Greater Vancouver’s Livable Region Strategic Plan, adopted in 1996, identified downtown Maple Ridge as one of eight town centres of regional significance. A year or two later Maple Ridge City Council agreed to finance an ambitious town centre development with an arts centre, office complex, recreation centre and park space, all aimed at bringing people and investment to the city’s core.
The planning and execution of the project split the community and created long-term political instability. In five of the six local elections since that financing decision, the incumbent mayor has been kicked to the curb. Downtown Maple Ridge has improved; but it remains a focus for civic conflict more than civic pride. In the single election where a mayor was re-elected, his opponent staged a concerted attack on central area investment, including an “unnecessary” sewer line replacement, and collected 40 per cent of the vote.
I toured the area on a recent Saturday morning with co-tourist Bob Smarz. I’m frequently downtown, but this was my first Fraseropolis assessment of the commercial zone and nearby housing since 2012.
On the positive side, Maple Ridge is in better shape than other historic town centres in the Fraser Valley (Chilliwack, Abbotsford, Mission, Cloverdale). There has been ongoing low-rise condo and seniors housing development around the downtown perimeter. Most of the services needed to anchor a high-functioning urban village are in place, especially with regard to diverse and competitive food markets, good restaurants, and health and beauty services. The Saturday farmers’ market is very good, and is perhaps one of the few features that brings people to Maple Ridge from outside.
Less positively, there are still extensive vacant lands in the commercial core and south of Lougheed Highway. Key commercial spaces have changed hands since 2012, but there has been very limited construction — in a decade when six of the other seven Metro Vancouver regional town centres have been transformed.
The slow pace of development is often blamed on vagrancy and crime. There are two homeless shelters in the southwest corner of the downtown core, and their customers spend most of their time on the street. Sex trade workers ply their trade two blocks from the central square. The rate of property crimes is high, by rumour at least, and this is reported to have spurred a large chain retailer to leave the area recently for a highway location.
Just as critical for me, and for Mr. Smarz as we toured the area, is the lack of a pedestrian magnet in a commercial zone that sprawls over more than 20 city blocks. This can be blamed partly on the absence of a rapid transit line, which might tend to collect retail and high-density residential development around a central station.
In the absence of transit or a pedestrian focus, local councils have permitted the construction of car-oriented shopping centres as a way of keeping business in the city centre. The result is a patchwork of malls where customers who arrive by car are subject to ticketing if they walk off the property. The managers of Haney Plaza, shown above, have aggressively ticketed their own customers even though their parking lot is often three-quarters empty. Perhaps as a result, most small shopfronts on the opposite side of Dewdney Trunk Road are vacant.
The city government’s downtown tax incentive program has enabled cosmetic improvement in the downtown since it was launched in 2010. The website of the Business Improvement Association — another fairly recent innovation, meant to shape up the core — presents dozens of photos of new awnings, doors and windows on downtown properties.
In terms of new construction, I count two all-commercial structures added in the past five years — a pocket casino and, very recently, a mixed food market/office building. There’s a new Walmart, but it moved into the old Target, which had moved into the old Zeller’s. The new Thrifty’s Foods replaced a flea market which replaced a Safeway’s. The new film studio — a quasi-industrial use, really — moved into the old bingo hall, which spawned the new casino — smallish, but a sure money-maker for the City.
For what it offers, the downtown core is highly dispersed, to the point where it is probably not walkable for some older residents in the perimeter. The diagonal distance from the Trattoria corner to London Drugs is 1.5 kilometres, taking the would-be shopper past the vacant shops on Dewdney Trunk and through perhaps 500 metres of vacant properties and parking lots. And for whatever reason, the core is continuing to push outwards. The new Meridian Meats market is actually in the automotive precinct, surrounded by auto glass and auto repair shops.
The City recognized the need to bring new residents into the core as long ago as 2000, but prehaps four new mid-rise residential buildings have been added to the dispersed business district since that time, and the most recent tower construction dates from the 1980s.
Fraseropolis.com supports the development of walkable urban villages. We evaluate neighbourhoods across southwestern B.C. from the perspective of the hypothetical resident who wants housing choice and the maximum range of nearby services combined with minimum automobile use. Ideally, this type of development brings diversified opportunities for locally owned businesses, stable rental situations, more customers for public transit and a reduced per capita environmental footprint. The current rapid rise in real estate values in reducing the affordability of all types of housing, but on balance it should increase the demand for smaller housing units that are close to services.