Chilliwack Mayor Sharon Gaetz speaking at the Urban Development Institute's 2014 panel of Fraser Valley mayors Wednesday at the Langley Events Centre.

Fraser Valley mayors talk seniors housing, transit

Mayors from Surrey to Chilliwack questioned at Langley forum hosted by Urban Development Institute

Housing and transit issues dominated a forum of Fraser Valley mayors organized by the Urban Development Institute Wednesday In Langley.

The panel discussion featured eight mayors from Surrey to Chilliwack – most of them running for re-election – and was moderated by Vancouver real estate consultant Michael Geller.

Abbotsford Mayor Bruce Banman said neighbourhood design needs to take into account the growing numbers of seniors who are used to driving their cars but may be vulnerable to suddenly losing their licence.

“The loss of that independence can literally train wreck them,” Banman said. “Their life as they know it can change in a heartbeat.”

Developers can help by finding ways to provide housing seniors want within walking distance of the shopping and services they need, he added.

Chilliwack Mayor Sharon Gaetz also urged developers to design senior-friendly housing that fits into complete, walkable neighbourhoods.

“I think we have to get past the idea of these gated communities – I can’t stand them,” Gaetz said.

“It really isolates people from each other and lets them live in an artificial world. That may feel more secure to them. But a healthy community has integrated races, people and ages.”

Mayors were repeatedly asked how cities can make housing more affordable in the Lower Mainland.

Langley Township Mayor Jack Froese said many Fraser Valley communities – including his – need to find ways to get more rental homes on the market.

“Not everybody wants to own a house,” he said.

The audience included many major development and home construction firms.

Froese said developers want to build as efficiently and profitably as possible, but noted municipalities must plan carefully with an eye to the future.

Future residential development in Langley’s Brookswood area will be controversial, he said, but called it a logical fit with development just to the west in Surrey, where the Campbell Heights industrial park is increasingly a magnet for jobs.

Geller said he’s “astounded” at the number of young people in the region who don’t have driver’s licences or opt for car co-op services instead of owning their own vehicle, in part to save money for a home.

But Banman said it makes no sense to reduce parking requirements, particularly in single-family residential neighbourhoods, until adequate transit is available.

Providing high-quality transit in the Lower Mainland shouldn’t be that hard, he said, compared to other metropolitan areas that sprawl in all directions.

“We basically go east and west,” Banman said. “Don’t tell me we can’t figure out how to move people east and west in a 100-mile corridor.”

Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts, who is leaving civic politics to run as a federal Conservative, said attempts to densify single-family neighbourhoods with narrower streets and tighter homes can backfire, pointing to the failed “experiment” in Surrey’s Clayton neighbourhood.

“It is an absolute disaster because everybody relies on a car.”

Watts then slammed the provincial government for continuing to suggest Metro Vancouver mayors raise TransLink property taxes to fund a critical transit expansion, rather than put proposed new sources of revenue to a Metro referendum.

“That’s the way this provincial government wants to go,” Watts said, admitting she’s frustrated. “They want it on property tax. We’ve been doing this for seven years. Now there’s a referendum. They’re still not moving on the referendum. They said we need to take the lead on their initiative. And we’re back to square one.”

Mission Mayor Ted Adlem argued transit riders should pay higher fares.

He noted Mission taxpayers send $760,000 a year to TransLink for the West Coast Express station in their community but no contribution comes from Abbotsford, home to about 40 per cent of the commuter train passengers who board there.

“It shouldn’t be on the backs of the taxpayers, it should be on the back of the rider,” Adlem said.