Semiahmoo: 2030?

A 2008 proposal for the Semiahmoo core, looking up 152 Street from 16 Ave. captured in early 2017 from the Amanat Architect website

A 2008 proposal for the Semiahmoo core, looking up 152 Street from 16 Avenue. This rendering was captured in early 2017 from the Amanat Architect website

The City of Surrey’s 2014 official plan contemplates a city of 300 square kilometres organized around a city centre, intended to rival downtown Vancouver as it grows up, and five large-scale town centres.

Semiahmoo Town Centre within South Surrey, 2014 city plan

The Semiahmoo Town Centre within South Surrey

Each town centre is supposed to act as “the distinctive social, cultural commercial centre for its community… Support transit-oriented development…and build complete, walkable and green neighbourhoods.”  A successful town centre offers housing choice, walkable services, business and employment opportunities, and frequent transit.

The Semiahmoo Town Centre sits on the boundary between Surrey (population 544,000) and White Rock (population 19,000). In theory it serves the South Surrey quadrant; in today’s reality, it is a modest urban village coupled with a twin village across the White Rock line.

Schemes for kick-starting a Semiahmoo Town Centre anchor development (see the top of this post, for example) have bogged down repeatedly over a decade or more. This is partly due to the arrival of new malls and box stores elsewhere in South Surrey. Most recent, and most damaging, is the upscale commercial/ residential complex at Morgan Crossing,seven minutes up the road. At Semiahmoo, the dominant commercial feature continues to be the one-story, 1980s-era shopping centre and its parking lots.

Retail facades on the west side of 152 St. just north of 16 Ave, January 2017

Retail facades on 152 St. at the eastern edge of the hypothetical Semiahmoo Town Centre core , January 2017

A shift in suburban planning style: this new office building on the east side of 152 St. in Semiahmoo is built to the sidewalk than being set back behind a parking lot.

A shift in suburban planning style: this new office building on the east side of 152 St. in Semiahmoo is built to the sidewalk than being set back behind a parking lot.

A pioneer cabin on 16th Ave. flanked by a new health complex and seniors' residence

Pioneer cabin on 16th Ave. in the shadow of a new health complex and seniors’ residence

I walked the Semiahmoo village and the upper part of the White Rock village with three co-tourists, David Plug, Keith Perley and Robert J. Smarz, all Surrey residents. The weather here is drier and warmer than in most of Metro Vancouver. Bob had predicted that the thermometer would rise by two degrees from his home on 65 Ave. to our parking spot off 20th, and he was correct. By reputation, White Rock is a place for retired people, because of the weather and the access to seafront attractions like the White Rock promenade and Crescent Beach. A 10-story full-service seniors’ residence was under construction on the Surrey side of 16 Ave., fronted by a five-story health complex.

2015ish condo apartments, 18th Avenue

2015-ish condo apartments, 18th Avenue

Further into Surrey’s residential streets there’s evidence of continued low-rise condo construction from the 1980s to the present, meaning the continued addition of customers within easy range of local businesses.

Crossing into White Rock, we saw transformation along the upper blocks of the high street (Johnston Road, the extension of 152 St.) This effect fades lower down, where the street is mostly unchanged from when Bob and I visited in 2013. I’ll comment here on changes in White Rock because they are taking place literally across the street from the Semiahmoo Town Centre site, and could affect the pace of development in Surrey.

1970s-era apartments south of 16th Ave., White Rock

1970s-era apartments south of 16th Ave., White Rock

Much of White Rock was built in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, including a stock of affordable rental apartments. This rental stock is now crumbling away. A 2016 report from a city task force warns that “the vast majority of the buildings which currently comprise the approximately 1,425 units of purpose-built rental apartment stock in White Rock are 50 or more years old.” The report suggests that the disappearance of rental units in unplanned redevelopment — along with the rising popularity of short-term vacation rentals — could bring about a rental housing crisis in White Rock.

White Rock’s apartment sales market, on the other hand, has been well served with tower construction on both 16 Avenue and Johnston Road. Mixed-use towers and low-rise apartment complexes are replacing an older generation of shops and commercial buildings, sometimes displacing long-established businesses and professional offices.

Condo complex on the White Rock side of 16th Ave., facing the phantom Seiahmoo Town Centre

Condo complex on the White Rock side of 16th Ave., facing the phantom Semiahmoo Town Centre core

High street towers, with ground-floor commercial space in the tower on the left

High street towers, White Rock, with ground-floor commercial space in the tower on the left


Small businesses in a vintage building on Johnston Rd., slated for demolition

South Surrey/White Rock, according to the monthly real estate bulletins for Greater Vancouver and the Fraser Valley, features the highest average detached home prices in the outer suburbs. There are enclaves of affluence here, which explains the success of Morgan Crossing with its gourmet cooking school and fashion retailers.

The future of the 16th Ave. at 152 St village will likely to depend on more modest demographics — thrifty seniors, young working people, the types who visit the public library and patronize the discount movie theatre. A continued influx of village dwellers could create the conditions to support the construction of a high-density Semiahmoo town core by 2030. Both city governments should do what they can to protect affordability around this crossroads, as a way of protecting diversity, creativity and local enterprise.

One big obstacle to the Semiahmoo Big Core idea is the lack of rapid transit. The light rail station at Newton Town Centre may be open by 2024, but that’s 14 kilometres north. In the meantime, we can hope that Semiahmoo and upper White Rock continue to function as livable urban villages, and continue to prove that there’s life beyond downtown Vancouver.

Our group of four enjoyed our lunch at Sawbucks Neighbourhood Pub. It was busy with local customers, and seemed to be a popular spot with middle-aged white guys.

[This is post #35 in our Urban Villages series.]

Traffic deaths and urban design

An Iowa street, posted by a Montreal traffic engineer on

An Iowa street, posted by a Montreal traffic engineer on

Public Square, an online urban affairs news digest from the Congress for the New Urbanism, has listed its 10 most-read posts for 2016.

2016-08-cnu-chart-fatalitiesTop of the list is “The morbid and mortal toll of sprawl,” by contributor Robert Steuteville. The writer draws a link between high crash rates and wide, fast suburban roadways, based on a study of California cities. He suggests that if you choose to live in a post-1950 suburb with wide arterials and high speed limits, watch out. If your Main Street is narrow with lots of traffic lights — like Main Street, Vancouver or Columbia Street, New Westminster — you’re more likely to survive as a driver or pedestrian. It’s obviously an appealing argument for readers of Public Square.

“We have designed and built thoroughfares for 50-plus years to allow drivers to feel comfortable driving carelessly. These thoroughfares, built with “forgiving design,” encourage drivers to step on the gas in highly populated urban areas, and pure physics increases stopping distances and impact forces geometrically.”

Steuteville provides a graph indicating that in one recent year (2013), the US rate of traffic deaths was very high compared to rates in other rich countries. He does not explain why a diverse batch of countries including Spain, Slovenia and Belgium were in the same league as the US in the 2010 reporting year.


Light rail for Surrey?

Library and civic plaza seen from Surrey City Hal

Library and civic plaza seen from Surrey City Hall

Surrey’s trimmed-down, still iffy light rail project is entering the preliminary design stage. We may get details in 2018, if things go well, on how the new train line and its stations will affect streets, sidewalks and private properties.

This project is a key component in local government’s drive to knit Surrey’s pattern of subdivisions into an urban unit. The new trains would link Newton and Guildford, both sizable retail and employment zones, with City Centre and nearby Innovation Row. Surrey’s population is approaching half a million, and the 10-year-old City Centre initiative is creating a new hub for jobs and investment with the potential to rival downtown Vancouver  The LRT project is also intended to spark mixed-use development in neighbourhoods along the way. Continue reading

Transition and uncertainty in the Phoenix arts district


Arizona is a fine place for climate and landscape, but the big-city points of interest are dispersed. Metro Phoenix has a slightly larger population (3.3 million) than Metro Vancouver with 10 times the geographic area. Development rambles across  low-rise, single-use residential and industrial tracts, often walled and sometimes gated in the newer zones, carved up by broad, high-speed arterial roads.

At the historic heart of the region, “downtown Phoenix appeared [in 2012] as one of the top results in a Google search for Arizona ghost towns.” The city government is working to shift this perception, accelerating a long-standing effort to create livable neighbourhoods on the downtown perimeter, especially around Roosevelt Row, a modest cluster of art galleries and cafes. Output from the City includes area design guidelines, the establishment of an Economic Development Commission to build a Roosevelt Row brand, and a survey-based report from the Commission on community priorities. With new housing, a newish rapid transit line with an Arts District stop, and an intensive program of public events, the American Planning Association was moved in 2015 to declare Roosevelt Row one of America’s “great places.” Continue reading

A Fraseropolis report for 2016


South arm of the Fraser River at the Derwent Way Bridge, Delta

Fraseropolis is a one-editor operation, with input from our co-tourists. We launched the site out of personal interest in the summer of 2011 to explore communities in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland, and to post notes on the functions and dysfunctions of local institutions.

In both 2015 and 2016 we had about 10,000 visitors, an average of close to 30 per day. About 82 per cent of visitors in 2016 came from inside Canada, 10 per cent from the United States, and the rest from elsewhere. Continue reading

The shift to apartment living

Joyce-Collingwood urban village, Vancouver

Joyce/Collingwood urban village, Vancouver

A couple of decades ago, half the private dwellings in Metro Vancouver were classified as detached homes. That share has dropped steadily, to one-third or less. A growing majority of private dwellings are apartments, townhomes or duplexes.

Post-2000 detached houses, Marpole, Vancouver

Post-2000 detached houses, Marpole, Vancouver

The trend is not news. Most of the available statistics, posted again in this month’s Metro Vancouver Housing Data Book,  date from 2011. Even so, the discourse around housing continues to highlight low-density, high-prestige home ownership, even when this housing type has moved beyond the reach of most working families. National media coverage of Vancouver-area real estate in 2015 and 2016 focused on the stunning rise in detached home prices, not on the more modest increases in townhome and apartment prices. Controversies around  residential development, from Marpole on Vancouver’s west side to Brookswood on the region’s eastern edge, are most often constructed around perceived injury to the interests of detached home owners. In a July 2016 legislative debate on measures designed to cool Metro Vancouver’s housing market, British Columbia’s finance minister noted that the absolute number of detached homes in the Metro region has dropped over the past 25 years despite the addition of more than a million people to the population. He called this data “fascinating”, as if he was coming across it for the first time. Continue reading

A climate forecast for Metro Vancouver

crescent-beach-2-reducedThe Greater Vancouver regional authority has published a “Climate Projections” document that predicts a rise of 3 degrees Celsius in the local average temperature by the 2050s, within the working lifetime of people now in their twenties.

Mountainside reservoir; photo from

Mountainside reservoir; photo from “Climate Projections for Metro Vancouver”

Among other impacts, we can look forward to:

  • Reduced snowpack on the coastal mountains, hotter and drier summers, and lower summertime water levels in local reservoirs.
  • More very hot days and tropical nights, with demand for energy to run refrigerators and air conditioners forecast to increase to 6 times the current requirement.
  • A 45% increase in “growing degree days,” a measure of the warmth that grows crops.
  • Tough times for winter recreation operators.

Continue reading