The high street in White Rock: hold for development

Johnson Road, White Rock

White Rock, a part of Metro Vancouver, is a small city on the U.S. border with a dry, warm climate (relative to areas north of the Fraser River ) and a splendid promenade and cafe district along Boundary Bay. People in fashionable new neighbourhoods in nearby Surrey sometimes claim to live in White Rock, but there’s at least one key difference. 2011 federal census figures show that close to 30 per cent of White Rock’s population is over the age of 65, compared with 12.1 per cent in Surrey and 13.7 per cent in the City of Vancouver.

Holding for development in the Johnston Road commercial zone

Holding for development in the Johnston Road commercial zone

I went searching for White Rock’s urban village recently with our friend Robert Smarz, an accountant who lived in a White Rock apartment tower some years ago. We were surprised by the uneven character of the high street, known as Johnston Road, with thrift stores and dollar stores in decaying premises scattered among the fine restaurants and professional offices, suggesting a local population of seniors who struggle on fixed incomes. These low-end properties, said Bob, are being held for future development. There were beauty shops, a performing arts theatre and a butcher, but to find lunch and a beer we had to cross the invisible line into South Surrey, where we ate at Sawbuck’s pub.

Johnston Road

Johnston Road

Returning south via George Street, we became more aware of the focus on goods and services for seniors — including motorized wheelchairs, stand-up bathtubs, and financial advice. (I might also note the presence of several currency exchange offices, suggesting a concentration of immigrants.)  There’s plenty of housing choice within walking distance of  the commercial area, and a successful new mixed-use zone combining businesses and residences along Pacific Avenue.

The City’s Official Community Plan, dated 2008, makes no direct mention of seniors, but it puts the  urban village at the heart of the White Rock community, “appreciated by residents and visitors for its range of shops, services and great public spaces. Residential neighbourhoods, some of which continue to redevelop, are safe and walkable. They contain a diversity of housing suitable for people of all ages, lifestyles and incomes…”

Robert Smarz, Esq

Robert Smarz, Esq

Bob pointed out that the coffee shops in the village all appear to be home-grown, with nary a Starbucks, suggesting a municipal commitment to local independent business.  However, there has been controversy and even drama around recent development  decisions in White Rock.  Some residents insist that the trend to tower-style development will destroy the character and livability of this beachfront town that caters to retirees.

C. 1975 apartment tower with shops, George Street

C. 1975 apartment tower with shops, George Street

I would point out that tower construction is not new to White Rock; and there are thriving urban villages elsewhere in the region that combine towers, mid-rise and ground-oriented development, such as Vancouver’s West End.  My own concern would be around rental availability, and whether seniors on fixed incomes will be able to afford the White Rock of the year 2025; this is a concern that I’ve expressed elsewhere on this site, and it applies to all the cities, villages and suburbs in Fraseropolis.

[This is post #15 in our Urban Villages series.]

High-density mixed-use development,  Johnston Road at Thrift

High-density mixed-use development, Johnston Road at Thrift

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