The laws protecting B.C.’s agricultural land have been controversial ever since they were enacted in the 1970s. Recently, the Agricultural Land Commission rejected a proposal by the District of Maple Ridge, a part of Metro Vancouver, to open more than 250 acres of the Agricultural Land Reserve for development, but the ALC has left the door open for a less ambitious plan. The ALC’s position, communicated by letter, was announced at the final Maple Ridge District Council meeting of the year on December 5.
The proposed construction of big box retail on the Albion Flats has been controversial in Maple Ridge. The “pro-shopping” side was the clear winner in the November 19 municipal election; all of the Council candidates elected had been endorsed by interest groups that supported retail development on the Flats. For the Fraseropolis region, it’s another example of a continuing suburban sentiment in favour of the hopscotch-style, automobile-dependent development that has dominated Port Coquitlam, Abbotsford and other municipalities in recent years.
Maple Ridge, with a current population of over 75,000, has been in a commercial development slump for at least a decade. Port Coquitlam, 15 minutes to the east, has built two big-box zones in that period, the first centred on Costco and Home Depot, and the newer “Fremont Village” nearby, featuring a giant Walmart. Pitt Meadows opened a 400,000-square-foot mall on the Maple Ridge borders in 2005-2006. The largest retail development in Maple Ridge in the past decade is a pocket-sized supermarket on the eastern urban fringe; the only all-new building in the central business district is a three-story office building that is perhaps thirty paces across the front. (There is also a new credit union building; the space is currently vacant.)
It might almost be argued that Maple Ridge has been in a commercial development slump forever, perhaps because it was historically difficult to reach, on its virtual island; perhaps because it was a mill town that evolved into a long-commute dormitory suburb. This doesn’t tell the whole story, though; there are well-paid public sector workers living and working in Maple Ridge, as well as affluent retirees and self-employed entrepreneurs.
Whatever the reasons, Maple Ridge has struggled to create local employment. The District Council took a leap in the mid to late 1990s with a $100 million investment in the civic centre, hoping to kick-start private investment. This initiative, which featured an unpopular public-private partnership and a court case that went againt the District, brought deep divisions in the community and lasting political instability. Maple Ridge voters ejected four incumbent mayors in a row after a single term. The current Mayor, Ernie Daykin, was re-elected on November 19, although by an uncomfortably small margin. He was the first mayor to buck the one-term-and-out rule since 1996.
Mr. Daykin’s first term was marked by another wave of municipal government interest in the central business area, including cosmetic street improvements and new incentives for developers. Council’s most dramatic action was the acquisition and clearing of a three-acre parcel of land almost adjacent to the civic centre; the dream here is to see a combined residential/commercial/retail zone established in place of the old derelict housing.
However, Mr. Daykin’s first Council also responded to growing pressure for new retail development outside the downtown core. Council developed a plan that would put industry, offices, recreation space, niche retail and big-box retail in the Albion Flats area along the Lougheed Highway, east of the city centre. The ALC has served notice that it will block development on the western third of the planning area — that is, everything west of 105 Avenue, exactly where the big box stores were supposed to go. Mr. Daykin has already indicated that a new plan will be drafted in 2012. A news release from the District promises that “Council and staff will make a detailed review of the ALC’s response, and reach out to land owners so that this matter can progress in the coming weeks.” [2016 note: the link to this news release has been removed from the city website.]
I expect to return to this issue before long, so I’ll offer only two comments for now.
First, in my view, Maple Ridge Council’s continued work on a complex land-use plan for Albion will reduce the chances for new development in the city’s central business area — which, by the way, is identified in the Metro Vancouver region’s plan as a town centre of regional significance.
Second, while there was a heavy pro-shopping vote in the November 19 election, I don’t see a consensus around what that means. Perhaps the most commonly-expressed wish is for a one-stop, Walmart-type store, but others have expressed hope for fashion stores, children’s clothing stores, or something called “Whistler-style development.” Council’s response in its last term was to produce an all-things-to-all-people plan on paper. The reality on the ground is likely to disappoint some voters.