Vicki and I are loyal to Chilliwack. We worked with the City on community planning projects in the 2000s and were impressed with Council’s vision and respect for citizen participation.
So on a recent Saturday visit with co-tourist Dominic Kotarski, I was saddened to see a downtown core on hold, with vacant lands, empty storefronts and few people on the streets.
The pedestrian liveability of Chilliwack’s downtown area, as measured by access to services, is not too bad; but part of this depends on proximity to vehicle-oriented malls that have sapped the vitality of historic village at the core.
Chilliwack lies in the central Fraser Valley, more detached and more self-sufficient than the interlocked suburban cities to the west. Its recent achievements include the recent construction of a new exhibition complex, a recreation centre and a professional-scale hockey arena and concert venue. But as in Abbotsford, Maple Ridge and Mission, the downtown village has lost retail customers to automobile-oriented plazas nearby and on the regional highways, and has acquired social service agencies and the visibly homeless. Chilliwack has looked for solutions through a Downtown Neighbourhoods Strategic Plan (2007), a Downtown Land Use Plan (2009), and, in response to social issues across the city, a Healthier Communities Strategic Action Plan (2014). There has been a concerted effort to house the homeless, and in the most recent regional homeless count, the number of Chilliwack homeless has declined.
The land use plan notes that as of 2006, 54 per cent of the population in the broad downtown area were renters. Half the renters and a quarter of homeowners were in “core housing need”, meaning they spent a high percentage of their income on housing. At the same time, there were concerns about the quality of the housing stock.
The plan suggests that revitalizing Chilliwack’s downtown will depend on improving the quality of housing for lower-income people as well as bringing more people, and more affluent people, into the area. Ideally, the downtown population would double to 20,000 between 2007 and about 2030.
Unfortunately, this overhaul and densification of the downtown is not yet on track, judging from a visual check, although BC Stats reported a jump in Chilliwack’s overall population from 2014 to 2015. It’s a problem we see region-wide, in the suburbs we mention above as well as other spots such as Cloverdale. The renewal plan is right in theory, but the new residents aren’t showing up, and the developers aren’t building. It is, arguably, a chicken-and-egg problem: “there is a need for diversified housing for different lifestyles and income groups, in particular for seniors, young families and low income renters.” Without suitable housing, people will look elsewhere.
Chilliwack’s City government took an ambitious step in 2012 with the demolition of the Paramount theatre, a local landmark, in preparation for the redevelopment of a key downtown block at the Five Corners. To date there has been no redevelopment. One of the few remaining shopowners told us that timing for new construction is unknown.
Dom and I parked at the high school and walked across the northeast quadrant of the downtown core. The trendy downtown café I used to frequent is gone, and the Five Corners pub where we ate appears to be struggling.
[This is post #29 in our Urban Villages series.]