What came first, the big boxes or the area plan to control their size? The answer lies somewhere in the middle of a see-sawing, decade-long desire to balance the growth of a vibrant, sustainable neighbourhood with a developer's urge to construct a 14-acre, Walmart-anchored shopping centre in the Alexandra portion of West Cambie.
Sure, the shopping centre proposal was first on the scene in 2003, but was ahead of its time in terms of planning for the area bound by Garden City Road, Alderbridge Way, No. 4 Road and Alexandra Road.
Its arrival prompted the city council of the day into action in terms of propelling a larger area plan into motion.
That grand plan, the West Cambie Area Plan (WCAP), was adopted in 2006 by council to oversee and control the potential growing pains.
Depending on whom you speak to, the WCAP has done exactly what it set out to do seven years ago and there's no rabbit being pulled from any hat.
For others, like veteran councillor Harold Steves, the plan, in his mind, was never conceived to allow the birth of another big box shopping centre in Richmond.
"This is a decision we should have taken 10 years ago," Steves told city council's planning committee this week, moments before Smartcentres' proposal was approved to the next stage.
"If the area plan allows this, then the area plan is in error. We never, ever set this up to have big box stores in there, it was supposed to be a neighbourhood shopping centre. This is contrary to our OCP (Official Community Plan) concept. Big developments are supposed to be transit orientated and this clearly is not."
Since the WCAP's inception, numerous revisions to Smartcentres' plan have "ended up justifying what we have now," said Steves.
Steves said the damage, as he sees it, could have been undone several times over the years, but said some fellow councillors kept "sitting on the fence." When you do that, he charged, "everybody eventually gets on side" with the idea.
"In the early days, I was in favour of the idea of a neighbourhood shopping centre. But it always had the potential to turn into something big box like this and I told (council members) at the time."
Many on that 2006 council were themselves concerned about what might happen in terms of this turning into a big box shopping centre, Steves recalled.
"But I guess, over time, they seem to have forgotten, I don't know. It's against all the planning we've done over the years, in terms of everything you need being within five to 10 minutes walking distance. This is totally outside of that, it makes no sense whatsoever."
On the contrary, retorted Coun. Evelina Hasley-Brandt.
She believes the WCAP and the shopping centre proposal go hand-in-hand and make near perfect sense, no matter what tenant anchors the development, referring to the vitriol spilled by many at the prospect of welcoming Walmart into the city.
"This meets the OCP and the WCAP," she said. "When we did the (area plan), what we envisaged was a large retail area.
"But if we're going to start getting into which restaurant can go in this corner and what store can go in that corner, then we're heading into dangerous territory.
"That's not what we do; this is a good land use plan." Did Halsey-Brandt always see big box stores sprouting up as part of the WCAP? "There's always been large plate stores planned for this area, whether that would be a Safeway or a Superstore-type place," she said.
"This was what was expected; build up the residential component and then the retail would catch up."
Halsey-Brandt said it's unreasonable to ask people to come live in the area - 1,200 of the WCAP's envisaged 3,000 homes have been built in the Alexandra portion of West Cambie - and then tell them they have to go to No. 3 Road to get what they need.
"That wasn't the vision of this area plan," she added. "That whole community should be able to come out to a public hearing. We cannot always have perfection, but I think this is pretty close to it."
The assertion that such a major retail development, placed far from transit hubs, flies in the face of the city's long-term sustainable community goal, also bemuses Halsey-Brandt.
"The reality is that people drive to get their groceries, I don't know anyone who cycles or gets the bus to do that," she said.
"It's not going to be any bigger than the likes of Ironwood. I know Walmart is not just a Safeway or whatever, it's a combination of a few things. I think it's quite smart, people might not need to drive around so much."
Mayor Malcolm Brodie, meanwhile, is surprised to hear so many people are, well, surprised by the possibility of a big box shopping centre.
"This has been around for 10 years and I can't see why anyone is surprised by it," Brodie told the News.
"To me, what's proposed here, in general terms, is what we envisaged with this (area plan).
"I believe the plan always had the potential to produce what we have in front of us now; there's no surprises."
Despite the planning committee voting 4-1 in favour of sending the shopping centre proposal to full council and then a probable public hearing, Steves hasn't lost hope of the big boxes being folded down in size.
Harking back to when a similarly large shopping centre was proposed in Terra Nova, Steves said it's never too late to say no.
"There was due to be a huge grocery store there and we said 'we don't want that,' and we went back to the developer and it was reduced in size.
"We didn't have to approve it and we didn't. We can still have a neighbourhood shopping centre (in West Cambie), with a grocery store, smaller businesses, but no big boxes; we don't need them. It doesn't need a Walmart or whatever."
And if and when the public hearing arrives later this fall, city council, said Steves, can "vote this down."
"There's still a chance. But with the attitude on council, I'm not holding my breath. We'll see what happens, there's going to be a lot of people at the public hearing."
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