Surrey’s new direction rings civic alarm bells

Doug McCallum’s return to the municipality’s mayor’s chair marks a sharp turn in policy for the city

The City of Surrey is pushing for more free parking at Surrey Memorial Hospital – one of a number changes being pursued by council under newly elected Mayor Doug McCallum | Photo: Chung Chow

Dianne Watts admits she was never too shy to call out the RCMP if any problems with policing arose while she was mayor of Surrey from 2005 to 2014.

“Whatever issues – we had a good working relationship,” she said.

That wasn’t necessarily the case with her predecessor, Doug McCallum, with whom she served on city council before taking the Surrey mayor’s seat.

“He’s been at loggerheads with the RCMP since he was on council back in the ’90s. He’s always disliked the RCMP, and there were many, many battles with many of the officers on the street, many of the media liaison officers as well as the top brass,” Watts recalled.

McCallum, who has returned as Surrey’s mayor following the October municipal elections, has the Mounties in his crosshairs again, along with transit plans shepherded under the previous councils.

The city’s sharp change in direction should be a concern for residents, Watts said.

Since returning to the mayor’s office November 5, McCallum and the council dominated by his Surrey Safe slate voted to replace the RCMP with a municipal police force and cancel the $1.65 billion light-rail transit (LRT) line stretching to Guildford and Newton in favour of a SkyTrain line to Langley.

TransLink and the City of Surrey had collectively spent about $70 million preparing for the LRT.

Watts said it’s worrying to see 10 years of work go “down the drain” as the city pursues a transit line that will be much harder to build than many might assume.

“We went from a bedroom community of Vancouver to a regional centre and the second-largest city in the province,” Watts said. “There was a strategy behind that in moving it forward in terms of making sure we had a social network in place, making sure we had development that built community, ensuring that we were building a downtown core.”

Watts noted the proposed SkyTrain line running down the Fraser Highway will have to navigate through the 183-hectare Green Timbers Urban Forest, much of which is within the Agricultural Land Reserve. It would then cut through the Fleetwood neighbourhood, where overpasses will have to be built for at-grade rail.

Watts said she doesn’t believe the extension can be built all the way to Langley as McCallum contends.

Meanwhile, council is also encouraging drivers to travel to central locations in their vehicles with enticements of free parking.

Earlier this month council officially approved free two-hour parking at city hall and approximately 100 street parking spots around Surrey Memorial Hospital. City hall is now asking the Fraser Health Authority, which controls about 2,000 parking spots at the hospital, to offer those for free.

A city report estimates parking revenue lost from Surrey’s coffers will total $850,000.

The City of Surrey’s media department did not respond to an interview request for McCallum or Surrey Safe councillors.

“The current council seems to be stepping back a substantial number of decades,” said Patrick Condon, a professor of urban design at the University of British Columbia’s School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture.

Condon’s history with Surrey stretches back to the late 1990s, when he worked on the East Clayton project to help design a new neighbourhood in the rapidly growing city.

“They’re at a difficult point for their development,” said Condon, who was a Vancouver mayoral candidate in the 2018 municipal elections. “They grew up as a suburban community organized around the car but now they’re too dense, and there’s too many jobs. They’re too dependent on the car, and it’s a very difficult transition to go from a car-oriented suburb to a multi-modal city.”

Condon, who has advocated for an LRT system along Vancouver’s Broadway corridor instead of the planned SkyTrain extension, said the LRT system proposed for Surrey would allow for more medium-density development along the line rather than heavier density at the SkyTrain stops.

Scrapping LRT in favour of SkyTrain, he said, means less density overall and less affordable housing options in higher-density spots.

“Our citizens are very familiar with SkyTrain. What they don’t realize is that SkyTrain is an antiquated system from technologies that were invented in the 1970s and are not used anywhere else, largely, throughout the world. So we’re stuck with a lemon of a system, and yet it’s the system that we know and many people love, so therein lies the problem.”

Meanwhile, Surrey Board of Trade CEO Anita Huberman said plans to scrap LRT are expected to result in lost oppurtunities for employment and affordable housing.

“The [proposed] bus rapid-transit solution to connect all of the town centres is not going to densify the other corridors into Newton, Guildford and eventually into Cloverdale and South Surrey,” Huberman said. “Again, Surrey is going to be delayed in terms of transportation investment.”

Huberman added that plans to transition to a municipal police force are also causing concern in the business community.

“There’s no business plan, there’s no costing plan, there’s been no public engagement on the choice between an RCMP and municipal force. The ancillary costs, even, to have a municipal police force have not been communicated to the public,” she said. “There’s simply no evidence to indicate that a municipal police force reduces gang activity.”

Watts echoed Huberman’s views on the potential impact a municipal police force could have on gang violence.

“Look at Toronto. They have their own police force. They have 90 murders,” she said, referring to the record homicides the city tallied earlier this month. “It’s nonsensical that a change in the patch on your shoulder is going to fix the gang issues.”

Watts also raised concerns that costs for a municipal force will be significantly more than for the RCMP.

“Where’s the money coming from? You either raise taxes or you cut services,” she said. “Property taxes are at the max, people at fixed income cannot afford any more and, so looking at how you’re going to pay for this is going to be very critical as we move forward.”

Surrey’s opportunity to become the major metropolitan centre of Metro Vancouver – to do “something remarkable and different than the rest of the region and launch themselves in advance of Vancouver” – now appears to be slipping away, according to Condon. “Now they’re just going to be the stepchild of Vancouver for the next two generations.”