Surrey City Centre

On Building a Vibrant Downtown Core in Surrey City Centre

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“Vibrancy” is a buzzword that people throw around often. But what does it mean in the context of growing Surrey City Centre and helping it reach its full potential as the region’s second downtown? One of the guiding principles of the City Centre Plan is to “create vibrant urban spaces”. The plan aims to create a high-quality, pedestrian-scaled urban design in an amenity-rich environment.  

Downtown Surrey is still relatively young in its development, but this presents significant opportunities to create an exciting place for people to live, work, study, and play. Complete with green spaces and public art, as well as diverse dining and entertainment options, Downtown Surrey is the place to be. 

Building a livable, vibrant downtown with a welcoming and attractive sense of place is critical to attracting both talent and capital to the area. The City of Surrey recently introduced the concept of an Entertainment and Cultural District within the Central Business District, as part of the update to the City Centre Plan. By encouraging more commercial developers and businesses to invest in the area, Surrey strives to grow City Centre into a thriving hub of economic and cultural activity for years to come.  

It Started with a New Vision for the Region

Historically, Surrey has been a series of towns, like Newton and Cloverdale. While it was incorporated as a municipality in 1879, it wasn’t formally incorporated as a city until September 1993. Around this time, the region decided that where Surrey City Centre stands today could or would serve as the city centre. The location in North Surrey is not the geographic centre of Surrey, but rather it is the geographic and population centre of the entire Metro Vancouver region. 

Michael Heeney, Managing Principal at Bing Thom Architects at the time, was first introduced to the concept of Surrey City Centre in the late 1990s. “There was a citizens group in Surrey that had come together with the idea that the city had matured to the size that it needed a performing arts centre,” Heeney recalls. “We were doing the Chan Centre out at UBC and had a fair bit of experience in that kind of thing.” 

While they made some progress on plans, the performing arts centre never materialized. It had, however, planted the seed for what Surrey City Centre could become. It put downtown Surrey on the map as a place with incredible potential.  

“My own thinking about the performing arts centre is evolving,” Heeney reflects. “Now, I’m starting to think that maybe what Surrey needs is something that’s a little bit more unique to Surrey.” Elizabeth Model, CEO of the Downtown Surrey Business Improvement Association, echoes this sentiment. “What can we do that’s Surrey-specific? What can we do as an attraction piece in the downtown to ensure that if people stay here, they play here?”

What can we do as an attraction piece in the downtown to ensure that if people stay here, they play here?

Elizabeth Model, CEO of the Downtown Surrey Business Improvement Association

Public Commitment Leads to Private Investment

To jumpstart development in the area, the City of Surrey has demonstrated significant public commitment. One of the biggest examples of this was relocating Surrey City Hall to its current City Centre location. The $97-million, 180,000-square-foot building formally opened its doors in 2014. Then-Mayor Diane Watts said the move would be “demonstrating our faith in the future of our Downtown Core to investors, sending the message that not only is Surrey’s City Centre a good investment, but it is also the future of the region.”  

Indeed, it takes these kinds of public initiatives to set the stage for sizable private investment. As Michael Heeney recalls, the city “really believed in it. They moved the city hall, the library, they’ve invested heavily, they’ve created Surrey City Development Corporation (SCDC) that helped deliver… the mixed-use project which has a hotel and now KPU and condos.” The award-winning Central City, which added a million square feet, is another prime example of public commitment. Holland Park and 3 Civic Plaza are the result of public investment too.  

The emergence of downtown Surrey is, in some ways, like towns like Scarborough and North York outside of Toronto. “Those town centres never got going until there was significant public investment,” Heeney says. “The private sector is not going to come and invest until it’s there. The public sector basically has shown confidence and invested in it.”

Arts, Entertainment, and a Sense of Place

The initial groundwork for a vibrant downtown Surrey continues to build. A core characteristic of a thriving downtown is having a sense of place, populated with local arts, culture, and entertainment.  

The City of Surrey has made huge strides in that direction. “You have that public space in front of Surrey City Centre. You have the park. Those are big assets,” Andy Yan, City Program Director at SFU, points out. “A lot of this is dealing with programming. And whether it’s formally or informally, there’s a role for government, but there’s also a role for the private sector.” 

The Surrey Fusion Festival, a community celebration featuring free live music and family-friendly activities, takes place every July in Holland Park. Every April, the Surrey Vaisakhi Parade attracts hundreds of thousands of attendees to Dasmeh Darbar Gudwara Sahib Temple. Surrey Civic Plaza plays host to a variety of outdoor events throughout the year, including concerts, the annual Tree Lighting Festival, and the BC Halal Food Fest. Recently, the federal government announced funding to further enhance the vibrancy of the Civic Plaza with an impressive digital art display that provides local artists an opportunity to showcase their work in the community. 

Another exciting project currently underway is the new Interactive Arts Museum (iAM). Envisioned as a “cultural catalyst” for downtown Surrey, the $60 million iAM would feature 60,000 square feet of exhibition spaces, event spaces, creative spaces, a library, and a performance hall. Surrey City Council approved an initial $15 million investment in 2022. The Interactive Arts Museum “would be unique to Surrey and that would bring a lot of vitality as well,” notes Heeney.  

Growing More of a Daytime Population

Bringing a clear sense of liveliness and vitality to an area means you need to have people there, and people who want to be there, throughout the day. “You need a resident population nearby and the market is doing a great job developing that. But you also need a strong daytime population,” Heeney says. “If you want to have that kind of vitality, 24/7 ideally, you have to have people there in the day and at night.” 

The growth of higher education in Surrey City Centre, with three of BC’s top universities, is helping to contribute to that. “We already have seven or eight thousand students coming here, some on a part-time basis, some are full-time,” says Model. “Students bring amazing vitality,” Heeney agrees. “Building the universities in Surrey has been really good. These 19-year-olds don't have to leave town. They can stay in town to go to post-secondary. So, that's a super first step.” 

As both the daytime and nighttime populations continue growing in Surrey City Centre, so will the food and beverage establishments in the area. It’s a virtuous cycle and one that benefits from greater visibility. “A lot of people talk about the apple tarts at New Town Bakery in [Vancouver’s] Chinatown,” notes Andy Yan, “but nobody ever talks about the New Town in Surrey. Yet, I have no doubt that it actually has probably some of the best siopao buns in the area.”  

Dominion Bar + Kitchen inside the Civic Hotel dishes out a unique menu of Canadian cuisine. Big Star Sandwich has great sandwiches, Pho Tam serves traditional Vietnamese cuisine, and Uncle Latino’s Food is a popular spot for casual Latin American eats like arepa, empanadas, and arroz con pollo. A short walk around Surrey City Centre quickly reveals several other amazing cafes and restaurants. 

There is a huge opportunity to continue growing downtown Surrey into an economic hub and a cultural destination. As demand increases with more people in the area at all hours of the day, it will attract more investors to open restaurants and service businesses to serve this population. Surrey City Centre can be a vibrant place where people want to live, learn, work, and play. 

The Future Vision for Surrey City Centre

“Part of it is in the buildings, but then [there are] the spaces between the buildings, the urban design,” observes Andy Yan. “How it projects itself around a level of comfort, a level of safety, a level of energy.” 

A vibrant downtown core bustles with all kinds of activity. It’s a place where commercial, artistic, educational, cultural, and life come together in exciting and dynamic ways. Surrey City Centre, as the region’s second downtown, is moving in that direction. The city recognizes there is more to be done to encourage entertainment, dining, and retail to boost vibrancy. As such, Surrey has policies in place to incentivize these developments in the Central Business District.  

The city recognizes a vibrant downtown should be walkable and has taken steps in that direction. This includes shorter blocks that are more bike- and pedestrian-friendly. “Surreys got an excellent planning department and they’re all over that. You see the new developments [that] are coming, they’re actually breaking up the blocks and introducing new roads.,” notes Michael Heeney. “Their values and skills are all there. It’s really the market [that] needs to catch up.” 

As Surrey City Centre continues to grow, the different factors come together and benefit from a virtuous cycle. More commercial properties and places of higher education bring in more of a daytime population. This increases the demand for diverse retail, service, and dining in the area, which lends itself to more walkable blocks. Active public spaces, like parks and plazas with terrific events and activities, can continue to add to this growth as well. Downtown Surrey can be productive and fun.  

“All of those things… really make a really, welcoming downtown where people actually want to stay,” says Elizabeth Model. It can be unique to Surrey, serving not only residents south of the Fraser River, but also the entire region in innovative, inviting, and exciting ways.  

All of those things… really make a really, welcoming downtown where people actually want to stay

Elizabeth Model