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SFU City Centre campus has become Surrey’s calling card

Massive redevelopment helped transform city’s image
Simon Fraser University executive director Stephen Dooley and Downtown Surrey Business Improvement Association CEO Elizabeth Model at SFU’s City Centre campus in Surrey, which has become the city’s downtown flagship building | Chung Chow

In 2002, Surrey was still largely considered a cast-off bedroom community of commuting workers and retirees. The city had also been tagged with the dubious distinction of being the car theft capital of North America.

But that year, Simon Fraser University (SFU) established its first temporary campus space in the downtown core, with about 230 first-year students joining 282 former Technical University of British Columbia undergrads. The following year the campus launched the school of interactive arts and technology, which now stands as its longest-running program. In 2006, the campus underwent a massive transformation under the guidance of new Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts. A 350,000-square-foot building designed by architect Bing Thom was built on top of the mall. The space featured multi-purpose teaching spaces and lecture theatres along with specialized science and research laboratories.

Looking back on the campus’ humble beginnings, SFU executive director Stephen Dooley said the plan was ambitious, but that’s what the space called for.

“We were literally taking the roof off a mall and building a university on top of it,” he said. “That in and of itself is kind of a really innovative way of community building. And from there it really had a transformative effect on the area. It kind of paved the way for the redevelopment of City Centre, the development of the new library and the new city hall.”

In 2007, the mechatronics systems engineering program was created. It has become one of the campus’ flagship programs alongside the school of interactive arts and technology. Not only is the school attracting Lower Mainlanders to the programs, but also students from around the globe. 

“These two programs have international reputations and are helping to build the profile of the city,” Dooley said.

A year later, the Venture Connection program was established alongside Coast Capital Savings  to create an incubator for startups. Since inception the program has had about 3,100 participants with more than 200 student teams and 120 startup ventures.

In 2011 the campus continued its growth alongside the city, opening Podium 2, a $10 million, 54,000-square-foot newly renovated space for science and research that included pain studies and a visual analytics labs.

Finally, in 2013, SFU opened its TD Community Engagement Centre and helped spearhead the start of Innovation Boulevard, a medical hub bringing together the university, the city, Fraser Health and Surrey Memorial Hospital.

One of the staples of the building’s service sector has been Central City Brewers + Distillers’ 3,500-square-foot brewpub and restaurant, which opened in 2003. Gary Lohin, a brewmaster with Central City, said City Centre became the perfect place for the company to grow.

“We did all our brewing and canning of our beers there and launched our Red Racer brand,” Lohin said. “We’ve since outgrown that space and now have a separate 68,000-square-foot brewing facility and distillery by Bridgeview Drive in Surrey.”

Looking back on the unprecedented growth the campus has experienced since 2002, Dooley said the school is now faced with the same issue as Central City. The university has about 3,150 full-time students and more than 8,000 students who take a least one class per semester at the campus.

“Our biggest challenge is space,” he said. “We’ve already outgrown our space and we need to expand.”

Downtown is the place to be

The CEO of the Downtown Surrey Business Improvement Association, Elizabeth Model, has had a front row seat to the growth of the city’s core. In a 2013 interview with Business in Vancouver, she spoke about Surrey’s potential and its continuing emergence. Now she has what could be described as a fortunate problem when she looks out her office window on King George Boulevard.

“We used to be able to see everything, but now with all the office buildings going up it’s changed everything,” Model said. “From my office I can see 3 Civic Plaza going up, Central City and how everything is getting blocked now – my view is getting blocked by all these high rises going up.”

Along with SFU’s Central City campus there’s a new library, city hall and the Chuck Bailey Recreation Centre. Work is nearing completion on 3 Civic Plaza, a tower with 353 condominium units and 144 hotel rooms, which will further expand the skyline as the city’s tallest building right beside the SkyTrain station.

According to the City of Surrey’s 2016 Economic Diversification Strategy, the city’s leadership under Mayor Linda Hepner has identified five key areas of expansion: health and clean technology, advanced manufacturing, agricultural innovation and the “creative economy.” Most of this growth is planned for the City Centre area, which already boasts some impressive tenants including the BC Cancer Agency, the Jim Pattison Outpatient Care and Surgery Centre and the new city hall, which was designed by architectural firm Kasian. While Vancouver deals with an affordability crisis, Model said Surrey has remained a cost-saving alternative for many businesses looking to set up shop.

“With new businesses locating and investing in City Centre, they are taking advantage of the rapid growth, affordable rates both in housing and rent,” she said. “Businesses want to be closer to where their employees already live.”

But, as with any growing city, there have been setbacks. The new city hall building was drastically over budget and missed its completion deadline. General contractor PCL Constructors Westcoast Inc. has filed numerous lawsuits alleging it is owed $8.7 million above the $125 million it was already paid. (Former Surrey mayor Doug McCallum, who ran against Hepner to regain the mayor’s chair he lost to Dianne Watts in 2005, campaigned largely on claims that the building was too expensive and not needed.)

The city has also dealt with a high crime rate. According to a 2014 Insights West poll, almost half the Surrey residents surveyed said they didn’t feel safe walking through their neighbourhood at night. When Hepner was elected, she pledged more officers, and second-quarter statistics from the Surrey RCMP show a 4% drop in Criminal Code offences. RCMP spokesman Cpl. Scotty Schumann said many factors are behind the drop.

“There is not one reason that explains a rise or fall in crime,” Schumann said. “Every crime has specific dynamics and circumstances that are unique. Factors such as growth, demographics and the sheer size of a city can all contribute to crime.  That said, Surrey RCMP have several robust programs in place that no doubt have had an effect on crime.”

The city’s new crime reduction and youth units have had a positive effect, as has co-operation with other detachments to share best practices, he said.

Model said Surrey has worked hard to reshape its image, and is now seeing the fruits of its labour.

“There’s three things I always go back to, if you change the space and the face of an area, you will change the place.”

Powering the community

Located in Newton, just a short drive south from SFU’s City Centre campus, Powertech Labs has become a perfect breeding ground for clean energy technology. The unregulated subsidiary of BC Hydro has 15 primary labs on an 11-acre site.

It has more than 160 employees, with 30% of its staff holding post-graduate degrees and 55% holding either a technical or engineering degree.

Powertech has a customer base of over 300 corporations, which includes multiple Fortune 500 companies.

Powertech president and CEO Raymond Lings said the organization first signed a letter of intent with SFU and the City of Surrey in 2010.

The idea was to start a collaborative process focused on clean energy initiatives. Powertech has also shared its space with SFU’s school of mechatronics, opening up 1,000 square feet on its compound to the school for fuel cell researchers.

“You’ve got interns here from SFU,” Lings said. “You’ve got SFU taking their own space and doing their own work. So they’re coming in and out of our shop and theirs, so we do bump into each other in the coffee room, we do bump into each other in the hallways. We do have support services that they tend to pull on, and it’s a personal relationship too. We see the work that they’re doing, and it’s most definitely collaborative.”

This is the first of what Lings said he hopes will be many shared spaces at Powertech, and plans are in the works for an agreement toward a “stretchable devices laboratory” to focus on the development of nano-scale manufacturing using 2D and 3D printing.

As of April of 2014, Powertech, SFU and the City of Surrey have been on the hunt for a chairman between the three to further solidify the partnerships.