Surrey's Cinderella story amazes planners

Experts laud municipality's reinvention of itself as a major city with thriving core

The 52-storey 3 Civic Plaza will be the largest tower between Vancouver and Calgary when it is completed by 2016

Surrey's transformation from an agricultural and bedroom community into a city with an urban core is as shocking as it is impressive, say urban planners from across North America.

"It's astonishing what they've accomplished in Surrey," University of Washington urban planning masters student Nathan Daum told a panel earlier this month when the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Land Institute (ULI) held its annual spring meeting in Vancouver.

Daum and other ULI delegates had just returned from a bus tour of Surrey to learn about how suburban development in Metro Vancouver differs from the norm in many North American cities.

One key difference is that Metro Vancouver has a second city with an identifiable city core – one that is home to major projects such as the 52-storey 3 Civic Plaza tower now under construction.

Density advocates in Seattle celebrate whenever a six-storey building is approved in outlying parts of the city, such as Ballard, and in suburbs such as Redmond, said Daum.

"It takes tremendous effort and there are battles and fights, so it is incredible to come here and see what's happened in such a short time in Surrey," he said.

Former Vancouver chief planner Larry Beasley pointed to Metro Vancouver's "peculiar" regional government model – comprising 21 municipalities, the Tsawwassen First Nation and an electoral area – as a good structure for fostering a second regional downtown.

"There's a regional consciousness but, on the other hand, a lot is left to the municipality to reinvent itself in its own way with its own personality," Beasley said. "When you go to Surrey city centre as compared to Vancouver or North Vancouver, it's vividly different. Its character and personality is defined by its people and its leadership."

Curiously, the concept of tall buildings to mark a downtown in Surrey was once a source of ridicule, not praise.

Back in the 1990s, the then-governing New Democratic Party decided that the Insurance Corp. of British Columbia (ICBC) should get into the property development game. The Crown corporation financed, built and operated the 25-storey Surrey Central City tower, which sat virtually empty for years and forced the incoming Liberal government to write down $140 million in debt in the 2000s.

Years passed, ICBC sold its tower and the city provided incentives for developers to build near its city centre.

Tien Sher Group of Companies embarked on its Quattro project: a four-building, 12.5-acre development set to eventually include 1,900 homes. WestStone Properties Ltd. completed its 40-storey Ultra 3 tower in early 2013, and Century Group partnered with the Surrey City Development Corp. to build its 3 Civic Plaza tower.

The City of Surrey added to the hub by locating a library, new city hall and a large civic plaza next to an expanded Simon Fraser University (SFU).

"As we grow, and our population becomes increasingly more youthful, we absolutely have to have economic opportunities in our municipality," said Coun. Bruce Hayne. "That's not only for our residents to be able to have their families in the community, it also reduces stress on our infrastructure regionally so we don't have to keep building larger and larger bridges so they can commute to Vancouver every day."
Hayne also touts the job-creation aspects of the city's Innovation Boulevard, the one-square-kilometre area in the city's core, stretching south from SFU to the Surrey Memorial Hospital. In between there's a University of British Columbia teaching hospital, a Kwantlen Polytechnic University presence and the headquarters for Fraser Health.

"It's a health innovation hub and incubator space for new technology companies," Hayne said. "That kind of coming together in one sector will really help drive our economy forward." •