Candidates for Pitt Meadows council all predict that the issue of the North Lougheed Corridor will likely end up back before the newly elected council, and probably not far into their mandate.
The 50-hectare site at the northeast corner of the intersection of the Lougheed Highway and Harris Road is primed for commercial development. It is owned by developer SmartCentres and has the existing six-member council at a stalemate, with three voting to advance the proposed development (Mayor Deb Walters and councillors Gwen O’Connell and Tracey Miyashita), and three not (David Murray, Bruce Bell and Janis Elkerton).
“I was extremely disappointed that the proposal was squashed by an apparent slate that is now seeking re-election,” said mayoralty candidate Michael Hayes.
He is in favour of the plan – which he pointed out has been in the works since 2007 – based on employment opportunities, tax revenue and improved transportation infrastructure.
“There was a lot of merit there,” said Hayes.
He noted that SmartCentres was ready to proceed, and thought the plan had the support of council. Now it’s delayed.
“I hope it’s something council will look at early in the term.”
Mayoralty candidate John Becker said council should deal with the issue in a timely manner. To do nothing, or let the issue sit, is not fair to SmartCentres, which has invested “time, treasure and talent” in its proposal.
He said council must be seen by the development community to deal fairly.
“We need to be business-like in how we deal with this issue.”
The three councillors who voted against the plan are on an election team with Becker – the “slate” Hayes refers to.
Becker said building the road, the North Lougheed Connector, would cost taxpayers close to $20 million. There could be more costs on top of that, including land acquisition, that he said have the potential to add another $10-20 million in costs. Based on that, he said, it is good that council quashed the proposal as it stands.
“I can’t make an economic issue for that connector, right off the top,” he said.
He wants all the facts on the table, including the final design for the North Lougheed Connector, and the contribution of costs from all parties.
He has seen three different versions of the connector’s tie-in to Harris Road, so that design has to be finalized.
Becker said SmartCentres has to be clear about what design elements are “make or break,” and council should know what the highways ministry will contribute to an often-discussed Harris Road overpass, which would impact the development.
He said the question of how many jobs will be generated remains nebulous, but that is a key consideration for council in a cost/benefit analysis.
“There’s a lot more homework on the facts and figures that needs to be done,” said Becker. “Then we can have an opinion that’s subjective.”
Mayoralty candidate Gary Paller said the developer can proceed right now, by building an access to the site off Harris Road and building on the land that is already available. Any further roads or infrastructure needed to develop the site should be paid for by the developer, he said.
SmartCentres already has 800 feet of commercial space along the highway that is available for building. Acquiring more land from the Agricultural Land Reserve is contingent on infrastructure.
“I would like to see that parcel turned into commercial land,” said Paller. “What’s the holdup?”
Council candidate Bill Dingwall said the development is complicated, because it is tied to the larger picture of building a new traffic artery north of the Lougheed Highway, to deal with growing congestion from Maple Ridge to Coquitlam.
“I know that citizens don’t like taking 15 minutes to go from the Pitt bridge to 207th.”
He said there are too many gaps in the plan for it to be approved by council.
“There’s no detailed planning done, and there’s no detailed financial numbers,” Dingwall added.
He said the North Lougheed Connector is important infrastructure, and senior government should be at the table. The province’s contribution needs to be quantified before the plan goes ahead.
“If I get on council, I’ll be asking all of those tough questions,” he said. “We need to do our due diligence, and figure out who’s going to pay.”
Council candidate Mike Stark has watched the issue unfold while attending council meetings over the past six years, and he feels SmartCentres is asking too much from the city.
“I don’t like that the developers are saddling the taxpayers of Pitt Meadows with a huge bill,” he said, referring to the $19 million cost of building the North Lougheed Connector, and potentially more. “I’m not in favour of residents paying developers’ costs.”
Stark said there are only 18,000 people in Pitt Meadows, and he believes SmartCentres is relying on customers from Maple Ridge to make its development a financial success – so it wants the connector built.
He was also skeptical of the need for the development, given that there is a new Walmart and other stores “five minutes west,” that it would compete with.
Stark noted that there is commercial space available for rent in Pitt Meadows now, including at Solaris – which he called “the crown jewel.”
“Let’s take care of what we have right now,” he said.
Scott Magri, another council candidate, does not want to see the expanded project proceed, noting the developers could put a strip mall in right now.
“Farmland here is so important – you can’t eat asphalt,” he said, noting that water shortages in the U.S. will put more demands on agricultural land in Canada in the future.
“This whole Lower Mainland is gold, and we’ve got to start protecting it,” he said. “I’m dead set against it [the development].”
The city’s plans for the 50-hectare North Lougheed Corridor, located northeast of the highway and Harris Road, has been a controversial issue for years.
The land is mostly owned by SmartCentres, a land developer whose tenants include Walmart, Payless, Costco, Staples and Indigo. A concept plan adopted by council envisions mixed employment, a land-use designation that would allow everything from big box stores, a hotel or conference centre, showrooms or a business park.
City hall hopes that developing the entire site will facilitate the construction of the North Lougheed Connector, a road that’s needed to access the commercial strip. It would stretch from Harris Road to Golden Ears Way.
SmartCentres can begin construction on an area along the highway 600 feet deep, but needs a much larger space to accommodate its big-box tenants and parking. The city applied to the Agricultural Land Commission to exclude an additional 33.1 hectares (81 acres) from the reserve.
The exclusion was granted in 2013, with four caveats, including further protection of farmland in other parts of the city, a required change in Metro Vancouver’s Regional Growth Strategy, and beginning construction of the North Lougheed Connector within three years of the ALC’s acceptance of a traffic-calming plan for Old Dewdney Trunk Road – a key route for farmers.