Culture and public transit integral for Surrey's momentum to become a "world-class" city

Jul 31 2020, 11:22 pm

Local community and business leaders last week provided their perspective on the steps Surrey needs to take to keep momentum going on economic development, especially growing Surrey city centre into Metro Vancouver’s secondary regional downtown.

Panelists at an event held by the Downtown Surrey Business Improvement Association (DSBIA) centred on the need to have future strategies revolve around creating the necessary arts, cultural, and transportation infrastructure to support the growing population and business community.

Real estate marketing mogul Bob Rennie reiterated common assertions that Surrey, with its current rate of growth and significantly larger land mass, will exceed Vancouver’s population by 2030. Currently, Vancouver has over a quarter of Metro Vancouver’s population, and more than a third of its jobs.

Over the past two years, buoyed by increased affordability in the eastern communities, there has been a flurry of new proposed development in Surrey — a level that was previously unseen, and typically restrained to the suburban cities within the north of Fraser.

“Surrey is fresh, it’s looked at as emerging. It still has room to go and grow,” said Rennie. “You need to capitalize on that, and move that bar along. You can’t say you have the large population at the end of this decade in the province and not be a contemporary city.”

With Simon Fraser University’s growing presence and the continued expansion of the Innovation Boulevard, Rennie says Surrey is already in the right direction by focusing on the knowledge economy.

Rennie also said the city centre needs to be “livable and walkable” with the “right” restaurants, retail, amenities, recreation, and cultural infrastructure.

He suggested the city centre could use its own performing arts centre — “a small Queen Elizabeth Theatre of some sort” — and collaborate closely with the large South Asian community on creating an arts and culture strategy.

“We have this huge opportunity to become in a sense a real world-class city, in the sense that we can have all of the arts and culture that our various groups bring to us,” said Gary Begg, the BC NDP MLA for Surrey-Guildford. “I think that in reality is the destiny of Surrey if we do things well.”

Surrey city centre

Future possible 2040 skyline of Surrey City Centre. (City of Surrey)

Elizabeth Model, the CEO of the DSBIA, said the municipal government has made “great directives” over the past year to catalyze development in the city centre, including waiving some of the development costs. She agrees there also needs to be an emphasis on turning the city centre into a destination of its own.

“We’re looking at right now to activate places and spaces… to have the people who are here to enjoy the atmosphere of becoming a real downtown,” she said, highlighting that the city centre is around 500 acres and will eventually be divided with new streets and redevelopments for a more walkable urbanscape.

Rennie said there is more potential with Surrey city centre than Burnaby’s Metrotown, which he says wants to be the region’s second downtown, but he derided it as “not livable, not walkable, and a hodge podge in how it is put together.”

All three panelists were aligned on the importance of transportation for the prosperity of Surrey and the broader region, specifically improved public transit.

“[Transportation] is the key to the future development of the region. If you can’t conveniently travel within the region and outside the region, then everything else is stifled,” said Begg.

“There is a recognition particularly because Surrey is so widespread that we have to make it as easy as we possibly can. If we truly want to cut down on our carbon emissions, we need to encourage people to use rapid transit. People will continue to use their single occupancy large cars on our freeways if it is easy for them to do that. It will be a key and we recognize it as such to the continuous and future development of not only Surrey but the entire region.”

Modal commented that “the key to economic development is good transportation, whether it be light rail, SkyTrain, bus, cycling lanes… it’s a combination of all of the above.”

King George Hub Surrey

Artistic rendering of King George Hub at The Stations redevelopment, located next to SkyTrain’s King George Station. (PCI Developments)

As for Rennie, he believes transit-oriented developments need to directly fund TransLink’s projects — and in a big way.

The public transit authority should participate in the land value capture on the uplift within a 200-metre radius around SkyTrain stations and “insist on density,” he says.

“It shouldn’t be negotiable. We should have density with very little parking at all of our stations, but plan on it at the beginning so that you can afford to keep doing more transit. You need to densify or you won’t have the ridership,” said Rennie, who said TransLink currently gets nothing for building and operating the infrastructure, while developers and municipal governments are in a position to profit.

He says the region needs to learn from its mistake with the Canada Line and the drawn-out Cambie Corridor planning process.

Rennie also asserted that Amazon should establish its major presence in Surrey instead of Vancouver, as they “would have done a lot better coming out here and where people can afford to live, but because we’ve got transit they’re all going to lie here and work in downtown Vancouver.”

Prior to the health crisis, the BC NDP provincial government established a direction to grow Surrey city centre into a competing regional business hub with downtown Vancouver.

Kenneth ChanKenneth Chan

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