Skip to content

Could Delta have stopped the sprawl?

There were warnings about challenges Delta would face even before the new Deas Island Tunnel opened in 1959
housing 1960s and early 1970s in delta, bc
Delta experienced dizzying years of massive growth following the opening of the Deas Island Tunnel.

To say the opening of the Deas Island Tunnel in May of 1959 transformed Delta would be an a rather big understatement.

A massive engineering project, the new tunnel saw more than 136,000 cars drive through it in its first two days.

The Delta Optimist at the time of the opening reported that stores experienced increased business from visitors, many of whom were seeing the town for the first time.

The tunnel also opened the door for residential growth – lots of it. Unfortunately, it was the type of housing that's now out of reach for too many who want to live in Delta.

When the tunnel opened, Reeve John Kirkland predicted it would bring problems to Delta, but the municipality would meet and solve them.

In the summer of 1956, three years before the tunnel opened, council got a warning from the Lower Mainland Regional Planning Board how the growth associated with the new crossing wouldn't necessarily be seen as progress.

Warning of sprawl, James W. Wilson, executive director of the board, said one of the dangers was “overdone residential growth which does not bring economic benefit.”

Council also got warnings about negative impacts during the crossing’s construction.

Lloyd Gray and David Sharp, representing the consulting firm of Joseph B. Ward and Associates, said it could be difficult to maintain Delta as an agricultural centre, as was the case in Richmond.

In 1958, council again got warnings about sprawl associated with growth that would result from the tunnel. That year, the regional planning board submitted to council a study of Delta which recommended stringent zoning measures to stop “further spread of sprawl” already seen in other areas.

“The first impact of things to come is already being felt and tomorrow will bring changes more profound. A new tunnel and highway will put Delta within a half-hour's drive of Vancouver,” the report stated.

The recommendations included the building up of existing sprawl areas to more compact urban densities. The report also suggested that stringent policies be adopted and maintained for farming areas, so that the minimum lot size is large enough to “prevent any random or speculative subdivision for house-building purposes.”

The planning board also took the position that the policies shouldn't be seen as permanent, but rather something that should be reviewed from time to time.

“Urban growth is like a great river; controlled, diked, dammed and it can bring prosperity; allowed to run wild it is disastrous. This does not mean that urbanization is necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean that any municipality in the position of Delta today needs to take a long hard look at the future and to prepare for what it sees there," the report sugggested.

After the tunnel opened, Delta council grappled with a flood of development applications and differing ideas on what should be allowed.

In the early '60s, council fired planner Bob Williams, who was reportedly a disciple of the “stop sprawl” school. 

Angered at the decision, council member Carl Liden, who years later would be an NDP MLA for Delta, accused developers of wanting Williams axed for some time.

In 1964, the future of Delta was still a hot topic as politicians endorsed a consultant's report recommending North and South Delta be promoted primarily as single-family residential communities.

Growth, in fact, was so rapid in those days that when a 1,000-home Ladner subdivision was proposed in the spring of 1969, Mayor Dugald Morrison said Delta was “overwhelmed” with new housing and needed to digest what it already had.

Almost all the housing built during the boom years for all those incoming families were singe-detached units, as rental apartments and condos were too controversial. That created big problems decades later as the city is now attempting to introduce new policies to alleviate its housing crises.

Those problems Delta faces today are a far cry from the 1960s and 1970s, when the population and housing boom showed no sign of slowing.

The population was 8,752 in 1956 but reached the 15,000 mark by 1961, two years after the tunnel opened. The population then jumped to 45,860 by 1971, and things didn't slow down as the population climbed by another 20,000 people five years later.

One of the key figures behind the building boom in Ladner and Tsawwassen was real estate developer George Hodgins, owner of Century Holdings.

In a 1970 interview, Hodgins, was already warning land in southern Delta was becoming in short supply, but he predicted growth would continue for a few more years.

In an interview five years earlier, in 1965, he urged young people, especially singles not looking for a home, to buy a lot for the future while they were still “reasonably priced.”

Delta recent Housing Needs Assessment, which helped guide a new Housing Action Plan, notes home values in the city increased exponentially, but household income didn’t keep pace, making the choice to move into the ownership housing market in Delta even more difficult.

Rents in Delta have also increased, driven by low vacancy rates and trickle–down effects from a hot ownership housing market.

Noting the high proportion of single-detached housing is not meeting the needs of the community, the report also states it is critical that the community has a variety of different housing types to be able to support residents at every point in their lives.

Now called the George Massey Tunnel, the crossing which ushered so many changes and challenges for Delta is to be decommissioned in 2030. That’s when a new eight-lane tunnel replacement is to open.

push icon
Be the first to read breaking stories. Enable push notifications on your device. Disable anytime.
No thanks