One of the top 10 ways to achieve more walkable neighbourhoods is to build more mixed use buildings and zones. I won’t get into the history of how our zoning ordinances created sprawl by separating our homes from our jobs and entertainment, but that’s exactly what happened on a massive scale over the past 60 years.
See Part 1: Why making Langley “walkable” is so important
See Part 2: Stop demanding more lanes!
Today’s progressive planners now truly understand the obvious: if we live close to where we need to go, there will be less people in cars and more people walking. So why put commercial on the other side of town from our homes?
Admittedly, I haven’t done a ton of research on the subject in the way I have with road planning, urban forests and neighbourhood design, so I though I might do something a little different and interview someone who has actually put his money where his mouth is and built a mixed use building.
Most people are aware that Township of Langley Councillor Eric Woodward built the newish Coulter Berry building in downtown Fort Langley at the corner of Glover and Mavis. The building achieved LEED certification, has retail shops on the bottom, offices on the second floor and several residences on the third floor. Since becoming Councillor, Woodward has been a proponent of mixed use when the opportunity has arisen – albeit this has been limited so far during his first term.
The interview was not recorded so I may not have exact quotes, but I’ve done my best to capture Councillor Woodward’s voice and intent during our coffee shop meeting at lelem’ Arts & Cultural Cafe.
Brad: Mix use projects have been making a bit of a come back in Langley in recent years. Why do you think this is?
Eric: Are they? There are some now, yes, but mostly in Fort Langley, and perhaps Willoughby Town Centre, Vesta in Carvolth, and other bits and pieces, sure. Depends how you define “mixed-use”.
Brad: Of course, Coulter Berry… but I think what I’m getting at is that there was a history of mixed use in the past in the former Langley Prairie, Aldergrove and even Milner, but that disappeared for a generation or two… so what about Aldergrove…
Eric: In Aldergrove, out-dated parking requirements are preventing high-quality mixed-use development, and we need to resolve it. You’re seeing revitalization in Fort Langley because of parking requirements there prioritize good design for people over the storage of vehicles.
Brad: Most of the projects mentioned that are mixed use are dual use projects, such as retail/office or retail/residence. You built Coulter Berry here in Fort Langley, which is a 3 storey (plus underground parking) building with 3 uses – retail on the ground, offices on second floor and residences on the third…
…Are you aware of any other such buildings in the Langleys or surrounding communities?
Eric: No, not that I’m aware of, actually, three uses on three floors. Of course, you see it in much larger buildings in urban centres, such as downtown Vancouver.
Brad: Why don’t most builders go this route?
Eric: They do where it is required. The current economics in Langley see more profit from residential sales, so they tend to want to limit the commercial below as much as they can. They specifically lobby for this, as the developer did at Willoughby Town Centre. We need to fight against these lobbying efforts that erode the completion of good urban design in our more urban areas, for personal profit.
We also need to create the right balance, too, and also not overbuild retail commercial as online shopping and the “Amazon onslaught” against bricks and mortar retail continues unabated. We need to be find the right balance for Langley.
Brad: So why did you decide to build mixed use/3 uses?
Eric: Because I read books like Jeff Speck’s book. It is great economic development for a small village like Fort Langley, with a little bit of everything. Uses like office and food service of varying price points really complement each other. Residents provide for better security. And all uses can share the parking, with their peak demands often at different times, such as office during the day, restaurants at night. Some of us joke that we can live in Coulter Berry for days and never actually need to leave the building.
While construction costs are higher due to building code complexities, financially, mixed-use also provides a diverse revenue stream from different categories. A project can be less susceptible to market fluctuations, especially it is for long-term rental.
Coulter Berry also considers change over time in market demands. It is possible we end up with retail for items where online is not great at, such as clothing or home decor, and of course, food service destinations. So for example, it has 5 grease vents already built into the building for food service, even though are two are currently in use. We have to plan for change building designs, especially in mixed-use buildings that will much harder to replace and adapt than a strip mall, for example.
Brad: How do mix use projects contribute to walkability?
Eric: I want to show you this… [Eric and I watch a good portion of James Howard Kunstler’s TED Talk “The Ghastly Tragedy of the Suburbs“]
They define the public realm with options, and destinations we want to be at, and care about. They are places we want to walk in, like Fort Langley. They define what kind people we are. No ones cares about strip malls, and if you build strip malls, then no one cares about the neighbourhood, like they can or would otherwise. We need to beware of the damage we do when we build a crappy strip mall vs. the very obvious people-orientated alternatives.
Brad: Do you foresee more mixed use projects in Langley’s future?
Eric: Yes, in some areas, like Carvolth, but we are also on the verge of making very bad decisions with very long term implications in places like Williams, at the 216th interchange, that have everything to do with developer profits, and almost nothing to do with good, quality urban design.
Brad: Should we encourage more mix use projects in the Township?
Eric: Yes, we should, in our urban areas, where the people are, and mix it in with our housing, not where we need massive parking lots because few are is walking, or would really want to.
Brad: So, the Williams Neighbourhood Community Plan in north Willoughby…
Eric: We need more mixed-use commercial in Langley, not business parks over there, housing somewhere else, with a single story strip mall in the heart of a neighbourhood the size of Willoughby. The Williams NP is the latest example of what not to do, yet was only adopted last year a few weeks before the election. [Brad’s note: before Eric was elected].
Brad: So how can we get more mixed use buildings built?
Eric: We have to simply require mixed-use forms in our community planning and stick to it, just as we do with housing types – so many apartments here, so many townhomes there.
We tend to not really prioritize the better neighbourhood forms over other considerations, by allowing developers unique exclusions, or to just remove residential units above because the developer wants to, as was the case in Willoughby Town Centre [Brad’s note: WTC originally had 3 more planned stories of residential over the most recently built phase – this was later removed at the developers request in favour of a single additional story of office space].
We need to insist on better neighbourhoods, which mixed-use is a big part of creating. We need to resist the intense lobbying developers do to maximize profits, regardless of anything else. We need to lead, and find that right balance between growth and good outcomes we will be proud of, for great neighbourhoods that will last, and matter to us.
I want to thank Councillor Eric Woodward for taking the time to meet me and answer my questions. To my readers – if there is someone in the Township of Langley that would think would be worth interviewing to help build a more sustainable community, who would it be? What would you want to ask him or her?