Bright Lights, Big City


  I tell people I live in White Rock because – as an old art director of mine liked to say – living in White Rock means you’ll never have to say you’re Surrey. So this is my confession: White Rock is about four blocks down the street. I’m more comfortable with my address these days because things here have changed. I don’t have to tell you that Surrey – like Newfoundland – has long been the butt of jokes. But that was before Newfoundland struck oil, and Surrey elected Dianne Watts as mayor. Most reasons to love Surrey – or at least to reconsider your opinion of B.C.’s second-largest city – are driven by Watts: a wealthy, attractive 49-year-old suburban mother of two whose consensus-based, inclusive approach to governance has led to a dramatic reduction of both crime and political infighting. Surrey’s civic innovations have, in some cases, been so effective – like the fire chief’s approach to hounding grow-ops and the mayor’s success in removing chronic criminals from the streets – there’s a good chance these initiatives will soon spread north of the Fraser. So who’s Surrey now?

The Decline of Partisan Politics Civic politics historically have served as the farm system for provincial and federal parties. William Vander Zalm was once mayor of Surrey; Rita Johnston was a Surrey councillor, as was retiring NDP MP Penny Priddy. For seven terms, Watts herself served as a city councillor in the centre-right Surrey Electors Team (SET). When she challenged SET mayor Doug McCallum’s seemingly willy-nilly approach to development – Surrey loves development – McCallum came on like a bully and tried to whip her back onto the benches. She rebelled, ran against him in 2005 as an independent and trounced the local strongman. Once in the mayor’s chair, Watts didn’t resort to the kind of political revenge we’ve come to expect in B.C. politics. Not that Watts didn’t have provocation: her former SET colleagues were initially obstructive and voted to deny her McCallum’s old seat as chair of the TransLink board; the local press treated her like a bimbo, chortling over her reaction to a “nude beach” at Surrey’s Crescent Beach district and raising a scandal about an obviously leaked story that city crews had shovelled snow off her driveway. But instead of rage or political punishment, Watts began her one-woman campaign to change the system. “The municipal level of government is never set up for party politics with an official opposition,” Watts tells me from her gracefully furnished office in city hall, dressed casually in a light white jacket, soft pink top and capri pants. “That’s for your province and your feds. To try to recreate that at this level is foolhardy.” Avoiding the traps of partisan name-calling and role-playing hasn’t been without its challenges. “It’s about taking the high road, about biting your tongue. It’s about being in the position of leadership,” says Watts. “So you have to make a choice. Am I going to play petty politics? Am I going to be vindictive? Or am I going to be a leader?” Surrey councillors earn $50,000 annually – about 12 cents per resident, which is the second-lowest per capita rate in B.C. As Watts points out, “Not one elected councillor is there for the money. They’re there because they want to make a difference.” Watts lets them – and as a result Surrey council is no longer dysfunctional, political rhetoric is minimal and most Surrey citizens believe Watts is doing well; about 60 per cent of Surrey voters say they will re-elect her, according to a recent online poll conducted by Robbins SCE Research Inc. “She’s popular,” says Gary Hollick, publisher of the Surrey Now newspaper and the immediate past president of the Surrey Board of Trade, “because she listens to people, takes a common-sense approach and executes it.” Surrey independent councillor Judy Villeneuve told the Vancouver Sun in June 2007 that Watts had brought a new atmosphere to city hall. “People are feeling like there’s an open door to participate. This has been one of my more progressive and satisfying terms since 1988. Dianne has worked hard to build bridges and consensus.” Indeed, many of the same councillors who originally opposed her have decided to run with her in this month’s civic election – centre-left and centre-right together – on a slate called Surrey First. It’s not a party exactly. Surrey First has no whip, no platform and no formal or informal provincial party affiliation. “This is about a coalition of independent people coming together and running together,” explains Watts. “Individual thought, individual ways of doing things – it’s a reflection of the community. That’s what makes good government. It’s not about being lockstep and vacant of any other expression. It’s about putting a business case forward and convincing others of your passion and your good ideas.” [pagebreak]

Effective Crime Reduction In his office in Surrey’s light industrial area in Newton, Hollick remembers the front-page headlines from the Province and Sun three or four years ago, when seven of B.C.’s 10 Most Wanted came from Surrey. “That was one week. Then three weeks later, there’d be a front-page profile of car thieves and they’d all be from Surrey.” No wonder. In 2003 ICBC reported 1,700 car thefts for every 100,000 people in Surrey: 7,717 in all. (L.A., by comparison, had 400 per 100,000.) The same year, the solicitor general reported 32,072 property crimes in Surrey. Much of the criminal activity happened because Surrey was growing faster than Dodge City – an estimated one thousand new people a month, according to Hollick – but many also blame the old McCallum regime, and its political strategy of never raising taxes. It kept him popular with ratepayers but didn’t generate enough city revenue for police to keep pace with street crime. (Surrey has one police officer for every 843 people, while Vancouver has one for ever 450, according to 2007 figures from Statistics Canada.) By 2007 vehicle thefts had dropped 45 per cent to 4,239, while property crimes had fallen 30 per cent to 24,752. Watts, in her first three years in office, put 119 more RCMP officers on the streets and introduced a new crime reduction strategy, essentially targeting drug addicts and criminals with mental health issues. Watts estimates that each chronic offender is responsible for over $2,000 in loss and damage from property crimes each day. “Too often our attitude toward the police is, ‘Just fix it,’ ” Watts says. “But police are not social workers. They’re not out there – nor should they be – dealing with issues of mental health and homelessness.” Watts prefers that police do their real jobs – maintain order and arrest suspects. After conviction a management team consisting of police, mental health and social workers evaluates chronic offenders and provides them with two alternatives: take the rehab, recovery and, in the case of homelessness, the arranged shelter options – or serve a full-time sentence. Watts says the goal of this new strategy is “to interrupt the pattern of behaviour. If they need to be taken off the streets for a period of time, then so be it. You have to look after the safety of the general public as well.” The idea of treating the root cause of chronic criminal behaviour was a complete paradigm shift for Surrey, says Darryl Plecas, professor of criminology at the University of the Fraser Valley and director of the Centre for Criminal Justice Research and one of the strategy’s architects. In Maclean’s magazine’s recent ranking of the top 10 High Crime cities in Canada, based on 2006 per capita crime rates, Surrey didn’t even make the list. (Regina was No. 1, while Vancouver ranked ninth.) Creative Use of Firefighters In 2004 Plecas had completed a six-year study of marijuana grow-ops in B.C. that showed how they were responsible for about six per cent of all house fires in the province, up 50 per cent since 1997. And the ability of police to investigate grow-ops had dropped by nearly half: in 1997, according to the study, police investigated 92 per cent of complaints about possible grow-ops, while in 2003 only 50 per cent of complaints were investigated. “It was no disrespect to the police,” says Surrey fire chief Len Garis. “It was simply a matter of the court systems getting more crowded and the threshold [to obtain] search warrants getting increasingly more difficult.” So Garis decided to look at the problem in a different way. “It became a matter of public safety,” he says. “Growing marijuana is not only illegal, it creates huge risks for neighbours and firefighters exposed to these situations.” That’s primarily because grow-ops require an abnormally high amount of power to operate, normally obtained illegally by rerouting a house’s electrical circuitry. With the support of Plecas and the Fire Chiefs’ Association of B.C., Garis won approval from the Ministry of Public Safety to use the existing Safety Standards Act to inspect homes that used a minimum of three times normal power usage. In a demonstration project in May 2005, Garis’s team inspected 150 homes in Surrey and found evidence of illegal grow-ops in 95 per cent of them. That demo relied on complaints to police to locate suspect houses, but the more effective means was for BC Hydro to report abnormal users. Garis got that approval in 2006 and soon discovered 1,000 suspect addresses in Surrey. He quickly doubled the size of his special team and was inspecting 60 homes a month; by the end of 2007, he says, “we were nearly running out of addresses.” In less than two years, his team had “interrupted” 870 different grow-ops. No criminal charges could be brought through what was legally administrative action, but the penalties were stiff. Using a new control substance bylaw passed by Surrey council, the fire department had the ability to remove a home’s occupancy permit. The owner was then required to hire a professional hygienist to assess the house and design a plan for remediation of the health and safety issues, followed by electrical and building inspections. Total costs ranged from $5,000 to $50,000. In 2007 the Surrey fire department collected nearly $1.7 million in cost recovery – which, Garis points out, effectively paid for his team. And those administrative penalties are probably more effective than the criminal ones: according to the Plecas study, fewer than 10 per cent of people apprehended in marijuana grow-ops in 2003 ended up receiving any jail time. A final note: while BC Hydro’s survey found 1,000 residential addresses in Surrey using three times the normal power, it also found 17,000 other suspect addresses in municipalities across the province. Perhaps they should consider importing the Surrey solution. [pagebreak]

A Climate of Inclusion For many social agencies operating in Surrey, the level of civic tolerance and understanding has increased noticeably under Watts’s reign. “We had nothing with the prior mayor,” James Bennett, executive director of the South Fraser Community Services Society, told the Vancouver Sun last year. “And [Surrey’s support today] has gone above and beyond what other communities do.” The society runs a drop-in centre, a food program and a shelter. When the society went to previous councils seeking building permits to expand, they were refused. Its experience is similar to that of Nightshift Street Ministries, a Christian-supported outreach run by MaryAnne Connor, who gave up a successful Vancouver-based real estate marketing company to care for the homeless in Whalley, the epicentre of Surrey’s homeless crisis. There Connor established her Nightshift ministry in 2004 – an admirable devotion but not one particularly appreciated by the Whalley Business Improvement Association or, for that matter, the civic government, which was actively trying to discourage the homeless from camping in the streets. When the Gentle Shepherd Ministry was evicted from its building in September 2004, Connor was given no support by Surrey’s business and political establishment, and her volunteers were cast out into the street. “We had nothing,” she says. “We had the trunks of our cars.” When a thousand-dollar donation came in on the first night, Nightshift had no kitchen, so the volunteers brought the street people pizza. Four years later, Nightshift has a headquarters, counselling offices, a warehouse and a retail store in Whalley – thanks greatly to Connor’s endurance and in part to the civic government’s changing attitude toward faith-based outreach. It’s one thing if you’re just going to give the homeless a handout, says Watts, but “if your intention is to do outreach while providing a meal and working with service agencies to connect those individuals with housing, mental health, addiction services, whatever they need – that’s a whole other story.” Today Nightshift has two paid staff, with Burger King and Subway donating breakfast sandwiches that Nightshift distributes. Upwards of 10 Christian churches support the Nightshift complex with tithing, trained counsellors and some 400 volunteers. For Watts, it’s all part of the strategy of inclusion. “Our faith-based community,” she says, “plays a significant role in our Crime Reduction Strategy.” A Focus on the Future For board of trade boosters such as Gary Hollick, Surrey’s future – “the U.S. border on one side, a river port on the other, oceanfront and beautiful beaches” – is boundless. “We’ll be the largest city in B.C. in the next two or three years. You’ll see Whalley become a little Yaletown.” The Lower Mainland’s Liveable Region Strategic Plan, adopted in 1996 by the then GVRD (now Metro Vancouver) government, lays it out similarly. It designates areas such as North Surrey (Whalley) as “regional centres,” serviced by SkyTrain and highways, with residential development, shops and offices that allow people to walk to work and amenities. “It’s time to encourage Surrey to think big and for people in Surrey to start believing they can achieve the downtown centre Vancouver has,” said Derek Corrigan, Burnaby’s mayor and chairman of the plan’s land use and transportation committee, in 2004. While you may have heard it all before, this time the idea of densification seems to be gaining traction. Bing Thom – the architect behind Vancouver’s Chan Centre for the Performing Arts, the redesign of Victoria’s inner harbour as well as international projects including the Expo 2010 site in Shanghai – was chosen by Surrey city council to design a new town plan for Whalley. Called the Central City plan, it is intended, says Thom, to prepare Surrey “to make the transformation in both software – in terms of how [the people of Surrey] think of themselves and look at their own future – and hardware, in terms of building structures that will inspire this new recognition.” At the heart of the plan submitted to council in July 2008 is a new city hall – “a symbol they can look at,” says Thom, which tells them “there’s a new future coming.” Thom is optimistic. “At the present rate of growth in the region, Surrey will soon be a city of a larger population than Vancouver,” he says. “Probably in about 20 or 25 years, it will be the major city in British Columbia.” But to make a city of that size livable requires more than density. “Density relies on quality of life,” he explains. “You’re giving up private space but you must have public space. That’s the success of Vancouver as a city. We have wonderful public space to make up for the density in the core. And everybody celebrates that. So you have to give up your front yard and backyard in the suburbs, and you get better front yards and backyards in the city as public spaces that we all share.” Creating density in Whalley requires the city to discourage builders in lower-density areas, such as South Surrey, by raising costs there. This requires control over the development cost charge (DCC), the charge a developer pays for the city’s cost to build infrastructure and amenities. Compared to cities such as Coquitlam and Richmond, Surrey has always had a lower DCC. That, plus its lower cost of land, greatly accounts for Surrey’s phenomenal growth. (According to the B.C. Ministry of Community Development, comparing similar size condos or townhomes, Coquitlam’s DCC would be about $10,400; Richmond’s $11,400 and Surrey’s about $6,000.) Surrey currently has to apply to the province and wait as long as a year for approval of any DCC increases. Council has petitioned Victoria to pass the Surrey Act, which would give the city legislative powers similar to Vancouver, but until that passes developers continue to apply under the old DCC rate – clogging and defeating council’s and town planners’ intentions. Meanwhile, to encourage density in Whalley, the city has reduced the DCC charge from $12.32 a square foot to $8.24 a square foot for multi-family residences – spurring a growth of condo towers on the six hectares between Gateway and Surrey Central SkyTrain stations. “Everything is changing. That’s the new reality we have to get prepared for,” says Thom. “With all the residential growth in downtown Vancouver, where are the jobs? Will Vancouver become a suburb of Surrey?” Now there’s a question I never thought I’d hear asked.