They’re spending money in Downtown Abbotsford

Montrose Avenue, Abbotsford Abbotsford is the largest city in the Fraser Valley Regional District.  It’s the product of a series of mergers, the latest being with the District of Matsqui in 1995.

The old Village of Abbotsford, like Cloverdale and Aldergrove, also described in this series, Montrose Avenue, Abbotsfordwas a stop on the vanished Interurban commuter rail line.  It’s been renamed Downtown Abbotsford, and the city government has taken steps to dress it up and attract customers…As described in a “Business and Industry Statistics” document that lived on the website when this piece was posted:

“Extensive efforts have been made to revitalize the downtown core, including tax exemptions, building improvement grants, downtown branding plans and a 20 year business improvement bylaw. Since 2003, over 50 businesses have located downtown and over two dozen investors have purchased property with a commitment to revitalization.”

A 2005 revitalization bylaw offers a property tax reduction to anyone who completes more than $100,000 in building improvements.  And the money is flowing, at least on a couple of streets, giving the area a fresher appearance than some of the other 1930s-vintage business areas in the region.

My co-tourist was Randy Rosner, who has lived up the hill in the Clayburn neighbourhoodHousing at the edge of the Downtown Abbotsford village for more than 25 years. We ate at the Duke of Dublin pub and enjoyed the food and the service, but Randy says he doesn’t come into Downtown much. Despite the beautification of some shopfronts, he thinks of it as “poverty city,” a zone for criminal activity, and he showed me some decaying housing. And like a lot of our old downtown areas, social agencies are a prominent part of the landscape. [Note: the Duke of Dublin closed in 2013.]

Historic plaque, downtown Abbotsford Downtown Abbotsford has some of the ingredients for a happening urban village.  The transit system is fair, with three or four routes running through the village and the university bus running as often as every 15 minutes.  A demographic profile published by the City states that 40 per cent of the dwellings in the Central Area — the village and the streets to the north — are apartments (although only four per cent of the people walk to work.). Local schoolchildren have published a walking tour guide with 31 historic stops.  A group of young hipsters has taken over the upstairs of an old hotel and blog about it as the Atangard Community Project.

But for this tourist, at this moment, the core commercial area seems to lack critical mass, and the streets ringing the core are uncomfortably busy and fast.  My hope for Downtown, as with so many of these places, is that the city government and the business association will work to connect businesses with the people who live nearby — literally, through design changes, and socially, by facilitating shared initiatives aimed at improvement.  Too often, the combination of village shops and medium-density housing is regarded as a kind of weird accident, and the synergies available to a walkable neighbourhood are overlooked.

[This is post #10 in our Urban Villages series. By the way, the “urban village” is treated on this site not as a commercial area, but as a walkable mixed-use area centred on a set of services.  Livability in an urban village is a function of housing availability for a diversity of folks, public transit, civic amenities and incentives to walk and cycle as well as a range of commercial services.]

Music store, downtown Abbotsford

2 responses

  1. I don’t really know Abbotsford, but it sounds like what’s happening there is very similar to what’s happening in Maple Ridge. What I’m often wondering about, is if it’s possible to transform a suburban downtown to an “urban village” by just concentrating on revitalizing the town core, while outside the town core it’s still “business as usual”: more and more car-dependent sprawl, with no amenities close by. Shopping remains mostly concentrated in the town core, where more space ends up being gobbled up by parking lots, or the only alternative seems to be big boxes outside the town core, which also encourages car-dependency. As you mentioned, even in downtown Abbotsford only 4% of people walk to work. I would have liked to see a follow up of the Smart Growth project in Maple Ridge. How successful has it really been? Is all that matters the increased density in the town core, and a little more curb-appeal?

    • Hi, Jackie. You’ve identified that there are a whole lot of moving parts involved in nurturing the urban village. If it’s conceived only as a kind of retail theme park, a competitor with the malls, then I think it’s unlikely to succeed from anyone’s perspective. From what I’ve seen, success in an urban village involves an interplay between the functioning core – made up of retail and public services with some residential mixed in – and the surrounding walkable area, which will include a mix of residential choices, green space, schools and often some neighbourhood commercial. I haven’t found a perfect example in this region, but even our imperfect villages make better habitat for seniors and transit-dependent workers than the wastelands do. And you’re right, it would be nice to make the wastelands less barren too, starting with more streetcorner commercial services and better pedestrian and cycling connections.

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