On a clear day from the site of Surrey's new civic-centre-in-progress, you can see all the way to downtown Vancouver.
One of the highest points in the Lower Mainland, the site of the new Bing Thom-designed library and the city hall designed jointly by Kasian and Moriyama & Teshima is part of a brave new experiment in city-building.
Today, it's a construction zone bordered by the SkyTrain and built on the bones of the kind of suburban retail and commercial real estate that still surrounds it. But in a few short years, developer Sean Hodgins of Century Group hopes it will become a new urban village.
In fact, his 3 Civic Plaza – the biggest mixed-use project south of the Fraser and flanked by the library and city hall – is the first substantial residential response to Surrey's new urbanization plan spearheaded by Mayor Dianne Watts: two towers on a podium that will contain a hotel, office space and a residential building, and complement the city's plans to densify, increase walkability and improve public transit access. A partner in the project is the SCDC (Surrey City Development Corporation) and the city is one of a handful in Canada that has created its own civic entity to encourage growth in such a hands-on manner.
Almost halfway through the six-year, $400-million-plus Build Surrey plan that also includes new recreational centres, firehalls, parks and arts space, Mr. Hodgins says the new urban experiment is all about "the public leading the private", and that the key is context.
"You can't create residential projects in a vacuum," he explains over coffee at the new library – already a community focal point some 14 months after its opening. Looking through the criss-crossed window frames into the giant construction pit bordered by the SkyTrain, he points to spots where he hopes new amenities will help complete the development. The city-backed plan – part of which has entailed its purchase of more traditional suburban retail to free up land for public projects – also encourages the opening of cafés, restaurants and bars to augment the social aspect of the new real-estate reality. The aim is to help mitigate the dreaded post-5-p.m. "dead zone" that is the scourge of so many high-density urbanist interventions (and not just in suburban Surrey, but even in parts of Vancouver's highly residential downtown). Animation of the plaza is a key component of the new project.
It's certainly an improvement on many nearby towers, designed as inward-looking, suburban-style developments, divorced from their surroundings and devoid of interaction with the streetscape.
In fact, the new 3 Civic Plaza, as designed by architect Patrick Cotter, is all about connecting to and acknowledging architectural and environmental context.
"The city wanted an 'iconic' tower," notes Mr. Cotter, "but I'm not interested in ego-driven architecture that doesn't fit within the existing urban fabric."
Instead, the new 541-foot, 48-storey residential tower – which will break ground in early 2013 to become one of the tallest in Western Canada – is designed in direct relationship to its neighbours.
"The library (which sits opposite the site of the future building, scheduled for completion in 2015) is all about walls and windows," says Mr. Cotter, noting the tension between solidity and transparency that plays out in Bing Thom's design. "The new city hall is all about the roof."
Referring to a "hierarchy" of buildings in the new civic centre, Mr. Cotter was careful to design 3 Civic Plaza so it would complement, rather than overpower, the existing buildings.
The key lies in the podium which engages directly with the plaza and contains the entrance for the five floors of office space above it on the north side of the plaza, the residential tower and the 144-room hotel. Its transparent glass lobby opens up directly onto the street and blurs all the social spaces into one – encouraging a sense of community (and a sense of safety augmented by the 24-hour nature of the hotel business.)
It's been designed to be several feet lower than the "star" library, and also mirrors the angle of the library's eastern edge, creating a subtle symmetry. Its flat roof references that of the city hall, while the offices, hotel and residential tower have all been angled 15 degrees away from the plaza, in a kind of architectural deference. Through variegated and judicious use of scale and massing, Mr. Cotter has created a design for a tower that respects rather than overwhelms its neighbours.
Instead of opting for a traditional tower design with a rigid core, Mr. Cotter has chosen to create an external concrete shearwall structure that supports the 48-storey residential tower. Even here, the context of neighbouring buildings is taken into consideration, as the structured concrete shearwall is broken up by a series of guitar-pick-shaped openings that reference the interplay between solidity and transparency inherent in the library. They also offer a softer, more organic contrast to the strong, rectilinear nature of the podium, hotel, and residential components.
A new four-sided, silicon-glazed window wall system, gives the building a high-end commercial feel, that complements its mixed-use nature.
With hopes high for new businesses to be attracted to the civic centre, the whole area could well become an economic hub. But much will hinge on who will buy suites in the new tower (which will contain 108 two-bedroom units and 240 one-bedrooms). While the price is attractive – its per-square-foot price is approximately half of downtown Vancouver's – it's not Vancouverites the Century Group is counting on as b uyers, but rather, says Mr. Hodgins, locals who "have an investment in the community – either in terms of family or workplace."
The walkability factor for employees of city hall, the new hotel and the nearby Simon Fraser University campus is another key component.
But it could take a while to introduce a more urban mindset into traditionally suburban Surrey.
While it may be on the vanguard in terms of new public architecture, residential habits here die hard. A security guard at the library who lives in a nearby bungalow said she had concerns about the site being so close to the SkyTrain. And a construction worker, who told me she already owned condos in Vancouver and Richmond, said she preferred to stay in her 2,000-square-foot home a few miles away.
"Once you get used to all that space," she said, "it's hard to go back to a condo."
Meanwhile, construction continues enthusiastically, and with it, hopes for a more urbanized future for Surrey.
"City-building takes a long time," says Jim Cox, CEO of the SCDC, who admits that Surrey is a community in transition. "It's not going to happen overnight. But by increasing density and adding vitality to the city centre, 3 Civic Plaza will be a critical element in that process."
Above all, he sees it as key to changing the public perception of Surrey.
"The new building and its striking architecture will make a statement," he says. "That this place is changing."