The drive from Vancouver to Chilliwack is a scenic one. As you approach the town of 85,000 you're embraced by the rugged Coastal mountain range, old farmhouses on small acreages, and eagles winging above you.
But for the ubiquitous, ugly suburban tract housing peeking out from behind metal fences, you might be in paradise.
Now, thanks to the new Garrison Crossing development, a community built on the bones of an old Canadian Forces base over a decade in the planning, you can have your piece of the suburban cake and eat it too.
You notice the shift even before you enter Garrison, off a strip mall in the old logging town of Sardis. Across from the entranceway, a new yoga studio offering hot Bikram classes indicates a sea change, and stands out from the neighbouring fast food joints.
As you enter the area called Garrison Village, where flats sit atop shops and cafes, it's not just the espresso bar with weekend folksingers that make it feel urban, it's the mixed use, high density design. Garrison Crossing offers a truly unique blend of urban amenities and small town charm in a suburban setting.
The brainchild of Randy Fasan, chief planner for Canada Lands Company, he first spotted the potential of the site in 1996. But he had to wait until 2002, once a land claims dispute had been settled with the Stolo nation, to begin planning in earnest.
Mr. Fasan noted the natural beauty of the site, framed by mountains and the Vedder River, but also appreciated the built environment.
"There was something quaint about the post-war housing stock - it had character and simplicity," notes the architect turned planner. And rather than the standard grid system, so typical of former military sites and suburban developments, Garrison had "lovely, winding boulevards, and hundreds of new trees."
Mr. Fasan could see the potential for a kind of new urbanist village in the midst of suburbia - one built on the bones of an already established community - as opposed to one built out of the ether. So as much as possible of the existing housing stock was preserved, albeit after being gutted, refurbished and often relocated to new sites. Besides lending a sense of depth and history to the development, bordered by soul-less 1980s' vinyl siding plagued housing projects, there were other advantages. Converting existing housing left a smaller footprint than building brand new homes, and much of the existing wood framing was made from sturdy old growth timber - impossible to replicate.
"Basically," explains project architect Mark Ankeman, "we inherited a site that already had excellent features - both in terms of the natural and the built environment. My main job," he jokes, "was not to screw that up."
Carving a new residential and mixed use community out of a former military base was not an easy task - especially when working with a developer like Canada Lands - a non-agent Crown Corporation known for its meticulous attention to detail.
An exhaustive series of public consultations over several months meant that by the time the final plans were presented to council, the mayor's decision was almost instant.
"He said it was one of the most beautifully planned developments he'd ever seen," Mr. Fasan, who spent a considerable chunk of his career working on Garrison, notes with pleasure.
And the mayor wasn't the only one with this opinion. The Urban Development Institute awarded Garrison its Masterplan Community prize in 2007.
The public consultation process resulted in a series of priorities for the developer that included adaptive reuse of existing materials - including buildings, roadways and trees, environmental sensitivity and a celebration of the site's historical legacy. To this end great pains were taken to respect everything from raptor habitat to ground water to the site's military history - paid its due homage with Bailey bridges and historical plaques throughout the site. Green space is interspersed throughout the community, with newly built parks and preservation of existing woodlands. A new recreation centre and swimming pool is being built, and 75 per cent of residents on the 153-acre site are within a five-minute walk of shops and amenities.
Variegated housing types - from coach houses, to town homes, flats, row houses and arts and craft style heritage homes - and use of different colours banish any sense of suburban sameness. And strict building codes that restrict materials to a subtle palette of brick, wood and stone, ensure consistent quality throughout, regardless of size, style or price point.
To say that Canada Lands dotted all their i's and crossed all their t's would be somewhat of an understatement. But for Mr. Fasan, it's all part of good business practice. "Any enlightened developer these days will tell you that public consultation and attention to quality and detail pay dividends in the long term."
In practical terms, the site that Canada Lands inherited, explains Mr. Ankenman "had narrow roads, no sidewalks, no overall site plan and lots of wasted space." Messrs. Fasan and Ankenman carefully developed a vision that included laneways for parking to avoid typical suburban design with garages consuming frontage space. Instead they created pedestrian friendly sidewalks and built large front porches onto formerly bare bones "PMQ's (private married quarters) to encourage old-fashioned neighbourly exchanges. They also radically increased the density - often quadrupling it - by fitting lot sizes to housing, and refurbishing a series of 1970s era row housing.
The result is a surprisingly intimate feeling community - and one where neighbours really do look out for each other.
Darlene Goetz, a communications specialist who purchased one of the converted two-bedroom row houses - complete with original maple flooring - last year, says "When I'm sick with the flu, I have neighbours who bring me chicken soup. When they're away I walk their dog for them and help maintain their garden. And every summer we have a big communal BBQ."
Indeed there is a nostalgic sense of the post-war bucolic North American suburb at play here - but it's one that comes neatly wrapped in a well-planned, sustainable and surprisingly urban package.
For Anneli Porter and her husband Darryl, (owner of the Chilliwack Bruins hockey team) who built a luxurious new 2,300-square-foot home near the woodlands, the appeal of Garrison Crossing is that "we don't have to drive everywhere. Our daughter can walk to school, and we can walk to the shops." But added to that is the small town feel. "If our child is ill, we can just call the local doctor and he'll say 'come on over.'"
And for Darrell Fox, an advisor to the Terry Fox foundation, brother of the great Canadian hero, and owner of a new 3,700-square-foot house, Garrison Crossing is simply a lovely place to come home to. "The great thing about it," says Mr. Fox, who manages to work out of a home office and only commutes to downtown headquarters a few times a week," is that everything you need is here. You really don't need to leave."
While the wrong kind of suburban development can induce a sense of panic and entrapment, Garrison Crossing feels like the kind of place you'd like to stay and rest awhile. As Mr. Fasan presides over a master plan model of what the final 1,700-residence development will look like (once the next 800 homes are complete), in the former officer's mess turned presentation centre, the film Pleasantville springs to mind. But this one shines in technicolour.
Special to The Globe and Mail