Thirty years ago, a big chunk of undeveloped land in Langley, B.C. would have meant one thing to Kent Sillars: hectares of single-family homes.
That’s what people wanted when they moved to this once-rural Fraser Valley community, about an hour’s drive east of Vancouver. And it was what his company, Vesta Developments, started by building.
This year, Mr. Sillars’s company is finishing the construction of a very different kind of project on the 30 hectares of land it owns next to 200th Street in Langley’s Willoughby neighbourhood.
There will be only 73 standalone houses among the 2,000 homes in the development, which is being renamed Latimer Heights. The other 1,927 units will be townhouses, duplexes, rowhouses and condos. There will also be some office space mixed in and a “main street” filled with, Mr. Sillars says, European-style shops that will complement what he calls a Parisian style of building.
“Single-family is no longer the staple of housing for the Fraser Valley,” Vesta’s president says. “The townhouse is the new single-family.”
But it’s not just the form of housing that’s different. It’s the style of the neighbourhood, which Mr. Sillars repeatedly calls an urban village: a place where those living in the condos and townhouses can go to a butcher or a dentist within walking distance or hike along trails around the manufactured pond instead of having to get into a car for absolutely everything.
It’s a style that is has been increasingly popular since the early 1980s, ever since a new wave of community planning, called the New Urbanism, favoured the idea of recreating small-town-style neighbourhoods in built-from-nothing subdivisions.
Cities such as Vancouver have created new developments, including Olympic Village, along those lines, and one decade-old project in central Surrey was officially labelled an urban village. The region’s two main universities have also tried to create a small-town, main-street feel in the massive developments they’ve allowed on their land.
Latimer Heights will be the biggest and most rurally located of anything in that genre in the Lower Mainland.
It’s also part of a general trend in region that has seen builders move more and more to multifamily rather than single-family developments.
In the 15 years between the 2001 and 2016 censuses, there were only 800 new standalone houses added to the township of Langley, but almost 10,000 “ground-oriented” other types of housing and more than 2,000 apartments.
For younger people looking for affordable homes in an increasingly costly region, the new style is welcomed.
Tom and Kerrin Baxter, 29 and 30 respectively, will be moving this January from Kerrin’s parents’ basement in Walnut Grove to one of the corner, three-bedroom townhouses in the development at the relatively modest price (for the Lower Mainland) of $630,000 – half what a single-family house would cost there.
For Mr. Baxter, who grew up in a real, not manufactured, village in England’s West Sussex, the concept of Latimer Heights was appealing. And it was the right price.
“We don’t want to be house poor. We love to travel. This was just more sensible,” said Mr. Baxter, a registered massage therapist and personal trainer working in the next-door suburb of Surrey.
But he also worries about the rapid pace of development, bringing traffic congestion and massive transformations of the landscape, that he sees all around him, even though he is inevitably part of it.
“Even in the eight years I’ve been here, there’s been incredible change,” he said.
That’s something that many residents, both old and new, are worrying about in Langley.
The township, a large municipality that is separate from the smaller and historic city of Langley it surrounds, is one of the fastest-growing suburbs in Canada
With a 12.6-per-cent increase between 2011 and 2016, when its population reached 117,000, it grew as quickly as Calgary, the country’s fastest-growing large metro. It expanded even more than suburban Surrey, often seen as the growth capital of southern B.C.
A decade ago, the big growth area in Langley was Walnut Grove, north of the Trans-Canada Highway that cuts through the township. Now it’s Willoughby, south of the freeway, where only 40 per cent of the land planned for development has been built, including Latimer Heights, with another 60 per cent still to come. And an area called Brookswood, a more typical single-family area even further south, is due for rezoning soon.
The construction boom is unlikely to abate, given that house prices in central Vancouver have only receded a little and that Langley is supposed to be getting a SkyTrain rapid-transit line at some point in the next decade, connecting it to the rest of the region in a way that the current bus system doesn’t.
But that explosive growth has brought a lot of unhappiness, as the township grapples with a rapidly changing mix of people, adding many younger households to an existing mix of real farmers (75 per cent of the township’s land is in B.C.’s famous Agricultural Land Reserve), horsey types and retirees wanting a rural spread, along with traditional families and kids in subdivisions.
The civic election last October saw several councillors elected with a decided not-so-fast attitude to development and a few who came close, such as Michelle Connerty.
“I go to every council meeting and see 753 trees coming down and none of them saved. [The Willoughby area] doesn’t have sidewalks or complete roads and a brand-new school there already has 10 portables on it,” said Ms. Connerty, who has lived with her husband and three children in Brookswood for about eight years.
She says Latimer Heights is one of the better-planned developments – “people I talk to who really know real estate think it’s a great idea” – but that doesn’t make up for the fact that the township is drowning in its own growth.
One new councillor who swept in with the second-highest number of votes, Eric Woodward, campaigned specifically on trying to come up with a more coherent approach.
“We allow development on any property in Willoughby, with no co-ordination or phasing, no infrastructure.” Both he and Ms. Connerty say the township is not asking developers for enough in contributions to help pay for needed community services, including roads and parks. They also say development needs to be slowed down until schools are built.
A sign of how divisive the rapid pace of development has become is that several councillors and the mayor were criticized this week when it was made public that they accepted personal contributions from several prominent developers (including relatively small amounts from Vesta) who have had projects approved in the township the past four years.
One former mayor, Rick Green, said he believes everything the council voted on should be reversed and new votes held where council members recuse themselves if necessary.
But Mayor Jack Froese says the criticisms are ill-informed.
“I find it kind of preposterous that they think $1,000 influences my decision.” (A legal opinion he said he had just received on Monday specified that a donation is a violation of the law if a council candidate makes a specific promise to a contributor for something in return.)
Mr. Froese said he is unabashedly pro-development, for a good reason. People are moving to Langley in droves and they need housing as fast as it can be built.
He acknowledged that, when development goes at the pace it does in Langley, there are problems. The roads, schools and parks don’t keep up at first.
But, he said, if the township financed those up front, that would be hard on local taxpayers. So the township waits for developers to provide their contributions as projects roll out.
Langley township ran into some trouble in the last recession, edging toward bankruptcy, when it financed a lot of the infrastructure for the then-developing area of Walnut Grove and had to carry it for much longer than anticipated because of the housing crash.
So the mayor continues to say the way development is proceeding in the township is happening the most fiscally prudent way, even if it means short-term discomfort.
“There’s always the growing pains. But the developments like Vesta are important to house the people we know are coming. If you slow development down, all we do is increase the price of housing.”
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