Surrey's towering ambition

Metro Vancouver's soon-to-be largest city attempts a makeover.


(Photo: Nic Lehoux/Bing Thom Architects)

The downtown area of B.C.’s second-biggest city doesn’t look like much today. One office tower, a library, a plaza and a busy bus loop clustered around a rapid-transit station. The rest of the six-kilometre rectangle designated as Surrey’s urban core is a desert of electronics stores, parking lots, patches of bush, sagging split-level houses, cheap ethnic and fast-food eateries, and a six-lane highway.

But that landscape is poised for massive change as Surrey drives to transform itself from bedroom suburb and butt of pit-bull jokes to metropolis. A city hall is under construction. Next to it, the Century Group is about to break ground on a 50-storey tower—the tallest between Vancouver and Calgary—with a mix of condos, offices and shops. Other developers are planning towers of their own nearby.

The budding downtown is the latest and most ambitious effort by Surrey’s strong-willed mayor, Dianne Watts, to remake her oft-disparaged city and put it on the map. In her seven-year reign, she has invited global heavyweights like Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, George W. Bush and, earlier this month, Richard Branson for annual “economic summits.” She has led a trade mission to India and presided over the introduction of music festivals, a marathon and bike-bridge projects in this once white-bread, car-dependent suburb.


Next, the city aims to build a downtown to rival big-sister Vancouver. That’s an enormous job. Surrey didn’t even have a vestigial town centre to build on. It’s also years behind smaller suburbs like Burnaby, Richmond and North Vancouver.

To aid her ambitions, Watts makes personal phone calls to developers to welcome them, and graces their marketing launches. She gives her planners and engineers free rein to redo zoning to enable the tall buildings and tight street grids that define downtowns. She has led her council in committing millions of dollars to downtown projects including the library, city hall and, later, a performing-arts centre.

Under Watts’s leadership, the city created a proactive development corporation whose main job is to assemble land and put together deals with builders. The latest venture will see the city become part owner of the Century Group tower, having put $13 million, land and cash, into the $100-million project.

The risks the city is taking are beginning to pay off, Watts argues. “Once the investors realized the city was going to put some skin in the game, there was a stability. But we needed to demonstrate we were serious.” Surrey has many pluses: room to build, some of the region’s most affordable housing, potentially spectacular views for triple-A office tenants and penthouse dwellers.

But it takes a long time, and there are many twists in the road, to build a city and a downtown. Just ask Mississaugua, Surrey’s Ontario counterpart, which is still struggling to build a downtown of its own.