The mayor of British Columbia’s second-largest city is proposing building a canal as a tourist attraction, a suggestion many city councillors say is a fanciful notion at a time when the city is faced with significant budgetary constraints.
Mayor Doug McCallum of Surrey had raised the idea some time ago, but repeated it in a radio interview last month.
Mr. McCallum was not available for an interview, but recently told the radio station he wanted to have the canal built in Surrey’s Bridgeview neighbourhood after being inspired by canals he has seen in travels to Qatar and Venice.
This past summer, he told a business audience he could see a “wandering canal” running from the Fraser River along “a street that’s not used that much” to agricultural lands in south Surrey.
The mayor’s canal idea has been seen as out of sync with the needs of quickly growing Surrey, where residents have lately been outraged over a budget, set for a key vote Monday, that rules out hiring more Mounties and firefighters.
Critics see the city as facing far more serious challenges than building canals.
“We need real functional infrastructure in Surrey. Not figments of someone’s imagination,” Councillor Brenda Locke, former member of the mayor’s Safe Surrey Coalition, said in a statement.
Oliver Lum, director of communications for the mayor, said in an interview that the mayor is committed to the idea, but there are now no details available. He said the proposal to build the canal on the Surrey side of the venerable Pattullo Bridge will be looked into by staff in due course.
Mr. McCallum is not the first recent Surrey mayor to propose a high-profile project with tourist appeal. In 2014, then-mayor Linda Hepner proposed then retreated from the idea of building a major Ferris wheel on the Fraser River waterfront.
“It was a flippant comment relative to my desire to animate the waterfront, the entryway coming into Surrey,” she told The Globe and Mail at the time. “It is a lesson learned: Don’t be flippant.”
Critics of that plan included Mr. McCallum.
Councillor Allison Patton, a member of Mr. McCallum’s Safe Surrey Coalition who is focusing on issues of economic development, said details of cost, design and development are a long way off.
Mr. McCallum has pushed through several other commitments since his re-election in 2018.
He promised to create a new municipal police force that would replace the RCMP in Surrey, and talks are under way with the province to enact that pledge. He also promised the first extension of the SkyTrain in Surrey since 1994, and the regional transportation authority is now looking at the option.
Councillor Jack Hundial, who has been critical of the mayor’s leadership style, said the mayor has reached a new milestone with his canal idea.
“This perhaps one of the dumbest ideas I have ever heard of in all my years of public service,” Mr. Hundial said in an e-mail exchange.
“Nothing would cause me to support this. We are in a time of an affordability crisis in a growing city. We were elected to move this city forward, not paddle backward, which is what this is.”
Kees Lokman, an assistant professor in landscape architecture at the University of British Columbia, said low-lying Bridgeview faces flooding from the Fraser River, but also has challenges related to stormwater runoff from higher areas of Surrey.
While Mr. Lokman said he doesn’t see Bridgeview as a prospective site for canals, he said there could be developments to channel stormwater.
It wouldn’t be a hard canal with strictly defined edges, but would have subtle-slope edges with rocks and plants, he said.
“[It] wouldn’t necessarily be a canal in the sense of the Venice canal or Amsterdam or all these other places that have these massive canals," he said.
“When I am taking [Mayor McCallum’s] words at face value, I am kind of thinking this is a little bit crazy,” Mr. Lokman said. “If there is a completely different length that is related to stormwater management and green infrastructure, the proposal could be quite a bit more realistic.”
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