This slideshow gives a quick snapshot of the challenge faced by an aging, low-density community
The City of Surrey's slogan is "The Future Lives Here." For the future to truly shift to Surrey in a meaningful way, there are immense challenges. Surrey's Sustainability Charter is clearly a work in progress – I was surprised at how many pages online simply say "coming soon." But I know that good work is going on across the city to try and make Surrey more sustainable.
Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts' approach has been to avoid ruffling any feathers, promising that "no solution will be imposed by city hall. No neighbourhood will be changed without the support of the residents." Perhaps she saw what Sam Sullivan did in Vancouver with EcoDensity, and decided that it wouldn't work for her city. It probably would eat up her political capital quickly, too.
For example, look at Surrey's Grandview Heights neighbourhood. Massive mansions everywhere, huge expansive lots and floor plans that are several thousand square feet. Yet in one small portion of it the city proposes a four-storey residential development, the section known as Area 5A, and there's an outcry from neighbours who describe the changes as "drastic".
On Thursday evening, November 26th, I am participating in a panel discussion around the future of a community known as St. Helen's Park (SHP) – as well there will be a broader discussion around housing and zoning throughout Surrey. A grassroots community group looking to preserve the neighbourhood, and resist zoning that will allow for larger "megahomes" has created this website, www.sthelenspark.com to make their case.
I was contacted by organizer Grant Rice to participate on the panel, and at first I was extremely wary. This issue has become heated, and there's no reason I would want to travel out to Surrey to become involved in someone else's disagreement. Secondly, there is also the perception – a fair one – that Surrey doesn't need anyone from Vancouver telling them how to build their city.
While I don't personally like so-called monster homes, there is clearly a demand for them. It would be pointless of me to suggest otherwise. All that considered, I saw that SHP faced a dilemma and they were looking for the advice of third parties. Also on the panel, and like me a bit guarded, is Peter Simpson, CEO of the Greater Vancouver Homebuilders Association. Peter wrote an excellent summary of the SHP issue published by the Vancouver Sun last weekend.
What made me feel more comfortable in participating in this forum was having a powerful tool like Google Street View. Using Google's amazing 360° camera I was able to spend a couple of hours riding up and down the streets of St. Helen's Park. I also realized that there was no way I could really endorse stopping anything from happening in that neighbourhood, unless the community itself could create a more sustainable future for itself.
As I traveled around SHP the first thing I noted was there are no sidewalks. Most of Surrey's older residential communities don't have them. Cars were always present and gas was cheap, after all. Who needed to walk? Fortunately, city planners today are making walking more of a priority.
There were many other things that struck me.
- Everything was low, low density. One storey homes + basement. Probably few, or no suites;
- Local shopping was practically non-existent;
- Homes were set so far back from the street that visibility was a problem, which invites crime;
- Streets were tidy, but dull. Little effort was made to improve the curb appeal of streets;
- There are no curbs at all;
- Apartment buildings on the outer edge of the community were old and tiny in comparison to the lot sizes;
- Streets were narrow and dangerous for walking – I bet most kids around here either drive or bus to school;
- There are no parks or public space inside of SHP's boundaries.
Large motorhomes are parked throughout the area, leading me to think that this is a greying community.
My little slideshow sums up some of my thinking. St. Helen's Park could be fantastic raw material for an innovative Surrey neighbourhood that is affordable, walkable and a great place to raise kids. It will just take a little thinking outside the box.
The moribund shopping centre bordering SHP could be a new dense mixed-use development instead of a vacant parking lot. The apartment blocks could be revitalized with new, larger buildings several storeys higher than the current three.
Streets can have proper sidewalks and bike paths. Lots could be zoned to allow infill, or multi-unit housing that is both affordable and well-designed. Vacant corners could become pocket parks, and the grandmas and grandpas that live here will once again hear the sounds of children playing nearby.
Transit connections to Surrey Central and Skytrain can be improved, and local shopping would become an option as the local demand increases.
There is a lot of opportunity here, provided the citizens of St. Helen's Park remain open-minded, and they can imagine this community loosening its reliance on the car for generations to follow.