Fort Langley design guidelines don’t help livability

The boom town look doesn't make the community more livable or walkable.

Editor: One of the best things about Fort Langley is that it is a walkable community. This means that, for a good number of residents, the commercial and recreational areas of the village are within walking distance of their homes.

Visitors find that the commercial streets (of which there are very few) can be perused in a reasonable amount of time without becoming exhausted and without having to park their cars more than once.  People usually don’t have to be too concerned about vehicle traffic (except for dump trucks and motorcycles) or being jostled by harried pedestrians rushing around during their lunch hours.

The village does not have wide expanses of land devoted to vehicle parking, and commercial retail establishments are generally narrow and closely aligned. The pace of life is slower in Fort Langley simply because it is a smaller community.

Another valuable asset Fort Langley has is the mature treed green space, especially along Glover Road, nearby residential lots and the parkland along Bedford Channel.  Walkability has made Fort Langley a good place to live and work; it has helped make Fort Langley liveable.

A wealthier surrounding community and the river have made Fort Langley more attractive than the commercial areas along Fraser Highway in Langley City and Aldergrove.

But livability and heritage are not interchangeable terms. Some group of people decided within the last 20 years that Fort Langley should adopt a “boom town” look and design guidelines have tried to accommodate this style. The boom town look is often defined as being represented by commercial buildings of one, two or three storeys, with grand facades hiding simple wooden buildings.

Boom towns are characterized by hastily-built structures that seem temporary, as opposed to brick or stone buildings that give the impression of permanence and wealth. Boom towns are built quickly to cash in on rapid population expansion, whether caused by a gold rush or transportation expansion.

The commercial area of Fort Langley is in danger of falling victim to indiscriminate preservation of a contrived heritage. Most of the buildings currently in the commercial area of Fort Langley were not built during the gold rush era or at any time that can be identified as a boom time, even though the recent buildings have tried to emulate this era, probably because of the guildelines.

Most of the commercial space along Glover Road between Mavis and 96 Avenue is in buildings that are younger than 60 years of age — check the B.C. Assessment Authority for this information. The Fort (on the edge of the commercial area), the railway station, the community hall and perhaps two or three retail buildings are the only authentic historical buildings over 80 years old left in the commercial area.

The lumber mill built in the 1920s is long gone and the village has shifted from being a working class community to a more gentrified one.

The boom time look adopted in design guidelines of 20 years ago may not be best suited to existing or future generations. Commercial developments are facing a whole host of new considerations that were never remotely on the minds of pioneers to the area.

These new factors include, among other things: The need to preserve farmland while accommodating urban growth; minimizing the environmental footprint of buildings, handling an abundance of motor vehicles, dealing with antiquated infrastructure, purchasing scarce land at high prices, construction, building code and material changes, potential earthquakes and the mandate to be accessible for all citizens.

The heritage guidelines may prevent more eclectic experiments in architecture.  Age alone should not make something worth keeping — there was ugly and poorly-constructed architecture in the past, as there is now. Design guidelines might act as a starting point for new buildings, but the commercial area of Fort Langley is not a museum.

Romanticizing the past ignores the problems and failures of that past, and ignoring problems of bad architecture means that we are bound to preserve rather than learn from our mistakes.

Hopefully Fort Langley community members will engage in reasonable discussion of the evolution of the liveable village and be less adamant about maintaining a particular look. Slavish devotion to rigid design guidelines may end up preventing development that could be wonderfully beneficial to the community. There are probably ways to honour the history of Fort Langley, while at the same time adapting to a changing reality and the demands of population growth.

Christine Burdeniuk,