Surrey by Design: The city shifts its focus

With Surrey attracting almost 1,000 new residents a month, architect Michael Heeney is heading the city's build-out

Credit: Taehoon Kim

Heeney helped design Surrey’s Central City complex. Now he’s back for the rest of the town

Why did B.C.’s second-largest city hire an architect to lead its property development push? As it turns out, Michael Heeney and Surrey are old friends

From his 18th-floor window—cranes on the skyline, construction crews below—Michael Heeney sees his new job as city builder all around him. Last September the architect took the helm of Surrey City Development Corp. (SCDC), the for-profit agency that works at arm’s length from city hall. It’s a switch from his previous gig as principal at Bing Thom Architects (BTA), where he led projects in Vancouver, Hong Kong, London and Washington, D.C.

“It surprised a lot of people,” Heeney says at his desk in Surrey’s Central City office tower. “I think the preconception is that this is a job held by someone from a development business background,” he adds. “But for me, it’s been very much a continuation of my interests and my passion in building a city. And it’s nice to be able to focus on one city for a change.”

It makes sense that SCDC would choose Heeney, who succeeded Aubrey Kelly, now head of the UBC Properties Trust. Heeney’s role in the birth of downtown Surrey dates back to the early days of the city’s master plan, when BTA (recently renamed Revery Architecture) served as a consultant.

The Vancouver-based firm designed the Central City complex, which includes an SFU campus and was completed in 2004, as well as the elegant Surrey City Centre Library.

Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner got to know Heeney when he worked on the library, which opened in 2011. “He’s been there all along, and he shares the vision and the passion of the art of the possible with respect to our city centre,” Hepner says. “He’s helping us go into this second phase, if you will, of our transformation.”

Heeney, who has a youthful face and silver hair, might have helped design the building in which he now sits, but he looks a tad uncomfortable with corporate life. Gone are the days of biking to work from Kitsilano to his low-key downtown office, which he did for 28 years at BTA. Now he cycles to the SkyTrain and uses the 40-minute ride to catch up on emails.

“Every month changes here. You can feel things are happening,” Heeney says about Surrey’s progress. “It seems like the change happened in an instant, but this is something that people have been thinking about for decades.”

Surrey’s geographic size—about two-and-a-half times bigger than Vancouver—is Heeney’s biggest challenge. He’s focusing on Surrey City Centre, previously known as Whalley, and chipping outward from there, aiming to create more pedestrian-friendly streetscapes. Right now Heeney is looking at land assemblies around Gateway station, to build several more towers that will likely be mixed-use residential and commercial.

“I think of that area as our version of the West End,” he says, nodding north toward a distant clump of towers.

SCDC is owned by the City of Surrey but operates at arm’s length, generating its income through development. As president, Heeney reports to an independent board, including two senior city staff. One of SCDC’s first ventures was the almost completed 3 Civic Plaza complex. The $100-million hotel, condominium and office project was built with Surrey-based property developer Century Group; a recent tour left Heeney impressed by its high standard.

His position as developer on behalf of the city means that he straddles two worlds. When SCDC launched a decade ago, developers wondered what Surrey was doing getting involved in their game. But the corporation purchases both city and private land and does assemblies, not actual building. Its mandate is to operate without debt, so subsidies from taxpayer dollars aren’t an option. In fact, SCDC has to buy municipal land at market value and pay a $4.5-million annual dividend to the city.

“Surrey is one of the fastest-growing regions in Canada, and it carries with it all kinds of challenges,” says Howard Nemtin, a veteran real estate developer who sits on the SCDC board, which selected Heeney with the city’s blessing. “An aspect of what Michael is doing, and what we are all trying to do, is really city building.”

Heeney must raise the profile of a community that is attracting almost 1,000 new residents a month, Nemtin says. (Surrey’s population is expected to reach parity with Vancouver’s by 2040.) With that speedy growth creating a need for new businesses, calling Heeney an ambassador isn’t a stretch: his new role calls for spreading the word that SCDC is the ideal development partner, with local expertise and substantial real estate holdings.

Heeney knows he has a bigger task ahead of him than merely sending towers into the sky. His mission is to create a statement that will rebrand Surrey as an urban destination, with projects of lasting quality. Andy Yan, director of the City Program at SFU, puts Heeney’s job in context: “He’s helping to create the second downtown in metropolitan Vancouver, and that is essential to our region’s growth and prosperity.”