Imagining downtown Maple Ridge as a social services precinct

Services available for low-income people, seniors and families in trouble in downtown Maple Ridge, summer 2019. This may not be the complete list. (Graphic by Farnsworth Designs.)

Like some other sprawling urban jurisdictions in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland, Maple Ridge (population 80,000) has a downtown core built around an old rural crossroads. The construction of the Lougheed Highway through farmland in 1929 generated a commercial cluster at the intersection of 224 Street. The original Fuller Watson furniture store is still in business at this corner, and other 1929-era structures nearby are  home to newer retail businesses such as the gelato store and a micro-brewery.

There is money in Maple Ridge. The 2016 Canada census indicates the median income is relatively high — well above those in the City of Vancouver, Burnaby, Surrey, Coquitlam or Richmond. Managers and professionals commute from Maple Ridge to downtown Vancouver, the International Airport or the North Shore, online entrepreneurs and investors generate millions from their hillside estates, and double-income couples work in public-sector positions as university teachers, school teachers, nurses, bus drivers, municipal officials, police officers and prison guards. The money from these government jobs is not always spectacular, but it is steady and it comes with generous pensions.

Of course, there are lower-income people too. Many have settled in apartment complexes north or east of City Hall, where the can walk to buy groceries or to catch a bus. Some once worked in the lumber mills and factories that have disappeared over time; others have emerged a Maple Ridge jail without skills or aptitudes; the largest number, doubtless, work at a low wage in the hair salons, dollar stores and for-cash contracting businesses that form a big part of the local private-sector economy.

In a dynamic that has rolled out over many years, Maple Ridge has also spawned or attracted a prominent homeless population. For the B.C. news media, homelessness is a big part of the Maple Ridge brand; and for many local political candidates, homelessness became almost the sole issue in the 2018 municipal election campaign.

Other cities in the region — Abbotsford, Chilliwack, Surrey and New Westminster, for starters — also struggle with homelessness and related problems such as public drug use and property crime. However, it may be that the homeless are more visible in Maple Ridge than anywhere else, partly because the city’s founding families (think 1929) still own much of the inner-city land and have left it vacant.

The Port Haney homeless camp, Maple Ridge, on March 3, 2019, just after the City of Maple Ridge ordered residents to evacuate. In the next few days, 400 cubic metres of refuse were removed from an area the size of a standard residential lot. The City eventually allowed registered residents to return to the camp, under heavy security, but refused to admit any new campers. As as of summer 2019, the population had dwindled to something like 8  residents, down from a peak of 60 or more. The homeless, however, are still visible on the street, and appear to be scattered to gullies and the Fraser River shore.

Scored on the Fraseropolis urban villages index, devised for middle-class city dwellers such as myself, downtown Maple Ridge scores in the low to mediocre range. There is housing choice within 750 metres of the main streets, the transit system is improving, and there is growing urban interest around the farmer’s market. On the negative side, the retail and commercial services sprawl across too wide an area to encourage walking, the retail quality is often low, and retail businesses and restaurants frequently fail.

I developed the map at the top of this post simply on a hunch, to see what it would look like. My 2012 Fraseropolis index does not consider the density of social services — for the very poor, families in trouble, or low-income seniors. This is not a dimension of urban life that business improvement associations or local newspapers have focused on. However, the availability of such services is critical in pointing people towards employment, healthier choices and affordable housing. In exploring the urban villages of B.C. since 2012, I have frequently sensed a conflict between the need for social services storefronts and the consumer appetite for the chic and the trendy. The challenge, I guess, is to integrate services for the poor into trendy neighbourhoods; or alternatively, to think of ways to eliminate poverty.

Dewdney Trunk Road at 224 Street, Maple Ridge. Some visitors to the downtown may be driving in to shop in one of the strip malls, take a yoga class or have their truck repaired; others may be walking from apartments nearby to see their probation officer or negotiate free clothing at a charity store.

 

 

Building a local economy on automotive repair

Crystal Glass and Boyd Auto Body, two blocks east of Maple Ridge City Hall

In most parts of Metro Vancouver, more than half the working population commutes to workplaces outside their home town — this is according to a Vancouver Sun analysis from 2014, which echoed findings from the previous decade.

A typical central area viewscape, with nature in the distance. T&T Auto Parts is on the left in this photo, Accent Glass & Locksmith (not visible) is in the strip on the right.

In my suburb of Maple Ridge, many people drive every day to the Tri-Cities (20-40 minutes one way), Burnaby (35-50 minutes one way) or even further. Not surprisingly, we have a big automotive sector. Auto dealerships are among the biggest employers, and they dominate the highway that connects Maple Ridge to the inner suburbs. Probably our most prominent head office belongs to Lordco Auto Parts, a chain with more than 120 retail locations around British Columbia. Continue reading

Revisiting Downtown Maple Ridge

Donair reduced

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. Continue reading

Follow-up on a fatal crash and a homeless camp

1-DSC_2442

On May 18 of this year we published a letter to Doug Bing, a member of the British Columbia Legislature, about a fatal crash on a provincial highway near our home in suburban Maple Ridge. The layout of the highway intersection where the crash took place had been unsafe for years.

In recent weeks, technicians have installed a low-tech improvement at the problem corner. This modest screen, pictured above, deters southbound drivers from making the last-minute lane switch that was putting all directions at risk. If the pylons get mowed down, they can be re-installed. Thanks to Mr. Bing for taking in interest in this issue. Continue reading

A homeless camp in a Vancouver suburb

2015 homeless camp 1 reduced

Nicole Read, the mayor in my home city of Maple Ridge, won election as a political newcomer in November 2014. The local election campaign was marked by concern over downtown property crime, linked by some to the presence of homeless people in vacant spaces nearby. The homeless have been a prominent feature of the town centre for more than a decade, but the incumbent mayor and council were blamed and Read  got the political benefit.

Weeks after the mayor’s swearing-in, a colourful row of tents sprang up on a residential street 200 metres from my home. In the 2014 Metro Vancouver homeless count, Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows together were said to have 39 unsheltered homeless people. By July 2015, the estimated population of the Cliff Avenue camp was about 60. Continue reading

An open letter about a fatal crash

2015 05 10 crashThe following letter was sent by email on May 18, 2015 to Doug Bing, member of the British Columbia Legislature for Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows.

Dear Doug,

Re: Fatal crash on the Haney Bypass

On Sunday afternoon, May 10, 2015, two vehicles collided at the intersection of the Haney Bypass and Callaghan Avenue  near our home in Maple Ridge. A 14-year old passenger died in hospital the next day.

I was reminded of the letter I wrote to you in February 2014 about the frequent crack-ups and near-misses at this corner. Our elderly neighbour had just walked away from a pile-up that he was lucky to survive. Continue reading

Housing action and inaction in a West Coast suburb

1970s-vintage housing, central Maple Ridge

1970s-vintage housing, central Maple Ridge

Late in its 2011-2014 term, City Council in the British Columbia suburb of Maple Ridge  ratified a housing action plan intended to promote housing choice and affordability.

The issue matters because quality housing is a key determinant of population health. At the dawn of the welfare state, as Canadian troops returned from World War Two, the federal government promoted affordable housing investment from the private and public sectors. By the 1980s, Ottawa and the provinces had turned their backs on this effort. The cost of this rollback has fallen mostly on renters, with an increasingly creaky and leaky stock of dedicated rental housing from sea to sea.

Continue reading