Downtown revitalization has been at the top of the to-do list of many mayors through the years, but still it effectively eludes Chilliwack.
Like many historic downtown cores across North America, Chilliwack’s downtown has its modern-day challenges. It’s fair to say the whole area could benefit from an influx of new residents and families, coupled with strategic redevelopment, and more businesses.
But Chilliwack loves its downtown, and that’s never more apparent than at a big community event like Party in the Park.
Although it’s an easy target for complaints, there are actually several aspects of City of Chilliwack’s Downtown Land Use and Development Plan that are starting to roll out.
Councillor Jason Lum was a member of downtown task force struck at city hall to find ways to speed up the revitalization process, and implement the multi-faceted downtown plan.
Although critics like to point out and count all the boarded up storefronts on Yale Road east, Lum cautions that downtown is so much more than just that.
“We can’t just focus on one piece, or on one aspect of the downtown. It’s the whole puzzle. So, how do you fix it? Go shop there or live there,” he said. “I always tell people go experience the downtown for themselves.”
City officials are working on a range ways to make the area more livable, from intensified greening, to the widening of Mill Street, to devising incentives for development.
Let’s take stock.
In terms of downtown improvements since the 1990s, the city has spent $80 million on new facilities like the Cultural Centre, Leisure Centre and Prospera Centre, as well as on efforts like upgraded parks and utilities.
The future of downtown also received a real boost when the community learned that UFV would be opening a business education centre at Five Corners.
Bank of Montreal officials announced at the end of 2012 that it was donating their former branch at the corner of Yale and Young to the University of the Fraser Valley, with the intent of creating education “plaza” focused on business development and training.
The gift of $850,000 from BMO Group to UFV, along with $650,000 from CEPCO for renovations, make for a total donation of roughly $1.5 million to build the newest UFV campus in the heart of downtown.
The downtown core is expected to be transformed by the arrival of a new UFV campus in the middle of it, with the influx of students, instructors and more.
City officials decided in the past few years that they couldn’t wait the 30 years or so the consultants told them it will take to see any significant redevelopment in the downtown core, so they devised a plan to accelerate it.
A task force focused on downtown studied the key factors slowing down that all-important renewal and found some concrete ways to speed it up. Part of the problem is economic factors, but impediments to development were also underlined, such as properties that have to undergo environmental remediation before they can be redeveloped, called “brownfields.”
One example is the old Safeway site on Main Street. City officials are poised to release a new plan for tackling brownfields.
There’s also been pressure to get things moving on the redevelopment front.
A city task force advised the city to start making land ‘development ready’ by purchasing and assembling parcels, demolishing when necessary and remediation of key blocks.
Council voted in November 2012 to issue a notice of intent to expropriate a central property, known as the Irwin Block at 9282 Young Road.
The block identified as ideal for land assembly is the one bounded by Young, Yale Nowell, and Princess. The aim is to create a massive property that will appeal to future investors.
The concept plan features commercial and mixed residential use in three mid-rise buildings around an urban park. The concept drawings envisions multi-family housing for families, seniors and young people, with improved sidewalks and street-scaping.
City of Chilliwack already owns 10 lots on that city block and will acquire the majority of the remaining properties through CEPCO over the next several years.
One of the changes geared to revitalization is the widening of Mill Street, and making it a one-way street going north.
“Widening Mill Street will make it even more pedestrian friendly,” said Kyle Williams, Downtown Chilliwack BIA executive director.
One lane of traffic will be removed to make it one way, but they managed to keep all of the parking spaces, which was a big concern of merchants.
The thinking behind that initiative was to allow some of the restaurants to put out little bistro tables on the widened sidewalk to cultivate a café culture in the downtown.
“It will give the street a fresh look, and a wider street is part of the whole plan to beautify downtown,” Williams said.
Many of the plan’s recommendations are dictated by market forces, but some parts of it will actually become evident in the next year or so. Some of it may be hard to see, but the plan is definitely underway.
Resident can see the details at www.chilliwack.com/downtown