What's going on in St. Helen's Park?

Post by Mike Klassen in


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.


A Citizen's Forum takes place tonight at SFU Surrey Campus, 7pm. See document for details: Notice of RF Zoning Citizens’ Forum. The Province's Kent Spencer has reported on this story as well.



As someone who knows a little of what is going on in Surrey - thank-you for your comments and your ideas. It is most certainly not an easy circumstance that the planners and staff at Surrey City Hall have been put into.

Again, thanks.

Thanks Mike for shining a light on the Grandview Heights issues. Surrey has undergone extensive changes in the last 15 years and increased density is the norm. I live in the Cloverdale area and we have seen huge changes, not all for the better. I understand the need for increased density, but the cramming of houses onto such small lots does nothing for the many children in the area. Backyards are so small that it is impractical for the kids to play like I used to and as our kids did when they were small. Now the kids have to play on the streets and coexist with the fast moving cars and trucks.
All of that is considered progress and by your oft stated standards and goals is a minimum requirement for all future development in the region.
But it would be wonderful if Grandview Heights were left as it is with lots of very large trees and large lots. Yes, it is an automobile centric neighborhood but there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. The problem with doing spot rezoning in this area is that it becomes a creeping cancer and never stops. The developers have an insatiable thirst for land in such a beautiful location.
Next, they will want to pave over the flat lands east of Grandview Corners and into South Langley. That would be a huge loss for this community.
So Mike, there are some in the Region who disagree with your all or nothing views.

Thanks for your comments, Bob. How exactly are my ideas "all or nothing"?

What happened to the ideas that parks might be a place for children and communities to gather? Have we simply bailed on creating walkable communities and outdoor space for everyone?

I have no doubt that some developers have "crammed" buildings into spaces in Surrey, which is why there should be proper design and building standards. Higher density developments should help pay for community amenities, as they do in Vancouver.

That properly planned housing should be considered a "creeping cancer" is an indication of how far we still have to go in helping people to understand the alternatives. What I propose is not exactly a shanty in Rio – it's nice homes that people will be proud of.

I surely hope that the fields east of Grandview Heights you describe are left alone. With some smart planning, it certainly can be avoided.

Mike, I am not certain of your age and family situation. I am a senior and watch our daughters and daughter in law deal with small back yard issues most days. The back yards are just too small to keep kids occupied with things growing kids like to do such as kick a ball around or fly small glider planes or play catch. And with a very young family, it seems that the babies and toddlers always need their sleep times when it otherwise would be the time to visit a park that is four blocks away. It is more convenient to let the older ones play in the yard. I think your dream of a carless, almost yardless community is impractical and wrong. But you are singing from the pages of the Urban Planners Hymn Book

I heard you at the Surey meeting last evening. I agree with everything you said, but I'm not sure the audience grasped what you were saying. I am not a Surrey resident, but things are 'coming to a head' when it comes to density, sustainability and facing new realities. According to a recent Globe & Mail article, one thousand people a month are moving to Surrey. Were do you think they are living. I suggest that the 'secondary' rental market - 'illegal suites', non-conforming small apartment buildings etc..are absorbing most of them.
Bob Bose was correct when he stated that Surrey would not recognized suites nor would they close them. What developed - and this is not strictly a cultural issue - was a culture of non-compliance. The 'ostrich' did not work. Nor will spot rezoning or community plebiscites on density etc...Simply, sustainability is something that cannot and should not be negotiated.(look at the Vancouver experience.)
Without some form of regional planning for the entire MV regional, like we had before 1983. It's up to the various 23 MV municipalities to set their own course when it comes to the Liveable Region Strategic Plan and creating a sustaibale future. This ain't gonna work. Vancouver starts at the eastern boundary of Maple Ridge and stops at English Bay. It goes from Horseshoe Bay to the US border.
Regional government is necessary.

Bobh, I'm forty-something and have a small family (one child). I am extremely lucky to have a good-sized yard. The fact I have it at all was the result of a lot of luck and fortunate timing. Had we bought at the wrong time, we might be in the situation your daughter-in-law is in.

When I was a small lad we rented a townhouse. There was a tiny patio fenced in, and a couple of raised garden beds that I used to plant flowers and sweet peas in. I had lots of pals in the complex I lived in, and fortunately we had a couple of common areas where kids would play together.

As we got a bit older we'd ride our bikes all over the neighbourhood, eventually riding trails in Central Park in Burnaby.

I guess my point is that the idea of everyone having a yard is becoming less and less achievable. In European cities, where people live well, there is no such thing as a yard for urban homes. That's why the public realm is critical to the success of community development.

All neighbourhoods deserve safe, accessible park space. New developments must provide space for adults and children to be able to walk, play, and mix.

I have more to say on this topic, and will post more this weekend.

Great comments, flowmass. Next time please come and say hello.

I was wondering if you had the chance to actually drive through this neighbourhood on a warm sunny evening? Or has your only
opinion been formed by google?

You would come across quite a few people of all ages out walking with their children or pets. Kids riding bikes. Maybe even a street hockey game.

We may not have a named park within our boundries, but there is a ravine along our whole west border and a large park to the south(Robson Park). As residents we are looking forward to the improvements being made at Robson Park and have been looking into improving the vacant grass lot in your slide show with signage and possibly some benches.

Perhaps you could explain the public disorder comment.

As for transit, it runs along 128th Street and also 100th Ave, just minutes away from Surrey Central, Skytrain, SFU and the Library.

Unfortunately our culture is dependent on the vehicle. Would we shop at a local store in the middle of our neighbourhood. Perhaps for some things, when we run out, but cheaper prices (our fewer dollars) at big box stores will still be the main choice. I personally would love to have a good butcher or local grocer nearby so I could walk.

I know of many families that walk their children to school and look forward to sunnier and warmer days to walk my daughter to school with my two younger sons.

Need to go now. I'm going to the backyard to play with my kids.

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