With over half a million residents, Surrey is British Columbia’s second-largest municipality. Home to 25 percent of the region’s population under the age of 34, it is on pace to surpass Vancouver’s population by the year 2036. Surrey City Centre has the opportunity to solidify its position as the region’s second downtown. Residents will not only want to live in Surrey, but also work, play, and study here too.
This article will discuss the key elements of a successful central business district (CBD) and how Surrey City Centre is transforming into a modern, bustling downtown for the region.
A New Approach to Building Downtown Surrey
A key factor that distinguishes downtown Surrey from other, more traditional downtowns around the world is its newness. Many central business districts (CBDs) have been the “downtown” for their respective cities for decades, if not centuries. By comparison, Surrey City Centre as a burgeoning downtown core is a relatively new development.
Building a new downtown presents both unique challenges and significant opportunities. City planners and the development community have the chance to decide what a second downtown in the region can and should look like.
“It’s the building and growth of a downtown,” says Elizabeth Model, CEO of the Downtown Surrey Business Improvement Association. “Where else in the world do you get to shape the place, the face, and the space of a brand new downtown within an existing city?”
It has already started with the new Surrey City Hall, Surrey City Centre Library, and Simon Fraser University (SFU) Surrey campus. There is a clear institutional presence. In just the last five years, downtown Surrey has attracted over $200 million of public capital investment in clean technology developments alone. Commercial and retail opportunities continue to develop around the core, including in the sustainable energy, smart city, and software technology sectors. Newer buildings in the area have all been built in the last 15 to 20 years.
The Region’s Second Downtown, In Its Own Way
To better frame and understand the ongoing transformation of Surrey City Centre, it is fruitful to look at other, more recent downtown developments. They may be able to provide insight into what downtown Surrey could or should look like heading into the future.
Andy Yan, Director of the City Program at Simon Fraser University, thinks that Bellevue, Washington “may be a closer analogue than these kinds of downtown cores.” Just as Surrey has Vancouver, Bellevue has Seattle as its older, more established cousin. Also like downtown Surrey, downtown Bellevue continues to develop its own modern identity separate from its older neighbour.
Bellevue has invested heavily in its transit lines, just as the Skytrain extension in Surrey could play a huge role in the region’s future transportation plans. From a commercial development perspective, Bellevue may offer some insight into the possible future of Surrey City Centre too. Currently, Surrey's office inventory is 16 percent of that of Vancouver. By comparison, Bellevue has about 44 percent of Seattle’s office space.
With only 1 percent office vacancy in Surrey, there is significant demand for office space, but not enough inventory. Lark Group has plans to build one million square feet of wet lab space in the Health and Technology District. This offers just a glimpse into what is possible in downtown Surrey. This can be a huge opportunity for commercial developers. This could be the beginning of something much bigger.
A Downtown That’s Unique to Surrey
“We get to build something Surrey-specific,” Elizabeth Model remarks. “Surrey is a very diverse community. A third of our population is under the age of 19. So, is it the ability to build within the development a natural park [where] children can live and play, and with daycares, a place within that building? There are huge opportunities there.”
The diversity of culture and talent in Surrey can shape a downtown that’s unique to the city. People will always want a place to go, says Model, “that is welcoming, that feels like it’s part of their city, that they have the buy-in to.”
Surrey’s population represents an experiential entertainment market of $421 million. Annual spending across all retail categories is $8.8 billion. The demand is there. The built-in customer base is there. Moving forward with planning for Surrey City Centre, investors can look to local residents for what they want to see in their city’s nascent downtown core.
A Place to Live, Work, Study and Play
For Elizabeth Model, the big shift in Surrey City Centre started with the arrival of Simon Fraser University’s new campus in the area. “That was a catalyst that drove everything, SFU locating here in what is now called downtown Surrey. Since that time frame, it has grown. And grown some more.”
The new SFU medical school is training healthcare and medical professionals, contributing to regional efforts to recruit 9,000 workers through the healthcare access program. The institutional presence in Surrey’s downtown core further expands with Kwantlen Polytechnic University (KPU) in 3 Civic Plaza.
Plus, the University of British Columbia (UBC) is also investing in the area, having purchased a tract of land at King George Boulevard and Fraser Highway for $70 million in 2021. UBC’s new medical faculty is also coming to downtown Surrey’s Health Technology District. The district is expected to span up to eight office buildings with over one million square feet of office space, supporting up to 15,000 jobs.
The new $312 million Legion Veterans Village will provide cutting-edge treatments in a team-based healthcare setting for veterans, first responders, and their families. Its integrated Centre of Excellence in PTSD and Mental Health and Innovative Centre for Rehabilitation will pursue active research and training to transform the future of care.
These expansions, plus Surrey Memorial Hospital, mean that downtown Surrey offers a growing number of careers in education and medicine.
A study conducted by Andy Yan and his team revealed there are many startup businesses in Surrey. The challenge is knitting them together. A Surrey City Centre that acts as a central business district can offer that sense of place for modern innovation. With only 3 percent of the commercial office space (by square footage) in the region, compared to 47 percent in downtown Vancouver and 18 percent in Burnaby, Surrey still has a lot of room and opportunity to grow.
The demand is certainly there.
A City Centre Building From the Ground Up
What will downtown Surrey look like several years down the road? Will it be a series of standalone office towers? Or will there be more podium office space with mixed-use residential and retail space? At present, Surrey attracts many residential developers, but there is a tremendous opportunity for more investment in commercial and retail space.
Surrey City Centre is already a hub of government services, financial and professional services, and higher education and innovation. It is home to three of BC’s top universities—UBC, SFU, and KPU—with plans to grow even more. The Health District includes Surrey Memorial Hospital (a UBC teaching hospital), BC Cancer Agency, HealthTech Connex, and Biointeractive Technologies. Innovation is being driven at the SFU Wearable Lab, Quantum Algorithms Institute, and more. The headquarters of Coast Capital Savings and Prospera Credit Union are setting the stage for the Financial District.
Learn more about the plan for Surrey City Centre at surrey.ca.