Surrey's missed opportunity: how Mayor Doug McCallum is blowing a chance to create B.C.'s most livable city

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      I admit it. I have a crush on Surrey.

      I cherish its chaat houses and all the other Indian eateries.

      I also adore the exterior and interior of the Bing Thom-designed library in Surrey City Centre, as well as the public gathering space in front of the new city hall building.

      The Bing Thom-designed tower in Surrey Centre is world class and I love how the Surrey SFU campus connects to the Central City Shopping Centre. Everything is integrated.

      Across the street, Holland Park is spectacular. Hawthorne Rotary Park might be even better.

      Over on 128 Street, the Payal Business Centre is unlike any other shopping centre in Metro Vancouver. It's an authentic slice of India dropped right into Metro Vancouver. The banquets there are magnificent.

      The Surrey Art Gallery is first rate. I am also impressed by how the John Volken Academy is turning around lives of addicts in Newton—I've seen it firsthand when I've dropped by in the past to help students with some writing tips.

      Vancouver, Richmond, and Burnaby don't have chaat houses, but they're easy to find in Surrey.
      Charlie Smith

      South Surrey also has its charms, including Vikram Vij's My Shanti at Morgan Crossing. The shimmering silver exterior sets it apart from every other restaurant in the region.

      The drive down the King George Highway seems to take forever—a reminder of how vast this city is—and the pastoral landscape stirs the imagination.

      At 316 square kilometres, Surrey dwarfs every other municipality in Metro Vancouver with the exception of Langley Township.

      The mosque on 72nd Avenue near Kwantlen's main campus is beautiful. 

      The Central City brewery is also sight to behold. Take a tour if you get the chance—and keep in mind that the founder and president, Darryl Frost, is one of the strongest supporters of autism research in the province.

      Surrey also has best selection of Bollywood movies. This is true not only in its theatres, but also at Kamal's Video Palace across the street from the comfy Tasty Indian Bistro.

      The Central City brewery is one of many worthwhile places to visit in Surrey.

      But most of all, I love the heart of Surrey. It's authentic, unpretentious, and at times full of emotion.

      Sure, the schools are overcrowded and the police officer to population ratio is out of whack, but there's no denying the city's potential.

      It can become a great metropolis and a commercial magnet for people from across the province.

      The building blocks are in place. Over time, given the size of its population, it's going to develop more sports facilities and perhaps become home to one or more of Vancouver's pro franchises.

      Surrey city staff knew that they could avoid the mistakes of other communities by planning a rapid-transit system that would make their downtown the envy of the province.

      Under the direction of Paul Ching Lee, Surrey came up with a smart light-rail plan that would connect Guilford and Newton with its burgeoning city centre—anchored by the aforementioned Bing Thom-designed buildings.

      This was going to be the carrot to draw more commercial activity, more investment, more tourists, and a 21st-century vibe that would rebrand Surrey in the eyes of the country.

      Surrey Centre is already becoming an academic and health-research hub—and this transportation plan would accelerate this trend.

      A street-level LRT system was going to make Surrey seem connected, hip, environmentally forward thinking, and far more contemporary than suburban cities marred by ugly SkyTrain guide rails.

      Former Surrey mayor Dianne Watts wanted to bring light rail to Surrey Centre as part of a broader plan to increase the city's tax base.

      Surrey Centre is on its way to becoming an authentic downtown destination, but it needs the transportation network to complete the job.

      Once that was all in place, the municipal government would enjoy a bounty of commercial property tax revenues. This would offer some relief for homeowners in the city.

      The City of North Vancouver's residents benefit from its strong commercial tax base, as do residents of Vancouver, Burnaby, and Richmond.

      It's a no-brainer for Surrey to try to do the same.

      But for some strange reason, Mayor Doug McCallum wants to unravel this vision of connecting Newton and Guildford with Surrey's downtown.

      Instead, he's committed to developing a costly SkyTrain down the Fraser Highway to Fleetwood that will reinforce Surrey's status as a bedroom community.

      What are the residents going to get in return? More sprawl and more property taxes when this line is inevitably extended to Langley.

      Who are the winners in this game? Other municipalities—including Coquitlam, Vancouver, and Burnaby—that are competing with Surrey for commercial investment.

      There's a reason why the Surrey Board of Trade is so vehemently in favour of the sensible Surrey-Newton-Guildford LRT project.

      It's affordable and it has the potential to be extended to other town centres in Surrey.

      The SkyTrain line, on the other hand, will simply bring more people from Surrey into Vancouver, where they'll spend their money and go to work.

      Surrey Mayor Doug McCallum's transit policy will reinforce perceptions of his city as a bedroom community to Vancouver.

      Now, back to my crush on Surrey.

      It's been said that love can make you happier than you've ever been, sadder than you've ever been, and angrier than you've ever been. It can elate you and deflate you almost at the same time.

      What's true of love is also true of city planning. It too can stir the deepest emotions. 

      I'll admit one other thing. I've thought that in the future, I might like to live in Surrey Centre and enjoy the benefits of its street-level light-rail project.

      It would put me in proximity to some of the things I adore about Surrey, including the SFU campus, without ever having to hop in a car.

      But if McCallum succeeds in killing the LRT, I'm less likely to make this move.

      I suspect that I'm not alone in that sentiment.