Port Moody City Council is curbing its appetite for urban growth after the introduction last year of a bold plan to prepare for the opening of rapid transit.
This matters because Port Moody has taken an innovative approach to substance and process during its current planning cycle, and the choices made in this Metro Vancouver city will affect choices that are made elsewhere in British Columbia.
The early 2013 version of the draft Official Community Plan predicted that Port Moody’s population would grow from 36,000 to 60,000 by 2041. In response, it proposed residential densification around the future Moody Station, with towers of up to 20 storeys, plus waterfront towers, plus continued tower development further east, plus four-to-six-storey densification west of the Barnet Highway.
BC Stats reports that Port Moody’s population grew by 15 per cent from 2007 to 2011. The Evergreen rapid transit line is scheduled to open in 2016.
After a round of community engagement, the City issued a revised document in November 2013. This version reduced the proposed limit on Moody Station area towers to 12 storeys and added other sweeteners.
However, as Vancouver journalist Frances Bula reported, there was continued pushback against the plan. She highlighted the formation of a “Citizens Coalition” whose Facebook page claimed that all of Port Moody might be sacrificed to towers. Organizer Reiner Specht focused on the need to preserve “small-town feel, charm and ambience.” As of the date of the post you are reading, the Citizens Coalition site was dormant, having attracted 28 likes in six weeks.
The transcript of a City-sponsored November 27 town hall meeting suggests considerable public support for the revised plan. Community media reported that opinion at the meeting was split. Either way, the opposition was clearly strong enough to move the dial. At a January 7 meeting, Council reduced its 2041 population projection to 50,000, and cancelled a long-standing plan to allow tower development on the old Barnet Hotel property. Councillor Rick Glumac was quoted as supporting the notion that Port Moody must preserve its “small-town feel.” Further study of the draft plan is scheduled, with another public hearing pending, possibly in March.
Since the late 1990s, Port Moody has undertaken some of the most ambitious mixed-use tower development in Metro Vancouver, in the Newport and Suter Brook precincts. North of the Burrard Inlet, a third of the urban area is contiguous with the middle-to-upper automobile-dependent crescents of Coquitlam’s Westwood neighbourhoods. South of the inlet, another third of the Port Moody urban area blends into miles of 1960s and ’70s housings tracts in Coquitlam and Burnaby.
Geographically, ground zero for “small town feel” in Port Moody is the old downtown, a roughly 12-square-block area bisected by what is essentially a provincial highway connecting the North Fraser with Burnaby and Vancouver. This downtown displays admirable remnants of seaport village character. The best properties should be preserved as part of a living museum and sub-regional tourist attraction, adding colour to a couple of streets of neighbourhood services that also include more recent infill. But guess what? The draft community plan proposes elaborate measures to protect, enhance and take advantage of the heritage values in the old downtown.
During my walkaround, I spoke with a merchant in a downtown shop. A resident of Port Moody, she said most of her neighbours support the draft city plan. She suggested the plan would greatly increase the local customer base through new residential development immediately east and west, and improve the pedestrian ambience by making Spring Street (mostly a back lane at present) into a pedestrian thoroughfare. She said downtown Port Moody will never achieve a village feel in the current configuration, given the volume and speed of traffic on St. Johns Street.
Elsewhere in the plan, there are difficult choices related to Port Moody’s waterfront. The Inlet park and trail system is a marvelous asset to the community and the region. The November draft sees the trail being extended through the Mill and Timber industrial property as part of a massive, mixed-use (although heavily residential) redevelopment. Some citizens are pressing the City to trade off commercial and property tax value in favour of low density and green space.
There is room for concern here around the outright loss of waterfront industrial capacity. In fact, the draft plan offers only tepid support for industrial activity anywhere in Port Moody (pages 54-55). The City will give “careful consideration” to proposals to convert industrial land. This may become a trouble spot when the City plan goes to the Metro Vancouver regional authority for review, given that the regional land use plan sets a high priority on protecting industrial land use.
Port Moody Council deserves credit for listening and working carefully with residents to win broad acceptance for the eventual community plan. All I can venture as an observer is that some opposition to the plan seems extreme. The term “small-town feel” can refer to geography; it can also refer to a state where everybody knows everybody, and outsiders are kept out. Port Moody is not this kind of place, and it never will be.
As the population projections and tower heights shrink, the plan document grows longer and more elaborate. One prominent critic has argued that it should be further expanded to anticipate the emergency response requirements and other operating protocols that will be required after growth takes place. This is Alice in Wonderland thinking. An Official Community Plan is meant to set a direction for future councils to work with. Port Moody’s November draft is 261 pages long, and that is long enough.