Land Values: Can Surrey become B.C.’s next major downtown?

Creating a second major downtown in Surrey will require more than wishful thinking and some shiny new towers.

Credit: Hariri Pontarini Architects

A rendering of the Centre Block, which would replace the bus loop and parking lots in Surrey’s central city

There’s been plenty of talk about creating a second central business district, but making that happen will require more than wishful thinking and some shiny new towers

Michael Heeney has a theory about the future of this region as people continue to flood into the eastern suburbs.

Downtown Vancouver will become less attractive to businesses run by that increasingly large proportion of suburban residents. It was a convenient place when all the executives lived in North and West Vancouver.

But the young generation starting businesses now, the millennials, can’t afford to live there. So they have moved out. The region’s centre of gravity, the midpoint of all population, keeps shifting east and now hovers around New Westminster.

When those young entrepreneurs get their businesses past startup, they’re going to want head offices to be close to where they live, just like the boomer executives did. They’ll also want something convenient for future employees as they compete for labour.

And that convenient place is less likely to be the downtown the region has now, close to the northwestern edge of the metropolis. “Nature has forced us in this region into one direction—south and east,” says Heeney, an architect and former business partner for many years of late architect Bing Thom. “So my concept is, a second central business district.”

That’s Heeney’s pitch to media, Surrey council and businesses as he shows off dazzling pictures and animations of the city-planning concepts to remake the tract of land, now used as a mega bus loop, that sits between the two existing place markers for a Surrey downtown: the Bing Thom–designed SFU building on top of a mall on one side and the civic cluster—city hall, library, hotel, plaza—on the other.

The delicious renderings of this future Surrey centre designed by Toronto-based Hariri Pontarini Architects paint Pixar-worthy images of a dense cluster of offices, restaurants, shops, pedestrians, transit. Something very different from the way “downtown” Surrey looks now—disconnected pockets of architecturally striking buildings lost among giant parking lots, malls big and strip, and highway-width streets.

Surrey has been talking about a downtown forever, particularly under former mayor Dianne Watts (in power 2005-14) and her spiritual successor, Linda Hepner (2014-18). Watts is the one who moved city hall from farm country to a spot next to the Surrey Centre SkyTrain station and got the library built next door.

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She created a development corporation to do whatever it could to plan a downtown and smooth the land acquisition/zoning/permitting path for builders willing to contribute to creating it. Heeney ran that corporation in its last years, before Mayor Doug McCallum killed it shortly after his election win in 2018. But Heeney is still passionate about Surrey and working on this project as a consultant to the City.

Credit: Michael Heeney

Michael Heeney, former head of Surrey‘s now-defunct development corporation, is pitching the vision of a new downtown to council and business

The question is what it will take to get more companies to move to Surrey and what the hurdles might be. Creating cities is more complicated than playing SimCity would lead anyone to believe.

For sure, people are moving there. You always hear gleeful predictions that Surrey will be bigger than Vancouver any day now. But Metro Vancouver’s aggressive projections about Surrey’s growth never quite match reality. Surrey gained an average of about 53,000 people every five years from 1996 to 2016. But Vancouver, which accommodated a lot of redevelopment, saw an average of 30,000 more in each five-year period. Surrey isn’t projected to match Vancouver’s population until 2041, when both should be around 780,000.

The differential is even starker when it comes to office development. Central cities have Jupiter-level gravitational pull and decades of built-up infrastructure. Vancouver has more office space under construction downtown (3.3 million square feet) than Surrey has in its entire 31,640 hectares. And Vancouver’s office space is highly concentrated in an area studded with sparkly attractions.

For Surrey to succeed at acquiring some planetary heft of its own, there has to be so much more than a random scattering of an office tower here, a condo tower there. It’s penalized by an excess of land, in a way that New Westminster and City of North Vancouver aren’t. Surrey needs private building activity to be rigorously funnelled, and governments at all levels would need to make strategic moves.

The federal government has helped out in the past, putting its Revenue Canada building there years ago and recently, in a small coup for Surrey, its new Pacific Economic Development Canada agency, an offshoot of Western Economic Diversification. The province notably relocated ICBC there.

But moves to create a second big hub for the feds, alongside the planned expansion at downtown Vancouver’s Sinclair Centre, have been on hold since the pandemic. And private developers still seem more interested in piling on condos in random locations than creating a dense mixed office/commercial/residential district.

A strong Surrey centre is something that more than just Surrey boosters think is necessary. As Tom Hutton, a retired UBC planning professor who has written extensively about healthy regional economies, has pointed out repeatedly, regions need multiple but connected industrial and business hubs to thrive—”a complete ecosystem of innovation,” as he calls it. Everything from people inventing things in garages to powerhouse mega-companies.

Seattle has done it by fostering diverse kinds of business districts: tech in South Lake Union, Microsoft and satellites in Bellevue, aerospace near the airport, health districts near the University of Washington, among about 10 altogether. Metro Vancouver needs hubs like that, Hutton says. But instead, every city is going at things separately, with no discussion about who should focus on which part of the ecosystem.

Surrey should be part of that ecosystem. But that will only work if there’s a regional—not just a Surrey city hall—plan and people to drive it.