“This is your next Metrotown”

The Surrey Central tower, housing SFU operations and the Fraser Health head office, seen from Holland Park

The Surrey Central tower, housing SFU operations and the Fraser Health head office, seen from Holland Park

 

Dianne Watts, the mayor of the City of Surrey since 2005, has brought a level of logic and discipline to her job that was lacking under her predecessor.

Residential towers on King George Boulevard, seen from Holland Park

Residential towers on King George Boulevard, seen from Holland Park

It’s interesting, then, to consider the logic behind Surrey Central, perhaps Ms. Watts’ pet project.  This burgeoning development combines civic functions, commercial expansion and residential towers, organized around the Surrey Central and King George rapid transit stations. Built in the middle of a neighbourhood that has struggled with crime and social issues, Surrey Central goes beyond the standard suburban facelift. It’s an attempt to build a commercial, civic and cultural hub worthy of a Great City.

Surrey is the second-largest city in British Columbia, with an estimated  population of 510,000.  Surrey Central alone is forecast to add more than 35,000 people by 2031, from a current total of about 30,000. To help fuel growth in the area, Mayor Watts recently moved City  headquarters from a nondescript residential-area location to a $100 million building on 104 Avenue. A new library has opened next door, and a performing arts centre is in the plans.

From a City of Surrey handout dated 2010. The new library is shown in the foreground, the City Hall behind; as-yet-unbuilt towers to the right, and a public square (busy, yet not crowded) in the middle.

From a City of Surrey handout dated 2010. The new library is shown in the foreground, the City Hall behind; as-yet-unbuilt towers to the right, and a public square (busy, yet not crowded) in the middle.

Two blocks from the new City Hall, Simon Fraser University and the regional Develpment croppedhealth authority have taken co-occupancy of a large tower. The provincial offices of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police have moved into the area. Surrey Memorial Hospital, on the southern edge of the precinct, is rapidly adding new services. My co-tourist Robert Smarz and I counted seven or eight apartment towers under construction. The scale of activity is too dispersed to capture in photographs. “This is just the beginning,” said Mr. Smarz. “This is your next Metrotown.”

Metrotown? Burnaby’s megamall-dominated, rapid-transit-oriented, high-density precinct has already attracted people in large numbers, and it’s still expanding. Surrey appears to be striving for something with a stronger sense of organization. However, there’s a risk we’ll end up with a result in Surrey that is just BIG.

Journalist and blogger Frances Bula reported on the challenges facing “Surrey’s new downtown” in February 2014; in the comments thread attached to her post, local blogster Voony made a reference to “urbanisme sur dalle”, a style of development spawned in Europe in the 1960s. A literal translation of the phrase is “urbanism on a slab.” “Urbanism above the street” is probably better, suggesting a disconnect between the architectural mass and everything that surrounds it. An often-cited example is La Defense, a suburban government precinct visible from the Eiffel Tower.

La Defense. Photo by Ali Farnam. Taken from Meriadeck.free.fr, a blogsite concerned with urban development

La Defense. Photo by Ali Farnam. Taken from Meriadeck.free.fr, a blogsite concerned with urban development

A conceptual rendering of the performing arts centre proposed for Surrey Central. Municipal handout, 2010.

A conceptual rendering of the performing arts centre proposed for Surrey Central. Municipal handout, 2010.

The truth is that given the volumes of traffic on the main highway, King George Boulevard, this will never be a cozy urban village. In fact, King George near 104 is one of the most dangerous stretches of road in B.C., for motorists and pedestrians. Leaving aside the “Great City” ambitions, Surrey Central will succeed in its own terms if the city government can reduce the number of vehicle-related crashes; build a sense of safety and security for residents; and facilitate diversified commercial growth, both to improve the local job market and top up the City’s revenues.

Walkway croppedOur own walk began at the King George entrance to Holland Park, carefully designed and landscaped but sparsely visited on a cloudy Saturday morning. The park faces the butt end of the precinct’s commercial centrepiece, the Central City Shopping Centre. The most obvious pedestrian route from the park to the university and City Hall bisects mall property. Much of this route runs beneath the Skytrain public transit guideway, as shown in the photo here.

The rapid transit line, which originates near the hospital, runs through New West and Burnaby to downtown Vancouver. It opened in 1986 and is now marked by clusters of high-density residential and commercial development such a Metrotown. Skytrain is heavily used, moving my companion Mr. Smarz to ask: “How do they expect to get all these extra people on to the train?” One solution, would be to run more trains; another would be to build more rapid transit lines; but we shall see.

North and east of the shopping centre, on 135 Street, on King George Boulevard and beyond 104 Avenue, many properties appear to be awaiting development. The “For Lease” signs and empty shopfronts create a forlorn air in places. The cinderblock roller rink and the Fresgo Inn, a cafeteria-style diner, are local institutions of a sort; having sampled the air in the first and the food in the second, I’ll venture that both have  outlasted their recommended shelf life. In future, instead of such local colour, we’ll see bigger, denser development that local government envisions as “truly livable and modern”; judging by the current pace of construction, the day is coming quickly.

Awaiting development: vintage industrial properties north of City Hall in Surrey Central

Awaiting development: vintage industrial properties north of City Hall in Surrey Central

The library seen from University drive, with City Hall behind

The library seen from University drive, with City Hall behind

 

 

Coquitlam’s waterfront plan

 

Looking across Como Creek to the proposed site of the Coquitlam waterfront village. The hillside in the left background is New Westminster.

Looking across Como Creek to the proposed site of the Coquitlam waterfront village. The hillside in the left background is New Westminster.

As it stretches along the south side of Highway 1, much of Coquitlam’s United Boulevard is zoned “Highway Retail Industrial.”

Furniture reducedThis loose designation has enabled the development of a sprawling big-box retail precinct. One of the City’s handouts counts 18 large-scale furniture stores along United Boulevard, blending into the warehouse and fabricating shop uses that extend down to the Fraser River.

It’s not a place where normal people go to walk, but my co-tourist Lawrence Wang and I ventured out on a Sunday afternoon, braving the Boulevard, its parking lots and deserted industrial side streets. We ended at the only café in the district, a Tim’s, which was (inevitably) humming. “Where do all these people come from?” Lawrence asked. “Furniture shopping, I guess.”

Furniture stores. The building through the centre houses he tolling offices for the Port Mann Bridge.

Furniture stores. The building through the centre houses the tolling offices for the Port Mann Bridge.

On our way to Tim’s we discovered a walking path that led from the Boulevard along Como Creek to a pocket-Fill 3 reducedsized park on the waterfront. In recent years, the lands west of the creek have stored sand and rocks for the Port Mann Bridge/Highway 1 megaproject. However, an area plan adopted by the City in 2008 would transform 36 acres of industrial land into a mixed residential/ industrial “village,” with housing for as many as 8,000 people, organized around a walkable eight-block retail high street.

The City document that envisions this transformation is 56 pages long, and full of satisfying suggestions for making the new community nice. Its policies would

  • support public transit investment
  • increase the viability of local economic ventures
  • require residential buildings to be built to a minimum of LEED or Built Green BC silver equivalency
  • develop a district energy system
  • encourage the settlement of a diverse population through housing choice.

The area plan shows a mid-rise approach to building Fraser Mills; a 2012 concept drawing unveiled by Beedie Development is more tower-heavy.

A rendering from Coquitlam's 2008 plan

A rendering from Coquitlam’s 2008 plan

A 2012 posting from the Beedie Living site

A 2012 posting from the Beedie Living site

 

 

 

 

Como Creek, east side

Como Creek, east side

In either case, implementing the plan would present a major challenge to a city that has bypassed the urban village form over the past generation. In principle, I support the side-by-side location of residential and industrial uses; but we’re starting here with a large and bland stock of industrial structures around the Fraser Mills perimeter. And once a resident walks through that industrial screen, there is little interest along United Boulevard (okay, there’s Tim’s, and the casino next door) or on the north side of the Freeway (Boston Pizza, IKEA).

The Highway 1 upgrades, started in 2008, are substantially complete, but there’s still some work required to finish off the major interchanges. When the last orange cone is removed, one presumes that the Fraser Mills lands will be open for development, starting with new city streets and sidewalks. We shall see.

Coquitlam Waterfront - concept view

 

Looking down the Fraser River from the mouth of Como Creek

Looking down the Fraser River from the mouth of Como Creek

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Five-year home price trends: 2014 vs 2013

Upper AmblesideIn the fall of 2012 we looked at “speculation and stagnation” in the real estate market in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland.

Since then, the outlook has changed. Prices have increased significantly in the detached-home market, and a declining trend in apartment prices has been reversed in many communities. Continue reading

The village at Ladner

Ladner docks

If you decide to live in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland, you may as well orient yourself to water or mountains.

You might choose the old fishing village of Ladner, in the south part of the municipality of Delta, because the weather is relatively dry (despite the snow on the day we visited.) Or because residents have worked to develop a prosperous, safe sense of community. Continue reading

The Metro transit referendum and the mayors

LRT car of the future, from the City of Surrey website

LRT car of the future, from the City of Surrey website

Over the past month, we’ve seen intense political bickering and positioning around public transit in Metro Vancouver.

Events are moving quickly, and I hesitate to offer conclusions – except to suggest that the struggle between the B.C. Government and local mayors threatens to overshadow the question of how to build a better transit system. Continue reading

Fraser Canyon hamlets and one-dollar houses

One-dollar houses 4

From downtown Vancouver, it’s an hour’s drive in mid-day traffic to the edge of the Metro regional district. It’s almost twice as far again to the edge of Fraseropolis, the larger region that overlaps and interacts with Metro Vancouver.

The Fraser Canyon hamlet of Boston Bar shares a health authority with the City of Burnaby, at the border of the City of Vancouver. Its small public library is part of a system that stretches into the middle ring of Metro Vancouver suburbs. Continue reading

Port Moody’s shrinking, growing plan

There Goes the Neighbourhood: Under the Port Moody plan, a four-block section of this laneway (Spring Street) would become a pedestrian thoroughfare in a  high-density housing zone.

There goes the neighbourhood: under the Port Moody plan, a four-block section of this laneway (Spring Street) would become a pedestrian thoroughfare in a high-density housing zone.

Port Moody City Council is curbing its appetite for urban growth after the introduction last year of a bold plan to prepare for the opening of rapid transit.

This matters because Port Moody has taken an innovative approach to substance and process during its current planning cycle, and the choices made in this Metro Vancouver city will affect choices that are made elsewhere in British Columbia. Continue reading