Surrey, the Startup City

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Jim Cox, Surrey City Development Corp. | BCBusiness
Image by: Peter Holst
Surrey City Development Corp. CEO Jim Cox shows off a model of the 50-storey Civic 3 Plaza.

Booming population, new university campus, new city hall, new performing-arts centre and starchitect-designed library. No longer a punchline for smug Vancouverites, Surrey is the city of the future. And if Mayor Dianne Watts has her way, it will be a model for 21st-century city planners around the world

From his glass-enclosed office high above downtown Surrey, Jim Cox has a panoramic view all the way from Vancouver to Mt. Baker. The president and CEO of Surrey City Development Corp. is also looking upon the future.

Below him, there is the crane-dotted city rising from the ground—the half-built new city hall, a public plaza and the ground that will soon break on a 52-storey luxury residence with penthouses priced at $1.2 million. Nearby is Bing Thom’s two-year-old, $30-million angular library that leans forward like it’s riding a wave, the kind of architecture that stirs envy in non-residents.

Cox’s office is in Thom’s other project, built a decade ago, the Central City complex that houses an office tower, a shopping mall and an SFU campus, complete with a sky-high cathedral ceiling that feels like the faraway interior of a ship’s hull. It is awe-inspiring.

But down-to-earth Cox, who commutes an hour and a half each day from his home on Bowen Island, is a little uncomfortable with his floor-to-ceiling views.

“It’s a little opulent for me,” he says.

As the president of SCDC, Cox sees the creation of downtown Surrey as just one of nearly a dozen projects on the go around the city, a municipality nearly three times the size of Vancouver in terms of land mass and, judging by the full-speed development around me today, in scope and economic ambition as well. It all started with what is currently called Surrey City Centre. “Back in the day, we called it ‘Whalley.’ When all the buzz of surrounding construction is complete and the area is built out, we won’t even need a name for it,” says Cox. “We’ll just call it downtown.”

And not just a downtown as designed by city planners either, but an actual city with a booming population, commerce, thriving workforce and three SkyTrain station hubs surrounded by buses, streetcars and mixed-use towers. As the second metro core of B.C.’s Lower Mainland, Surrey is currently absorbing about a third of the region’s population growth. It is planning not only more infrastructure growth, but also a transformation into a barely recognizable version of its former self. New library. New medical facilities. New university campus. New city hall. New commercial, industrial and residential space. New major performing-arts facility. New recreation facilities. New roads. New transit. New jobs. There’s even talk of its own NHL team.

The Transformation

This dramatic transformation is energizing urban visionaries who recognize that the stars are truly aligned for a region that was for decades a regional punchline. To see Surrey morph into a real city, and to have a hand in it, is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for business and political leaders to steward the lives of millions—how they work, play and move. Early evidence of this consistent, meticulous attention to urban design is apparent the moment you step off Surrey Central SkyTrain station and into Surrey City Centre. This isn’t some off-the-shelf architectural generica, but a hub of proper design and flow between buildings and transit. The one glitch is the bus loop that confuses everything, but that’s reportedly temporary. A more urban bus stop is on the way. There is a sense of intent and a master plan, envisioned and implemented with an appreciation of the responsibility of such an opportunity.

“I raised the bar,” says Mayor Dianne Watts. “I said, ‘We want iconic architecture,’ because those buildings are going to be there 50 or 100 years from now. If you look at different cities, they always have the elements of iconic architecture. So, for me, it was very important.”

In her eight years as mayor, Watts has made it her mission to attract investment and jobs to the city, through lower taxes, the creation of infrastructure and major capital works projects, as well as streamlining the development process and offering incentives, such as those offered to clean-tech industries. In exchange for setting up shop in Surrey, those businesses were spared property taxes for the first three years, offered a business licence fee of $1 for the same amount of time and given a break on building-permit fees by 50 per cent. That’s just one example. Watts has been widely praised for her no-nonsense, uniquely progressive approach to steering Surrey into the 21st century and she plays a key role in its success. Surrey may not have pretty Vancouver’s mountain access or oceanfront properties, but it has great swaths of land, a young demographic and a government that’s keen to get down to business.

“She’s amazing,” says Cox. “I deal with politicians, and most of them don’t listen. She listens. She’s fairly demanding and she has all kinds of ideas.”

To ignore the transformation of Surrey would be to stick your head in the proverbial sand. The place is poised for growth, shifting from bedroom community into a young, self-contained city that will have the benefit of planning from the bottom up.

After building Central City several years ago, Bing Thom and his team were keen on weaving their vision through the entire narrative of the city’s construction. So Watts asked them to act as consultants on the master plan.

“They’ve got this incredibly progressive government, a good bureaucracy. It’s exciting,” says Michael Heeney, a principal at Bing Thom Architects Inc.

He says it’s also easier to work in Surrey, citing the fact that his firm designed and built the library in 18 months, about the time it would take just to get approvals in Vancouver.

The Surrey opportunity is global in scale—outside of China and the Arab states, how many cities get built from the ground up these days?

And that is exactly how Mayor Watts sees it. “I look at it as building a city,” she says. “We are seeing a huge [migration] shift from other areas of Metro Vancouver. When young professionals want to start raising a family, they come here.”

And they are coming, to the tune of about 1,200 people a month.

By 2041, the city’s population is expected to grow to 740,000, which will almost match Vancouver’s projected population of 770,000, according to Bing Thom Architects data.

As the affordable alternative to unaffordable Vancouver, Surrey has mushroomed to a population of almost half a million. While the median price of a house on Vancouver’s “up-and-coming” east side was $904,000 in May, the median price of a house in Surrey Central was $559,373. The price tag of an east Van condo? It hovers around $336,000, compared to $207,000 in Surrey. It’s a meaningful difference, especially when you consider that the average income in Metro Vancouver was $43,911 in 2009, according to Canada Revenue Agency’s latest data. As the mayor says, it’s the place where families go. As a result, one-third of Surrey’s population is under the age of 19, which means a built-in future workforce. The goal is to create a thriving metropolis where people can own a home, raise a family, go to school and, most importantly, work.

There are some who firmly believe Surrey’s population could outnumber Vancouver’s, although that’s up for debate. What we do know is that according to census figures, the centre of influence is shifting. In 1991, for example, Vancouver represented 29 per cent of the region’s population, Surrey just 15 per cent. By 2011, Vancouver accounted for 26 per cent of the population; Surrey 20 per cent.

Density grows the economy and there are signs of a shift there, too.

In terms of business growth, Vancouver and Surrey are on divergent paths. While the number of incorporated businesses in Vancouver has dropped by 11 per cent over the past five years, incorporated businesses in Surrey have risen by 10 per cent, according to B.C. Finance Ministry stats. Every year, says Watts, about 2,000 small businesses open in Surrey.

“And we know that small business is the backbone of any economy, so we are nurturing and fostering that piece,” she says. “In Surrey, we have a massive land base and the ability to grow and expand.”


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