South Surrey arts-towers height still up in the air
The president and CEO of Surrey City Development Corporation says that nothing, not even a specific height, is set in stone about the final form of a proposed two-tower residential development for South Surrey – one that could provide a significant arts hub for the community in the form of a 350-seat performing arts theatre and a contemporary arts café/gallery.
“This is not going to be ramrodded through,” Aubrey Kelly said in an interview with Peace Arch News, while at the same time acknowledging there’s little chance of the contentious project returning without a tower component (last suggested to be the equivalent of 27 storeys).
“We’re probably never going to be able to make 100 per cent of people happy. What we saw after some of the initial unveiling of plans was that there were mixed reviews, which was not unexpected.”
The project – a partnership by the city’s own development corporation and the Reifel Cooke Group – is still in a phase of “fact finding and issue finding,” Kelly said, gathering feedback and identifying concerns of stakeholders, including nearby residents and arts groups, in an attempt to build consensus.
He expects the process to continue for several months at least.
“There’s no particular timeline,” Kelly said. “I expect it to be the end of summer before we put pencil to paper again, and then engage with the city planning department, go to the advisory design panel and then go on to a public hearing.”
The plans are still largely conceptual, he added: “Whether they call for lower, squatter buildings or taller, more slender buildings – all that’s still in play.”
Whatever the final form of the project, Kelly said, a certain density is required to make it work.
“We would need a density of four,” he explained. “That’s four times the site area of approximately 80,000 sq. ft. – or 320,000 sq. ft.”
The reality, he said, is that without that density, the proposed arts amenity would not be possible.
“That’s not a threat,” he added. “It’s just what would be needed to make it financially viable.”
The project combines land owned by each partner at 152 Street and 19 Avenue –“Together, it’s enough land for a significant development that could provide such an amenity,” Kelly said.
Opponents, including the Semiahmoo Residents Association and the recently formed Semiahmoo Against Towers, have objected to the height of the proposed plan, made public last fall.
And although the arts community includes some of the projects most ardent supporters, some have made it clear that continuing support hinges on a governance model for the arts spaces that ensure accessibility and affordability for local groups.
Kelly said that while the resolution of the governance issue will be welcomed by SCDC, it’s beyond its purview; he defers to city arts manager Sheila McKinnon in finding a model that will satisfy local arts stakeholders.
Opponents have emphasized they do not oppose the arts aspect of the plans, but they have characterized it as window-dressing for a project they fear will impact traffic patterns, impede neighbourhood access and create a precedent for highrises that could lower property values and attract crime.
SCDC development manager Sarah Atkinson noted the project has been more than two years in development, including extensive consultation with local arts groups, once arts space was identified as the most appropriate community amenity – the city’s trade-off for allowing higher density in specific ‘landmark’ locations in the Semiahmoo Town Centre.
Further, she said, while the project is the first to appear under current OCP amendments for the area, it is conforming with a vision for the area already approved, rather than attempting to create a precedent by itself.
“The Semiahmoo Town Centre plan has been in place since 2006,” she said. “All kinds of different consulting groups have looked at what a town centre needs for viability and livability; how many jobs and how many residents does it need? It isn’t just density. A town centre plan is not taken arbitrarily – years and years of analysis have gone into it.”
Public meetings held so far have shown a great deal of support for the project, Kelly and Atkinson said – particularly in the lifestyle of a “walkable town centre” which, they say, could promote less reliance on vehicles.
“If you don’t provide vibrancy, you’re going to force people to use their cars and go to other places, like Morgan Crossing,” Kelly said.
“While a lot of the time we find the most vocal are people opposed, there has been substantial support for the project,” Atkinson added.
Kelly addressed another issue – the perception that Surrey is in a conflict approving a project in which the SCDC is a partner.
“We are an arm’s length, wholly-owned subsidiary of the City of Surrey – they are the single stockholder,” he said. “We’re a for-profit real estate development company.
“We’re not a department of the city… We come to the planning counter the same as any other developer, and we report to a board of directors independent of the city. Because of transparency issues we want the same regulations applied to us as to a Bosa or a Polygon.”
Kelly said SCDC directors have all come from the private sector and are mainly now-retired or semi-retired professionals mandated to use city land resources to provide a stable financial return to the city “over the long term.”
“We’ve been quite successful as a relative start-up in 2007,” he said.
“We’ve been in the position of paying dividends for two years – at the end of last year we provided a 4.5 million dividend to the city and by the end of 2014 we will have provided a $9 million dividend.”