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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.]