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Surrey needs to be Vancouver's equivalent of Oakland to San Francisco, says urban planner

Kenneth Chan Oct 28, 2017 10:37 am 9,620

The area known as Whalley in Surrey has long been identified as Metro Vancouver’s secondary metropolitan core, and one prominent local urban planner is now drawing a comparison to how Surrey and Vancouver’s relationship needs to be the equivalent of Oakland and San Francisco.

“I frequently thought about our region as just like the Bay Area in California. There’s that inner city that is like a gem in many ways, and then there’s that sprawling city on the other side of the bay,” said Bob Williams during a recent talk on Surrey’s future at SFU Woodwards.

Williams, an urban planner and former MLA for Vancouver East and provincial cabinet minister, had a major hand in creating Whistler, Robson Square, the West Coast Express commuter rail service, and Surrey’s Central City office complex.

“I think more and more about our region, the Burrard Peninsula, and with this focus in downtown Vancouver, but it’s also in the south of the river.”

Across the bay from San Francisco – the downtown Oakland skyline. (Shutterstock)

San Francisco has Oakland and Metro Vancouver needs Surrey, he says, explaining that the South of Fraser needs its own Central Business District (CBD) as such commercial and financial hubs are enormous wealth generators.

He went on to draw an analogy of how Metro Vancouver is a “barbell” or “bi-nodal” region, even during its early days with the interurban.

“We have this barbell challenge, and I think we have to encourage both centres in Vancouver and Surrey,” he furthered.

But he says Surrey’s growth cannot be dependent on organic market growth, and that public agencies like crown corporations and universities need to “intrude into the marketplace”.

Williams points to how ICBC spearheaded and spent $250 million on the Central City development in the late-1990s, when he was the chair of the crown corporation, with the intention of stimulating growth in Whalley.

According to Williams, it is estimated this single development – with SFU’s satellite campus as its major anchor – was a catalyst for $4 billion in organic economic development in the area in the years that followed.

Aerial view of the emerging downtown Surrey area, with Central City and Civic Hotel. (Shutterstock)

He says the potential for development in Surrey is significant not only because of its lower land values and the City of Surrey’s open-minded flexibility but also the identified downtown area’s scope. Its area stretches a distance equivalent from Stanley Park to Main Street in Vancouver, with King George Boulevard as its spine.

Williams acknowledges there have been “some minor speed bumps” to the area’s growth, specifically from competition at other areas served by SkyTrain, such as Brentwood, Metrotown, Lougheed, New Westminster, and even Richmond City Centre.

As well, he continued, for the area around Central City to succeed, the municipality’s immense South Asian community also needs to buy into the area. To date, they have not done so.

Beyond downtown Surrey, Williams says Surrey’s industrial capacity will prove to be a major asset. It currently has 6,391 acres of industrial land – more than twice of Vancouver’s 2,919 acres.

Additionally, he identified economic opportunities on the White Rock and South Surrey waterfront, which are currently impeded by a railway.

“Surrey with its great growth and dramatic new beginning in Central City needs a waterfront outlet like we’ve had in Vancouver,” said Williams. “You need to give the south of the Fraser an outlet that is incredible.”

The railway on the White Rock waterfront. (Shutterstock)

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