COLUMN: Decades of change ahead of Surrey

‘Fascinating’ research could help shape the future of the city, says columnish Frank Bucholtz

Some fascinating research from University of B.C. master of urban design students could help influence Surrey’s future growth and development.

Some of the findings were presented Feb. 7 as part of a discussion at Simon Fraser University’s Surrey campus. The topic was “The Future Lives Here” – what Surrey could look like in 2060. Panelists were Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner, former B.C. premier and longtime urban advocate Mike Harcourt and Andy Yan, director of the SFU City program. Yan is likely the most knowledgeable person these days on the complexities of the Lower Mainland housing market, and the effect foreign investment and rising prices is having on people living in the region.

Patrick Condon, UBC urban design professor who was a key figure in the planning of the East Clayton neighbourhood in Surrey, played an important role in making the partnership happen.

Some general agreement on the big picture emerged. Surrey will be the largest city in B.C. – likely within the next 10 years or so. The current population is about 530,000, Hepner said, and it is growing at a rate of 800 to 1,000 people per month. More than 50 per cent of Surrey’s land base is within the Agricultural Land Reserve or part of its green zone, meaning that much of its future will be shaped by protecting those lands.

In addition, Surrey still has a great deal of land available for greenfield development – land which has not had intense previous uses. Some is in undeveloped areas such as Anniedale, while there are significant pieces (known as infill) within urban development areas. For example, land along King George Boulevard in South Surrey near 32 Avenue fits that description.

Surrey has more young people (under 14) than any other city in B.C., and 43 per cent of Surrey residents are international migrants. Surrey’s growth is being fuelled largely by immigration. There are 102 languages spoken in Surrey, Hepner said. It also has the highest percentage of refugees of any city in Metro Vancouver – 28 per cent of the total.

Yan said Surrey still has “a certain level of affordability” with fewer empty homes owned by offshore investors than Richmond or Vancouver. “The global flow of wealth is not overwhelming local wage earners in Surrey – yet,” he said. However, the vacancy rate is very low (0.6 per cent).

It is a city where 90 per cent of businesses have 20 employees or less and there is great potential for businesses to grow. While 44 per cent of Surrey residents work in Surrey, the transportation network remains a huge challenge. In order for Surrey to be more accommodating to its residents, housing, transportation and child-care issues need solutions.

Harcourt, who is rarely given enough credit for the province’s decision while he was premier to have ICBC purchase Surrey Place, rename it Central City, build a tower and open a university in Whalley, said Surrey will unquestionably be the centre of the Lower Mainland.

The bold move by his NDP government in the mid-1990s was the catalyst for Surrey City Centre. The takeover of Technical University by Simon Fraser University several years later cemented its position as an important educational destination. The city followed suit with city hall and other developments.

He said Surrey had been “the wild west of development” in earlier years, but under mayors Dianne Watts and Hepner has made sustainability a priority.

“I will be quite happy (as a Vancouver resident) to be number two or three,” he said.

Harcourt and Hepner both vigorously defended the city’s plan for LRT lines between Newton and Guildford and along Fraser Highway, saying the at-grade transit lines will better-connect residents.

Three projects were discussed in detail – a reimagining of the Guildford area; a look at industrial and adjacent lands near the Scott Road station in South Westminster; and exploration of the development potential of the Anniedale-Tynehead area.

Those projects, along with the panel discussion, demonstrated that much will change in Surrey in the next 40 years.

Frank Bucholtz writes Wednesdays for Peace Arch News. frank.bucholtz@gmail.com

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