Right now, it's just a construction site surrounded by trailers, tucked under light rapid transit rails near Surrey Central station. But in less than three years, Surrey's tallest building and first luxury hotel will stand, butted up against the SkyTrain, adjacent to the new city hall and Bing Thom-designed City Centre Library.
Three Civic Plaza, as it's called, is "ground zero," for what is rapidly becoming Surrey's downtown core, also known as Surrey City Centre, says Jim Cox, president of Surrey City Development Corp. (SCDC).
Vancouverites need only ride the SkyTrain for 20 or so minutes to have a look. All the action is around Surrey Central station, the sleek antithesis of Whalley, as the area used to be known.
The place is a hub of activity, with university students, professors and business people in suits, milling about, congregating, chatting on cellphones. While most will have heard about Mayor Dianne Watts' plans to transform Surrey from mere suburb to something more urban, it looks as if the dream is finally starting to take shape.
Besides designing a couple of the buildings, architect Bing Thom acted as consultant for the city on its master plan for the new downtown, which was a good start. As the old buildings come down, new ones are going up, or are slated to go up soon, including the hotel and a mixed-use tower.
The arrival of Surrey's first hotel in 20 years, never mind a luxury hotel, is evidence of big change – and not just urban design change, but an image makeover. So much is happening, that it's surprising more people aren't talking about it.
If Mr.Thom is excited about the new direction of Surrey, why aren't the rest of us? But, as Mr. Cox says, a lot of Vancouverites are oblivious to the transformation that is occurring. We're too busy talking about ourselves.
"People are so Vancouver-centric in Vancouver. I give talks and ask: 'Who's been to Surrey lately?' The odd hand goes up."
Until recently, I was one of them.
But if all goes according to plan, those days will be over. The Central City complex, designed by Mr. Thom, goes for the wow factor with a sky-high lobby for SFU Campus that looks like the interior hull of a boat. It also will have an office tower, restaurants and one of the more pleasurable shopping malls around. Down the way, there is the half-built city hall that is emerging next to Mr. Thom's white, swooping library. The 3 Civic Plaza complex is the third component to round out the buildings that will face onto a public square. The next phase will be the redevelopment of a large recreation facility into more office and residential towers.
Now, they just need to come up with more memorable names that don't involve the words "centre," or "civic."
As for the residential-hotel complex, it will be similar to Vancouver's Shangri-La, but way more affordable, if you can call a $1.3-million penthouse affordable. And the residences will be built above the five-storey office building, with the hotel portion in a building all its own. Although Surrey will always be the affordable alternative to Vancouver, says Mr. Cox, the new 3 Civic Plaza has aroused interest from the development community that expects prices to go up as a result.
"I met with a developer the other day who said this [building] is what is going to make the Surrey market. They are all very hopeful and supportive of this doing well."
SCDC, which operates as a real estate development business but is wholly owned by Surrey city, has partnered with several developers in order to build out the new vision of Surrey. For 3 Civic Plaza, the SCDC partnered with Century Group and the building's architect Patrick Cotter. They're bringing in an American hotel chain to oversee the space, which will be operated by Century Group. Century Group, the SCDC and Mr. Cotter will own the building, which will be the tallest tower south of the Fraser.
"It's the best location in Surrey, so we are building higher quality finishes than are typical in Surrey," says Mr. Cox. "And we are charging more – you have to charge more. We are already getting quite good response, too. Before it goes public in a week, we have had a process of working with people who've already expressed interest, and we are doing quite well."
The 52-storey tower with three storeys of underground parking will have 353 condos and 50,000 square feet of office space occupying the lower floors. There will also be retail, restaurants, and the 144-room hotel with 24-hour concierge and an overall South Asian decor and feel, Mr. Cox says. Although it will butt up against the SkyTrain rail, the condos will be several floors higher, he says.
Presales for the condos begin this month, but it will take 33 months to complete, says Joanna Kwan, director of development for Century Group.
"This could be for people in their 30s or 40s, and they are changing their lifestyle into more of an urban lifestyle," says Ms. Kwan. "They are people who are already on the transit hub, who are working downtown or in Burnaby, who are taking SkyTrain."
The plan is that they might even be working in Surrey itself, as the city makes aggressive moves to increase its office space. Mr. Cox estimates that Surrey will have millions of square feet of office space in the not-too-distant future.
Surrey is aiming to complement Vancouver as a more affordable market for office space. Companies are increasingly setting up shop in Surrey, in keeping with population growth of about 12,000 people a year.
"As Surrey becomes more of an urban centre, people will consider it," says Mr. Cox. "If you have a service business, and part of your clientele is in Surrey, that's enough reason to be here,"
He cites PricewaterhouseCoopers and KPMG accountants, several law firms and Colliers International as businesses already established in Surrey.
Not that long ago, it would have been hard to imagine the former bedroom community attracting the equivalent of the Shangri-La. But they're making an effort to do it right, with the type of architecture you'd see in a metropolis. There is still single-family housing adjacent to the construction site, but the land is owned by the city and Simon Fraser University, and they have plans for that, too, Mr. Cox says.
It's not just the former Whalley that's being transformed. The SCDC has projects throughout Surrey, including massive commercial and industrial projects. That's why the city is pushing for a better transit system, to link up the revitalized areas that are separated by farm and industrial land.
Century Group already has one development near the Gateway SkyTrain station in Surrey, and has plans for another one near the King George station.
"As a developer, you go to places that have potential," says Ms. Kwan. "Surrey is growing so fast, and our project is in the heart of downtown. City Hall, SFU, the City Central building, it's all there already.
"We want to set the tone that we could have a Fairmont Hotel. We could be a Shangri-La, and located in Surrey.
"We are the anchor of it, and we believe it will happen in 10 years."