalt

Esquimalt House 1

Fernhill Road, Esquimalt. Garry oak, a tree peculiar to southern Vancouver Island, grows all around this house. The garage-under-the-dining-room feature was popular on the West Coast from the 1910s into the 1940s, but many of these spaces are now used for storage.

Voters in Greater Victoria, population 345,000, are looking at the possible amalgamation of their 13 municipal governments into a smaller number. Possible, but not likely, since so many urban British Columbians are passionate about the randomly-sized cities and towns where they live. Rather than amalgamation, a slight increase in the number of “shared services” — a joint parks department here, a joint library there — is a safer bet.

Esqumalt condos

New apartments, Carlisle Avenue, Esquimalt

Esquimalt is one of the odd-shaped municipal bits that makes up Greater Victoria. Its Pacific shoreline is home to a naval base that employs 6,000 people. Otherwise, the city has waterfront parks, a modest urban village and an on-street bike lane connecting to the offices and retail stores in Victoria’s downtown. Continue reading

Gun battles and crime stats in Greater Vancouver

Premier Clark, centre, with B.C. Public Safety Minister Mike Morris and Surrey police

Premier Clark, centre, with B.C. Public Safety Minister Mike Morris and Surrey police

On April 15, 2016, Premier Christy Clark of British Columbia announced a $23 million dollar boost to its “Guns and Gangs” strategy in response to the “frequency and public nature of recent gang shootings.”

The money is to go wherever it’s needed, but the first-named community in the government announcement and the TV reports was Surrey. Periodic violence in Surrey has overshadowed other news from B.C.’s second-largest city at least since the 2014 local election campaign. On April 18, CTV News published an interactive map showing the locations of 33 shootings that had taken place in Surrey since New Year’s Day. Continue reading

Newton was not always so big

72nd Avenue near the site of the historic Newton farm

72 Avenue near the site of the historic Newton farm (established 1886, now vanished)

As it turns out, there’s an urban village at the Newton Town Centre in Surrey, British Columbia. Finding it requires selective vision, looking past monster roadways, big box stores and industrial yards; but in its lopsided way, the village offers housing choices, commercial services, transit, and walking trails, straddling the former main highway between Vancouver and the USA.

Areas of Surrey, from the official community plan section of the City website

Areas of Surrey, from the official community plan section of the City website

Newton is one of seven planning areas in the vast city of Surrey. The municipality covers 316 square kilometres, an area as big as Vancouver, Burnaby and Richmond combined — or four times the size of the island of Manhattan, if that’s clearer. Google Maps estimates that it might take you three hours time to cross Newton diagonally on foot. It’s too big to be a neighbourhood — a borough, perhaps — but there are broad demographic tendencies. Surrey’s fact sheet on languages reports that Punjabi is the most common mother tongue in Newton, ahead of English; in the Cloverdale area to the east, the English-to-Punjabi ratio is 10 to 1. Continue reading