Revisiting the Heights

Confederation Park, Burnaby Heights, Friday morning

At the suggestion of a reader, I returned to Burnaby Heights this past week, five years after my first visit to the community.

Hastings Street in northwest Burnaby is the city’s most interesting commercial strip, with an array of ethnic food outlets, cafes and specialty shops. The urban trees have grown up quickly, providing cover for architectural flaws. The border with the City of Vancouver is just blocks away, with frequent bus service to downtown. Burnaby’s city government has laid on excellent services such as playing fields, an aquatic centre and a big library. All this makes a great foundation for an urban village, if you’re prepared for the heavy traffic and noise as you shop or stroll.

The direction for the future is clear. Older one-storey commercial structures on Hastings are disappearing, replaced by low-rise complexes with storefronts below and three floors of apartments above. The former Royal Canadian Legion property is newly vacant, along with much of the north side of Hastings between Rosser and Willingdon, including the site of the old Dolphin movie theatre. As with other high streets in a region where there’s extreme upward pressure on property values, we have to wonder whether any locally-owned retail business can survive this transition.

As I noted in my 2012 post, the designated Burnaby Heights development area is long and skinny. This can be observed on the ground or picked up from the City’s development plan.  You’ll see evolving mixed use along Hastings Street from Boundary to Gamma. Albert Street, running parallel to Hastings one block to the north, provides densified housing that will help to support storefront business, although none of it is new except for a few duplex houses. Several rental apartment buildings from about 1970 are in decay.

South of Hastings and north of Albert, the City of Burnaby appears to prohibit the construction of anything other than detached houses, although there are doubtless a growing number of secondary suites within these houses.

To sum up, there is less housing choice in this otherwise attractive urban village than there could be, unless you’re interested in renting a basement suite or purchasing a five-bedroom house for a price of two to three million dollars.

Newly completed mixed-used complex, Hastings near Alpha

Duplex housing in Vancouver Special style, early 1960s (?), Albert Street

Fewer than 21 per cent of dwellings in Burnaby are single detached homes,  meaning that all others are either apartments or attached houses (i.e. duplexes or townhomes). The city government clearly accepts the demand for apartments, but is stacking them in highway-oriented towers (see my post on Brentwood Centre) rather than low-rise buildings in the neighbourhoods. Feel free to correct me if I’m mistaken, but Burnaby Council appears determined to view the city’s broad tracts of single-use housing as a privileged ecosystem.

Our friends at Metro Conversations hosted a forum on May 17 called “The Sacred Single Family Home: What are we trying to protect and why?” They drew a packed house at a venue in Lynn Valley, North Vancouver. As reported in Business in Vancouver, planners and developers spoke in favour of increased housing choice across the region, at least to the extent of permitting duplexes and townhomes. Urbanist and developer Michael Geller suggested that city governments are standing in the way. “Most builders will build that single-family house and sell it for $3.5 million,” he said, “Rather than go through the aggravation and heartache to build something that’s more creative and perhaps much more needed.”

Co-tourist R.J Smarz and I had breakfast at the Chez Meme Baguette Bistro on Hastings Street. It was charming.

[Burnaby Heights was originally posted as #6 in our Urban Villages series. We have reviewed the area’s 2011 index score and left it about unchanged.]

Hastings, corner of Gilmore, with a rare mixed-use survivor from the 1920s

Postwar detached house, Albert Street

Hastings, corner of Rosser

Pitt Meadows 2 – Uptown (aka Downtown)

An apartment/commercial complex at Harris Road and Ford Road in Pitt Meadows. This was built in about 2010 on the site of a failed shopping plaza

Pitt Meadows City Hall, at the southern end of the commercial zone

Municipal governments in B.C. have a limited menu of responsibilities. They send delegates to regional bodies to haggle over various things, but their direct control is restricted mostly to fire protection, local streets, community recreation space and urban land use. And policing, in the odd handful of municipalities that have opted out of using the federal Mounted Police… Continue reading

Semiahmoo: 2030?

A 2008 proposal for the Semiahmoo core, looking up 152 Street from 16 Ave. captured in early 2017 from the Amanat Architect website

A 2008 proposal for the Semiahmoo core, looking up 152 Street from 16 Avenue. This rendering was captured in early 2017 from the Amanat Architect website

The City of Surrey’s 2014 official plan contemplates a city of 300 square kilometres organized around a city centre, intended to rival downtown Vancouver as it grows up, and five large-scale town centres.

Semiahmoo Town Centre within South Surrey, 2014 city plan

The Semiahmoo Town Centre within South Surrey

Each town centre is supposed to act as “the distinctive social, cultural commercial centre for its community… Support transit-oriented development…and build complete, walkable and green neighbourhoods.”  A successful town centre offers housing choice, walkable services, business and employment opportunities, and frequent transit. Continue reading

Steveston village: this ain’t Manhattan


The neighbourhood business association promotes Steveston as a place to visit, with its waterfront, cafes and gift shops. Co-tourist Robert Smarz and I walked the  ocean-facing pathway on the west side of the community and enjoyed lunch at the Shady Island pub on the boardwalk; we didn’t have time to stop at the Georgia Cannery National Historic Site, so there’s more to see.

development-reducedBut the designated core is attracting new residents as well as visitors, part of a general upscaling of Vancouver-area real estate. Postwar bungalows on the back streets are disappearing in favour of low-rise apartment buildings of three and four storeys. There are now enough essential services in place — such as food markets and professional offices — to make this a livable urban village with an affluent tinge. Rapid transit to downtown Vancouver is about 20 minutes away by bus, and bus service is frequent. Continue reading

Lynn Valley Town Centre: from humble beginnings

Intersection of Lynn Valley Road and Mountain Highway. The

Mountain Highway at Lynn Valley Road. The “Lynn Valley Life” site says the structure on the right, dating from 1912, is the only surviving commercial building from the original settlement. The photo is from

In the 400-page official plan of the District of North Vancouver, Lynn Valley’s commercial area is the designated “municipal town centre.”

On the first pass, this town centre is a crossroads row of shops flanked by gas stations and strip malls. And to an outsider, it seems an odd location for the action centre in a municipality of 80,000 people. It’s closer to bear habitat than to the Municipal Hall or the District’s busiest east-west street. But there are services and public amenities tucked away in various corners, and rapid new development may bring transformation over the next three to five years. 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

Passionate about Esquimalt

Esquimalt House 1

Fernhill Road, Esquimalt. Garry oak, a tree peculiar to southern Vancouver Island, grows all around this house. The garage-under-the-dining-room feature was popular on the West Coast from the 1910s into the 1940s, but many of these spaces are now used for storage.

Voters in Greater Victoria, population 345,000, are looking at the possible amalgamation of their 13 municipal governments into a smaller number. Possible, but not likely, since so many urban British Columbians are passionate about the randomly-sized cities and towns where they live. Rather than amalgamation, a slight increase in the number of “shared services” — a joint parks department here, a joint library there — is a safer bet.

Esqumalt condos

New apartments, Carlisle Avenue, Esquimalt

Esquimalt is one of the odd-shaped municipal bits that makes up Greater Victoria. Its Pacific shoreline is home to a naval base that employs 6,000 people. Otherwise, the city has waterfront parks, a modest urban village and an on-street bike lane connecting to the offices and retail stores in Victoria’s downtown. Continue reading