COLUMN: Surrey to get centred

At long last, the City of Surrey is starting to do more that give lip service to Surrey City Centre.

While the city has been giving the Whalley downtown area the grand title for well over a decade, it has done little of substance to back up the concept.

There has been investment in the area – mostly by the provincial government. The Social Credit government, pushed by then-MLA Rita Johnston, agreed in the late 1980s to extend SkyTrain into Whalley. By the time the first train arrived in 1993, the NDP were in power and Mike Harcourt, Glen Clark and Surrey MLAs Joan Smallwood, Sue Hammell and Penny Priddy got to take the credit.

The NDP followed through with the equally-ambitious plan to have ICBC buy Surrey Place Mall and build the Central City tower on part of the property. It was a white elephant for a while, largely because the economy wasn’t strong, but it is now a beacon in the area.

The NDP also created the Technical University of B.C. and said it would be based in Whalley. The standalone university idea didn’t pan out, but Tech U was rolled into Simon Fraser University, giving the Burnaby-based university a third Lower Mainland campus. SFU and Surrey have been a good fit.

Unfortunately, there has been little private investment in the City Centre to match the provincial dollars. In recent years, there has been some housing activity, but consolidation of property in Whalley for redevelopment isn’t easy and, other than SkyTrain, there has been little reason to invest heavily in the area.

The challenge of property consolidation will continue to be an impediment for some time. Developers can tie up an entire block by buying one or two select properties, preventing anything from happening – except on their terms.

However, the City of Surrey is now looking to develop a portion of its property in the area, at the North Surrey Recreation Centre. It is considering a second Central City tower – one that could eventually house city hall.

This is a step in the right direction. If Whalley really is becoming Surrey City Centre, city hall should be there. It’s on the train line, and current provincial plans call for that line to be extended further east.

The RCMP are also planning to move E Division headquarters to a portion of the Green Timbers property that is just east of downtown Whalley. That will add more economic activity to the area, and extra police working there won’t hurt either.

Mayor Dianne Watts, who is keen on moving city hall to the city centre, says it is likely some departments will move first – among them council and the city clerk’s office. This would make a strong statement that Surrey leaders believe in the City Centre concept.

Surrey is a sprawling city that encompasses many differences from community to community. A central focal point, one that citizens are proud of and feel safe in, is key to making it more cohesive.

It appears that city decision-makers finally realize that.


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