COLUMN: Read about East Clayton’s history from the prof who helped design it

COLUMN: Read about East Clayton’s history from the prof who helped design it

Parking was a concern in the Surrey community’s planning process decades ago

Professor Patrick Condon was part of the original planning for Surrey’s East Clayton neighbourhood. He has taught urban design at UBC for 25 years.

Early in his career there he became involved with the City of Surrey, working with his team to help facilitate a planning process for the East Clayton community. He worked with them on this project nearly 20 years ago. In the past few months there have been dozens of stories about East Clayton, all concerning the conflict between the value of providing affordable rentals for families of modest means and the need to park a lot of cars in this popular neighborhood. Professor Condon reflects on this conflict.

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I remember the moment very clearly. It was the spring of 1998, almost 20 years ago exactly.

We were sitting at a table at the Clayton Hills Golf Course surrounding a hand drawn map of what might be a future residential community for over 15,000 people.

The name of the community? East Clayton. The issue – where will these people park?

A bit of background first.

Land owners in that area had petitioned the city for approval to start a neighbourhood concept planning (NCP) process, hoping to get approval to sell their land for a new and higher (more profitable) “urban” use.

Twenty years ago, there were over a dozen portions of the city undergoing this same process. But East Clayton was unique. East Clayton was the headwaters for three different important salmon streams and there was concern that urban runoff would kill all the fish.

The city had also very recently been sued by farmers in the Serpentine River valley for the negative impacts caused by runoff from upland area urban developments.

The city could not, it was felt, develop this area in a conventional way.

This is where UBC came in.

I hold a research chair at the University called the James Taylor (no relation to the singer!) Chair in Landscape and Livable Environments. In 1998 the chair was very new.

Our mandate was to research ways that urban development could be more sustainable.

Sustainability was a new term then. It’s not new any more.

We also were committed to the idea of making a direct contribution to cities in the region rather than simply publishing articles as most academics are wont to do.

So we offered our help to any community in the region who wanted it, for free. Many communities responded but Surrey was the best of them.

A planner named Burton Leon was anxious to solve the problem of East Clayton, and also anxious to find a more sustainable way to build the expanding city of Surrey.

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He spoke not just for his planning staff but for the elected and appointed officials of Surrey, all of whom, it seemed to me, were very aware of their responsibility to make their fast growing city great.

We worked with Surrey during the mid-1990s, investigating how to make Surrey more sustainable as it grew.

It’s here that I must emphasize one thing above all: UBC’s contribution was as a convener and a facilitator only.

The powers to plan Surrey were and are the province of the elected and appointed officials of that city, and the many stakeholders who have an interest in city development.

As conveners it was our interest to demonstrate that complex issues of sustainable urban development could only be solved by working together in a round table process where all issues were on the table.

This brings me back to parking. Of all the issues we discussed at this table – a table that included area residents, land owners, developers, planners, engineers, the deputy fire chief, federal fisheries representatives, BC transit, school teachers, and other stakeholders – parking was the one that troubled us most.

You see, East Clayton was designed to be sustainable – designed to avoid the problems that we all saw coming.

Stakeholders all saw that replicating sprawling large lot subdivisions would lead to really large problems in the future, notably: negative impacts on lowland farms and fish bearing streams, houses that no one could afford, an absence of affordable places to rent, and a city that was choked with too many cars and no safe places for kids to walk or play.

Participants all agreed, at that time, that we simply had to create a way for Surrey to allow for options to the car, places that were walkable, where you could walk to school, or to the store, or take a bus to work.

Everyone agreed that the best way to do all of this was to have a community where you could afford to buy a home.

To do that you had to cut the cost of developing by increasing land use efficiency by using smaller house lots.

Participants also agreed, in some cases very reluctantly, that as the lots got smaller you needed lanes in the back for the cars. With no driveways in the front you could pull the home closer to the sidewalk and add sociable porches, creating what ended up being called “buildings with a friendly face to the street.”

Stakeholders also saw that the very best way to increase affordability was to allow rental units to be legal in this area.

You have to remember that in 1998 rental suites were not legal in Surrey. Heck they were not even legalized in Vancouver till 10 years later.

See also: Crackdown on illegal suites in Clayton immoral, says Surrey landlord

See more: Clayton suites need to be ‘legalized immediately’ says Landlord BC

So legalizing them from the start was a very big deal.

But participants all could see that the best place to live if you were a renter was in a pleasant neighbourhood.

Surrey didn’t have enough rental units even then for all who needed them and the ones that existed were not in pleasant neighbourhoods where you could have a sense of real community. So it was a big challenge and a big risk at the time to allow them.

I remember vividly John Turner, who was the developer at the table, arguing forcefully that “you will never get anyone in a newly developed area like this to agree to be a landlord, and nobody wants to buy next door to a home where renters were allowed either.”

I remember a long silence ensued, broken when a member of the planning staff, Wendy Whalen I think, spoke next: “Well, we should at least try” she said.

And try they did.

And boy was my friend John Turner wrong.

But East Clayton quickly became Canada’s most successful experiment in affordable housing. Virtually every home sold was sold to someone who could not have otherwise afforded the home absent the rental income provided by the tenant of the suite.

But, we all thought, where will they park?

Surrey’s Clayton neighbourhood has been plagued by parking — or lack thereof — for years. (Now-Leader file photo)

You see, we had designed a community that was walkable, had commercial services nearby, schools within walking distance, and affordable homes.

We had designed a community with a road pattern that was ideal for transit, with many routes through the community that could easily be connected to new neighbourhoods built later on. But one problem really worried us all.

It’s great to build a community that is good for transit. But what happens if there is no transit right away?

We all looked at the representative from BC Transit (later to become TransLink). Sadly he could give us no assurances that transit would come during the first phase of development; but surely it would come when there were ample residents in the area?

Silence.

After another long pause as we rolled up our sleeves and spent a long time, hours, trying to figure out how we could have small lots and rental units and still have enough parking during the early phases of the project, before transit came.

We planned for three cars on each parcel and parking on both sides of most streets.

We hoped that we could have queuing streets like they have in Vancouver where cars can park on both sides of narrow streets if two way traffic on the narrower travel lane is slowed.

We did elaborate counts of parking spaces and got as many in as possible. If we tried to get more we lost houses, or rental units, or both.

In city planning, geometry is very demanding and the geometry of the car is the worst.

This comes back to my moment of seeing the future.

I remember thinking at that moment: in about 20 years if this project is as successful as I hope it will be, there will be a problem.

There will come a moment when the conflict between having affordable homes for owner and renters will come in conflict with the need to store cars. That in the early phases in the long life of this community, residents will be very dependent on their cars.

I remember thinking that at 30 or 40 years things will get better, because certainly the transit will be there by then.

But I remember thinking there will be a time when we have to hope that the residents and officials will be wise enough to work out this difficult pinch point in the life of this community.

It seems the city is at that point now and I am impressed by the care and concern that is being voiced by city officials, journalists, landlords, residents, and the public.

See also: East Clayton suite crackdown ‘on hold,’ says Surrey Mayor

See also: READERS REACT: East Clayton suite crackdown ‘on hold,’ says Surrey Mayor

I am overwhelmed by the degree of commitment that homeowners, and their tenants, have to Clayton Heights.

East Clayton is clearly Canada’s most successful example of how communities can work together, as a community, to provide housing. Landlords helping renters and renters helping to pay the bills.

I truly hope that this success can be consistently underlined in this debate. I, for one, am very proud to have played a very small part in this project and will always sing its praises.