7 Reasons the Williams NCP is a Failure (and How It Can Be Fixed)

On October 1, 2018, just a few weeks before the last local election, the Township of Langley Council rushed through the Williams Neighbourhood Community Plan.

One year later, on October 31, 2019, CTV News ran a story about the sitting Mayor and several councillors accepted campaign contributions from developers that had applications before them. Implicated in this story was the Williams NCP. The executives and owners of the development companies who, over the course of the planning process, had assembled the majority of the land in the Williams NCP prior to the adoption of the plan, also donated massive funds to campaigns while the plan was being considered and debated by Council.

Regardless of that controversy and all the insinuations and allegations around it, the Williams Neighbourhood Community Plan is a massive urban design failure. I said this while it was being debated, I recognized that many people hated it, and really the only people who seemed to love it were the developers and the people they donated towards. Just to be clear that I’m not making any accusations – I fully recognize that maybe they donated to candidates BECAUSE the candidates loved it too.

While I am a staunch advocate for phased planning which continues to be ignored by adopting one plan after another while others are not even starting development, it’s obvious that we cannot reverse what has been done. However, we can still amend it. We can still tell the future builders that we want something better, something more walkable and even something more profitable! It’s easy for an armchair pundit like myself to sit around and continue saying that the plan sucks, so instead I want to outline why this is the case and offer something positive.


3 Ways the Williams Plan Succeeded

It’s not all bad. Let’s give credit where credit is due. However, in order to do this, we need to fully recognize that when we discuss the Williams NCP, we are really discussing a combination of the approved plan plus the current building proposals, as advertised, by the developers who own the majority of the Williams neighbourhood (which, to clarify, are not yet before Council).

1. The Purpose, Vision Statement and Goals

“The Williams Neighbourhood is a vibrant, walkable and connected community that maintains its natural assets and views. As a gateway to the Township and Willoughby community, it provides jobs close to home while maintaining a quiet and family friendly neighbourhood. Green spaces blend the neighbourhood into adjacent agriculture lands and a mix of affordable and accessible housing for families, individuals, and those wanting to age in place is offered.”

As with almost every plan in the Township of Langley, the copywriters wrote some lofty purposes, vision statements and goals. These are usually the first boards at public information sessions, but are more or less ignored throughout the planning process and the execution of the plan. You will have to excuse my jaded opinion, but you just have to look at every plan adopted since the 1998 Willoughby OCP to recognize this. Regardless of where the plan goes from here, I do want to point out that they got this part right – it may not be accurate, but it’s good.

2. H-Street Block Configuration

williams-hstreet
Williams NCP H-shaped configuration

These are one of the things that are placed in many of Langley’s plans but rarely ever gets built. Why? Because they don’t actually put this into a street plan or a subdivision bylaw. This example of a proper grid lane network is just an example that gets thrown into the NCP but has no teeth.

RESIDENTIAL NEIGHBOURHOOD URBAN FORM

Policy 2. Layout the block and local road patterns in the Residential and Transition Districts with a maximum block size length of 160 metres between street intersections and on average between 130 and 150 metres. Blocks that front arterial streets can extend beyond this maximum block size length provided they incorporate Pedestrian Links between the arterial street and local and collector
roads at a spacing similar to the average block length of between 130 and 150 metres.

The reason this street pattern works is twofold. First, it reduces arterial road congestion if properly connected to the arterial roads, as it allows traffic to flow at low speeds due to greater access. Secondly, it provides for more street parking by reducing awkward half cul-de-sacs, which limit street parking (as found especially throughout Yorkson).

Unfortunately, Langley’s subdvision bylaw still promotes half and full cul-de-sacs, which are based on designs from an era that did not assume the necessity of suites for housing affordability. If you happen to live in Yorkson, how do you find the results of ignoring the H-street model in favour of cul-de-sacs and broken grids working for your congestion and parking?

Let’s give the future builders of the single family zones the benefit of the doubt. Maybe, just maybe – they’ll build something that looks like the pretty pictures in the plans or even better, maybe Council will use one of the suggestions I make below to enforce the grid plan that is admired in Yorkson, Latimer and Williams, but not actually built.

3. Road Fronting Buildings

williams-site
From “Future Trans-Canada Interchange Retail Opportunity” by FORM Real Estate Advisors

Moving beyond the plan and into the meat of it: well before the Williams NCP was approved, the development companies had the advertising all set up and ready to go. They even promoted it at the Public Hearing. This gave the public a view of what to expect from their plans. The one thing (and probably the only thing) I like about this proposal is that the buildings are fronting the arterial roads and the parking is set towards the centre.

This design is meant to make walking more attractive and interesting for pedestrians – assuming, of course, that the buildings aren’t designed with a blank wall around the exterior of complex (along 80th Avenue and 216th Street). If the road frontages resemble that of Walmart, Indigo, Costco, Save-on-Foods, etc as they do throughout Willowbrook, it’ll defeat the purpose.


7 Ways the Williams Neighbourhood Plan Failed

1) Lacking Significant Mixed Use with Highly Segregated Zoning

williams-map

This is the most obvious failure that continues to permeate the so-called planning process in Langley. I’m not going to use up space here about why we need more mixed use, you can read my interview with Eric Woodward where we converge on our promotion for mixed use development. Perhaps this quote best sums up why mixed use is needed:

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. –Eric Woodward

Yes, there is a blip of “mixed use” in the plan, but the developers appear to have taken this to mean mixed retail/office commercial space instead of true residential/work mixed use. If you want to take a look at what this plan will actually look like in real life, please visit this Willowbrook neighbourhood and tell me how much pedestrian activity you see, how attractive it is, and if it promotes anything other than people driving in and out:

Southwest gordon map

This is essentially a copy of the Williams plan, but rotated 180 degrees. Here we have strip malls and bix box stores in the South with massive surface parking lots (where people regularly drive from Save On Foods to Best Buy), warehouse-style buildings in the East, one set of apartments directly to the North, with a layer of townhomes, followed by a maze of single family homes which looks like a 3-year-old designed pattern. The pedestrian activity is extremely low, due to lack of interesting walking spaces, disconnected roads, forced back-tracking and the danger of trying to get from residences to shopping or even within the shopping complex itself. What a great example!

Solution:

My radical solution to this is to actually replace this traditional zoning altogether with form based code. I won’t get into a treatise at this time, but here is a summary:

“Unlike conventional zoning, Form-Base Code addresses not only development but the relationship between public and private spaces such as the interaction between streets, blocks, and buildings in terms of form, scale and massing, and the use of frontage areas. FBC creates a predictable public realm by including specific standards for the design of streets and open spaces, and focusing primarily on the physical form of development, with a lesser focus on building use than conversional zoning regulations.” – “Conventional Zoning vs. Form-Based Code” (Harriman)

Unfortunately, there hasn’t yet been any indication from Township of Langley leadership that they will take advantage of this progressive planning strategy anytime soon. Even less likely is that there could be some sort of amendment to the plan to address this.

So realistically, the most likely solution would be to amend the entire commercial area to require mixed use residential, retail and office buildings. 

2) Single Story Strip Mall

This almost makes me cry.

singlestory-williams
From “Future Trans-Canada Interchange Retail Opportunity” by FORM Real Estate Advisors

My opposition to more single story buildings is not the aesthetic of single story buildings itself. I think ranchers can be charming. It is all the associated consequences of building a single story building that I take issue with. First, the obvious one is that single story necessitates single use, which means, well, no mixed use (see number 1 above). Second, the economics of a single story buildings, combined with Langley’s high parking requirements means that you will need a ton of surface parking (see number 4 below). Third, single story buildings are low density single use which means it is going to end up being inherently auto-oriented as it means a limited number of uses will take up more space – space that we don’t have and space that people won’t walk through.

Solution:

If issues number 1 and 4 are solved, this will be forced, by economics, to change. If anyone wants to build a single story commercial building anywhere in the Township, they should do so on an old plan, not one in this century.

3) Cannibalizes Willoughby Town Centre Without Innovation

We heard a lot about this during the public hearing since the anchor store for this development is allegedly a Save On Foods, which will definitely cut into the local grocery store at Willoughby Town Centre, which was supposed to be the primary commercial centre of Willoughby.

I’m not going to get into the philosophy of commercial competition or the quality of one grocery store over another, but I will voice concern about building another commercial complex that is less than a 3 minute drive away without putting a lot of thought into the consequences of these actions.

WTCtoWilliams-map

Willoughby Town Centre itself has its own challenges, but its biggest fault is probably that it isn’t big enough. It has been reduced in scope due to risk assessments. The businesses there, which are mostly independent small businesses, are struggling enough to turn profits in a developing community – yes, they took the risk in getting in early and securing a spot in the growing community.

But now they will need to compete directly with big box stores and cloned competition which are directly in their market. When the 216th Interchange opens, there will be two pre-existing grocery stores within a 6 minute drive: Save On Foods in Walnut Grove and Hakams in Willoughby Town Centre. Now they want another 40,000 sq.ft. Save On Foods on the Interchange? Not only that, when Willoughby grows to the point where both developments can be supported (which it eventually will – in another generation), the nature of both developments will lead to more drivers actually driving between WTC and the interchange. I can guarantee that no one will walk along 80th Avenue.

Both Mayor Jack Froese and Councillor Blair Whitmarsh have publicly admitted that Williams is an auto-oriented neighbourhood. However, neither seem to yet understand that Williams is also making Yorkson more of an auto-oriented neigbourhood or that an auto-oriented neighbourhood, by its inherent nature, is not a walkable neighbourhood, thus defeating the purported goals of the Williams and Yorkson Neighbourhood Community Plans.

Solution:

If Williams does away with the single story development and is able to reduce its surface parking, a lot more mixed use residential/commercial buildings can be added. The Williams commercial area should stick to servicing East Yorkson, Williams and Highway needs: office space, small grocery store (ie. Lee’s Market, Morenos, etc.). If more, smaller, higher quality buildings are built, it would promote more innovative tenants that wouldn’t be directly competing with established businesses 5 minutes away.

4) Massive Surface Parking

williams-parking
From “Future Trans-Canada Interchange Retail Opportunity” by FORM Real Estate Advisors

Ample on-site, private parking encourages driving and car-ownership, increases the cover of impervious surfaces and amount of polluted runoff, adds to the high cost of building, limits the buildout of properties, prevents redevelopment of some properties, and inhibits pedestrian-friendly design of neighborhoods. Sometimes sitting in gridlock is easier on the nerves than crossing a car-scape on foot. On top of it all, or maybe to summarize: On-site parking makes for ugly places.

-Amy Dain, “Moving on from Car-as-King Development

I mentioned this above but this deserves its own point of failure. Free surface parking in commercial zones promotes more driving. It deters walkability by forcing less buildings over more land. It is also unsafe even for those who do attempt to move from building to building.

All that parking in the far more car-dependent U.S. is not the only reason, but it’s a huge reason why we’ve paved so much more of the earth.

All that parking is pavement that can’t absorb stormwater, leading to flooding and pollution problems from runoff.

All that parking is pavement that absorbs heat from the sun and contributes to the deadly urban heat island effect.

All that parking is pavement that has to be maintained, kept smooth, cleared of snow and ice in the winter.

All that parking is pavement that sewer pipes, power lines, and internet cables must traverse to reach their destinations—with huge cost consequences.

All that parking is pavement that people must traverse to reach their destinations. (If you don’t see the problem with a downtown dotted with surface parking like Peoria’s above, try walking a few blocks in high wind, rain, or snow. You’ll notice the parking lots: they’re the windswept gaps.)

All that parking is pavement that generates no wealth for our cities—that is just an appendage to the places we actually love and care about.

All that parking is lost potential.

As long as we have cars, we will need to park them. But our perceived need for parking has been vastly inflated, for several reasons.

Separation of different land uses from each other means that few trips can be made within walking distance, and so we now need a separate parking space everywhere we go: home, the office, the gym, the grocery store, a place of worship, etc. In a walkable, mixed-use neighborhood, it’s much easier to park the car once and then make multiple stops on foot—no longer necessitating that each business have a parking space for every potential customer.

Parking minimums, as we’ve discussed before, are also geared toward maximum demand—like on the peak shopping day of Black Friday—and they tend to be overestimates even for those occasions. Every city should do away with mandatory parking minimums and let the market figure out how much parking we really need.

-Daniel Herriges, “Parking Dominates Our Cities. But Do We Really *See* It?

I’ve already written extensively on this before, so I’ll leave you to check out my recent article to read more about the failures of surface parking if you are so interested.

Read more: Making Langley Walkable: Fix the Parking

Solution:

Remove minimum parking requirements. Eliminate ability to construct single storey buildings.

5) Pedestrian-Defeating Warehouse Frontage

martinifilmstudios-langley
Martini’s studios in Langley, British Columbia (Martini Film Studios)

In September of this year, Martini Films announced their plans for 600,000 square foot production facility which will be located to the west of 214th Street. While film production may be “sexy”, there isn’t much you can do to make a production facility look good. It’s also obvious that this is a black hole of walkability. Although the application hasn’t actually gone to council yet, they are proposing to place this massive 600,000 sq.ft. facility directly aross from future single family home subdivisons, townhomes and rowhomes. On top of the warehouse buildings themselves, with Township parking minimum, just imagine how much asphalt of parking they’ll need for those studios?

I can’t imagine what could bring planners to create a plan that has these warehouses next to all these homes. If proximity to retail is the sole reason that the Township of Langley considers this plan to be “walkable”, I welcome Council and Staff to count how many pedestrians walk from the 204th-206th Street subdivisions along 64th or 65th or Avenues, right in front of the Township Civic Facility to the retail at 201-202nd Street. There won’t be much. In addition to no one wanting to walk to the uninteresting single story, limited use big box stores, no one wants to walk past the multiple cold, lifeless warehouse-style buildings, such as Costco, in the area. These film facilities will likely be 3 times the size as Costco, so you can imagine that neighbours in the immediate area will be using their cars to make even basic trips.

Solution:

My personal preference would be for this sort of facility to stay in industrial areas such as Port Kells, West Walnut Grove and Gloucester Estates. That said, if this production facility absolutely MUST be here, at least situate it to the North along the future 83rd Avenue, away from the residences on 212th Street and the shopping retail on 80th Avenue.

6) No Enforced Street Grid & Lack of Planned Local Roads

williams-roads

I mentioned I loved the pretty picture of the H-street grid earlier, but I also said I liked it in the Yorkson and Latimer plans – yet it continues to be ignored. The Township of Langley, unlike so many other municipalities, puts zero emphasis on local road design. You can actually visibly see how little emphasis is put on local roads by looking at the street concept plan. You’ll notice on the street plan above from the Williams NCP document that there are 3 arterial roads (80th Ave, 212th Street, and 216th Street), 5ish collector roads and 1 – just one – local road of significance.

Despite being one of the most important aspects of road planning, the Williams NCP says very little about local roads other than the following:

Local Roads are intended to provide access to individual properties and are not intended for through travel.

This is one of the reasons why Willoughby’s arterial and collector roads are such a mess – because the guts of the network are given over to a developer-based subdivision bylaw and engineers who only see local roads as ways to get to the collector or arterial roads. Yet in urban design, these roads are crucial to residential access, flow and parking. The Township of Langley is literally placing 21st century urban density zoning on top of 1950’s suburban road planning principles.

Solution:

If the Township of Langley was serious about the H-street and grid plan, they would explicitly outline the placement of local roads in the street plan instead of waiting for a developer to make up their own plan. I’ve spoken to staff at the Township of Langley public information session before and they all seem to agree with this – so why isn’t it being done? Who is blocking this obvious and reasonable solution?

7) Saturation of Lighted Intersections on 216th Street

Take another look at the road network map above (in number 6). Then this one:

interchange216
Highway 1 & 216th Interchange Project

There will be 6 lighted intersections in less than 1500 meters (that’s under a mile). Where else has this many lights in such a short distance? Oh, right – 208th Street. The reason, of course, that so many intersections are lighted on this arterial road is because of the lack of properly connected connector and local roads.

What you will find here is much worse than what we have on 208th Street. Of course, you may need to suspend your belief that 208th Street problems are due to the fact that some of it hasn’t been expanded to 4-6 lanes in order to believe me. 208th Street will always be congested because of the number of arterial roads meeting 208th with lighted intersections which causes “STOP-GO” congestion. Since local roads have little significance to Yorkson planners, traffic gets loaded onto the collectors and arterials. Forcing commuters to collectors instead of utilizing a strong local road network will continue to frustrate drivers as well as make a less pedestrian friendly neighbourhood. As the area continues to grow, this “STOP-GO” congestion will only increase with additional lanes. 216th will likely be even more congested than 208th Street because of the Highway Interchange and the auto-oriented development.

Solution:

If the local road network is expanded throughout the plan and connected to the arterials, there will be better flow through the neighbourhood and less congestion along 216th Street. The lighted intersections are likely to remain, but by providing better neighbourhood access and flow, you will see less of the issues we see along Yorkson’s 208th Street.

Conclusion

Almost every important aspect of contemporary urban planning is ignored in this plan. From the zoning to building form to street plan, it’s almost impossible to fathom that this plan was guided by the goals and visions it states in the beginning. The biggest problem is that this this plan is just a microcosm of planning throughout Willoughby over the past 20 years.

I believe that Council and executive staff at the Township of Langley obviously understands that we need to have density for walkable communities, but are missing the fact that density itself will not create walkable communities. If the Williams neighbourhood is able to be built as “planned”, the Township of Langley will have lost yet another incredible opportunity to build a vibrant, healthy community.

 

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