Crafting a Vision for an Evolving Municipality

Published: December 1, 2023
Crafting a Vision for an Evolving Municipality

An Interview with Coquitlam General Manager of Planning and Development, Andrew Merrill

Intention: a word that each Townline project keeps in its orbit from initial ideation through to project completion. This core component of our development process informs the who, what, why and how of our buildings. And our intention is predicated on the greater intentions of the municipalities in which we build.

Harmony and partnership with the City Planning Department in Coquitlam helps us assess the greatest pockets of need, and strategically create to meet those needs. Documents like the Official Community Plan and development policy, paired with public engagement, inspections and preparing spaces for occupancy are all born from the expertise of municipal leaders in the department. From I want to build something to its move in day, the department oversees the regulatory requirements of our projects.

At the helm of the City’s Planning and Development Department is Andrew Merrill, General Manager. We caught up with Andrew to hear his insights on Coquitlam’s recent growth, and learn his thoughts on the future of development in the area.

Coquitlam General Manager of Planning and Development, Andrew Merrill

Outlining Priority Initiatives

“Our first priority is our Development Application Process Review program. In the past it was very manual and paper based. Finding ways of using technology, streamlining regulations, and modernising our business practices helps reflect the current way people do business. We’ve made a lot of strides since then and we’re proud that we launched our Development Application Online Portal earlier this year. It now allows applicants to submit online, pay fees online, monitor their progress and track status online without necessarily needing to drive out to City Hall.

“Other priority areas include ensuring we have enough development capacity. We need to create areas designated for growth, for townhouses and new apartments, that enable developers to assemble property and applications so we can proactively plan how our neighbourhoods evolve and how they change for the next generation.

“In Coquitlam, we’re proud that we have a fairly appreciative community that understands the benefits of growth, development and community evolution. We typically don’t get a lot of push back through our processing or at our public hearings and we don’t want to lose that support, so another priority is finding ways of minimising the disruptive impacts of construction on our residents.”

Identifying Growing Neighbourhoods

“There’s three key areas that we’re focusing on: the first is the high density development in our transit-oriented areas near SkyTrain stations – the stuff in Burquitlam and Lougheed and our City Centre area. Those are the big, high density, mixed use projects where we’re seeing a tremendous amount of growth and change.

“The other area we’re seeing is in the missing middle – areas that are on the shoulders and in the older areas of Coquitlam. We’re looking at how we fit fourplex and multiplex style developments in these areas that are beyond 10 or 15-minute walking distance to SkyTrains.

“Then the third area where we’re seeing growth is in greenfield neighbourhoods on Burke Mountain, where we’re seeing new development of townhouses and some limited single family subdivisions.”

Matching Project with Place

“What we’re looking at next to the SkyTrain station is completely different from what we’re looking at on Burke Mountain. In a Burke Mountain context we’re certainly looking at topography – how do you address the slope? That’s very important, as well as the environmental impact, like the stream and fish habitat corridors that exist on the mountain.

“In more of a Burquitlam or transit-oriented development context, we’re looking at urban design. How do the buildings address the street? What is the sidewalk condition like? How do pedestrians and cyclists experience that neighbourhood and are there a variety of urban amenities like parks, shops, childcare, and other things that those residents need?”

Managing Change

“The internal staff are excited and want to be proactive about these changes. The challenge is this concept of “needing to rebuild the plane while you’re still flying it”. We can’t land it and put it in a hanger while rebuilding, so we have to continue flying the plane and process all of the development applications and get permits out the door, while also rebuilding the whole system around it. That’s the challenge of having people focus on changing the work they’re doing while doing it.

“The other one is the volume of concentrated construction activity in some areas. We’ve seen some areas in, say, Burquitlam or Oakdale neighbourhoods, where we’ll have active construction on all four corners of an intersection. There’s a cumulative impact on deliveries and trades parking, road closures and noise – and being sure to manage that, particularly in a post-covid environment where more people are working from home and are home during the day when that construction is happening.”

Adapting to a Shifting Climate

“When considering the impacts of climate change and environmental sustainability in building performance, whether that’s through the Energy Step Code or the Zero Carbon Step Code from the Province, how we manage stormwater and stormwater runoff in a period of increased duration and frequency of rain storm events is increasingly important. How do we design these neighbourhoods to be more resilient in the face of some of those changes? Increasing heat events is also one of those: traditionally in Canada we were worried about keeping heat in during the winter. Now we’re more worried about keeping the heat out in the summer, and our existing building stock wasn’t built or designed for that.

“Next, how does that intersect with some of the concerns around energy performance and building design in neighbourhood infrastructure to make it more resilient – and how do the added costs impact housing affordability, which is the other crisis in our time? How do we balance both of those to ensure that we’re elevating the performance of our buildings so they have better energy performance while not increasing the cost of those buildings so much that it’s dampening supply or impacting the affordability?”

Evolving Planning Systems

“We’re mindful of all of the changes that both the Province and the Federal Government are continuing to signal about in the planning system. It feels like we’re on the cusp of a big change for the planning framework in BC, when I look at all the changes under the Housing Supply Act in the Homes For People initiative for the Province, as well as the Housing Accelerator Fund and all the changes the Federal Government is making. We’re seeing another generational evolution happening in terms of the way planning is happening and the role of both the Province and the Federal Government in that.”

“Coquitlam is evolving rapidly from a suburban bedroom community to a more urban centre in its own right, and I’m proud to have a hand in shaping that evolution and vision. Coquitlam is still finding out who it is and what type of city it’s becoming. Unlike a more established urban centre where you’re implementing someone else’s vision, here you can have a hand in crafting and shaping that vision.”