COLUMN: Forgotten past hurts city

Preserving heritage not a priority in Surrey, writes PAN columnist Frank Bucholtz

Two separate news items in the past week clearly show the direction Surrey is going – and the city’s lack of interest in its past.

Mayor Linda Hepner gave her first ‘state of the city’ address to a well-heeled business crowd at the Sheraton Guildford Hotel. Tickets to hear the mayor discuss where she sees the city going, and what its priorities are, were in the $80 range.

While most of her speech dealt with visions of future economic opportunities – such as the Innovation Boulevard, agricultural research and cyber-security possibilities – Hepner did acknowledge that there is a crime problem in Surrey.

She said Surrey is a safe city, but many people don’t feel safe. The ongoing random shootings (another took place on Sunday) and the seeming inability of police to slow down the shootings have frustrated many residents, particularly in the Newton and Whalley areas.

At the same time, she said that 147 more police officers are on their way and she plans to hire a director of public-safety strategies.

This sounds suspiciously like a proposal put forward by mayoral candidate Barinder Rasode in last fall’s election – an idea Hepner pooh-poohed at the time.

There is no question that the mayor of Surrey needs to be focused on the future, and particularly on making Surrey stronger economically. Unlike many B.C. cities, Surrey has an overwhelmingly young population. These young people need post-secondary education and good jobs if they are to stay in Surrey and make its future brighter.

Given widespread concerns about housing unaffordability in the Metro Vancouver region, and suggestions that many young people will not be able to afford living in the region, even if they have good jobs, convincing them to stay may become even more challenging in the future.

Hepner comes from an economic development background, and for years worked for the city’s economic development office. Her focus on economic issues is needed and appreciated.

Yet she is falling into the same trap that generations of Surrey politicians have happily been stuck in – a disdain for Surrey’s past because they see it as hampering future development.

Last week, it was reported that at least three heritage buildings had fallen to the wrecking ball in recent months.

One of them, the Orange Hall, was in the hands of the city and likely could not have been saved – given that it has sat on municipal property for 20 years, untended and ignored. It probably would have fallen down.

However, two other homes with a significant amount of character – both of which were on the city’s heritage inventory – were demolished.

The city’s planning and development department was apparently unaware of the historical significance of both houses, one on 56 Avenue and the other on 168 Street, when demolition permits were applied for.

This is not surprising. The planning and development department is almost totally focused on boosting densities, adding to the population and changing land uses.

The city’s heritage advisory commission is listened to – then ignored in most situations.

It’s likely that many Surrey residents agree with this lack of commitment to Surrey’s past.

However, a city that works to obliterate most traces of its past is a sterile city that cannot possibly be considered complete.

Frank Bucholtz writes Thursdays for the Peace Arch News. He is the editor of the Langley Times.