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.]
Chilliwack sufferw from the same root problem as the Township of Langley, one that will also plague Abbotsford even if that municipality even attempted to do things right.
I lived in Chilliwack from 2007-2010 and recognized a common problem.
Langley and a Chilliwack love to make plans as if a plan will suddenly spur the right kind of development. Yet what Chilliwack has done is essentially what Langley did with Aldergrove: they made a plan but then let developers focus efforts outside the plan.
It’s economics. Unless you are Vancouver where there is no such thing as cheap land, a developer will be drawn to the cheapest land possible to develop on. This is usually outside of the core of any downtown. So with Aldergrove, they allowed another retail strip mall outside of the core plan which means just more money that could have flowed to revitalizing the core went elsewhere – a vehicle- focused mall of the past doomed to rotating rentals.
Then look at Chilliwack… Walmart unnessarily deserts Chilliwack Mall for the new Eagle Landing- itself a driving-based mall that soaked up dollars that could have been forced into the downtown or even Sardis. But it was cheap land.
Obviously with Chilliwack, you have governance issues because of native lands, but the reasoning is the same. If a developer can pick up cheaper land and the government allows redevelopment of that land, your fancy utopian pedestrian based plans are utterly useless.
Yes, this has been the pattern in suburban Vancouver and the Fraser Valley. Even so, thousands of people enjoy an urban lifestyle in the suburbs thanks to walkable town centre plans, for example in the City of Langley, in PoCo, or even in less successful or less complete urban centres like Maple Ridge or Pitt Meadows. Not all the planners’ efforts have been wasted.