When residents of Michael Gibbs’ Woodward Hill neighbourhood saw a city crew working on a pathway last week, they thought the safety upgrades they’d been begging for had finally materialized.
But their delight quickly turned to anger when they realized city crews weren’t installing lights or cameras, as they’d hoped, but instead were creating better wheelchair access to the walkway.
Surrey RCMP confirmed the tense confrontation resulted in police attending and standing by to “keep the peace.”
Gibbs, the area’s Block Watch co-captain, said the pathway at 57A Avenue has attracted prostitution, drug paraphernalia, and other crime for years.
It connects the Newton community to the Surrey courthouse, parole offices and the Surrey Pre-trial Remand Centre.
Gibbs told the Now-Leader the group has sent videos and photos to both city hall and police that show prostitution, a break-and-enter attempt and drug use.
That’s why Gibbs and others in the community have asked city hall to close the walkway, or at least add lighting, control the vegetation and add some security cameras.
While that hasn’t happened, better wheelchair access has.
“I am flabbergasted,” said Gibbs. “Absolutely despondent. This is not what we’ve been asking for. This only makes it more porous here,” he added, noting this would only make it easier for “binners” – those who rifle through people’s bins for items – to move freely through the pathway.
Gibbs said he signed up as a Block Watch co-captain for his neighbourhood to make it a safer place, but the walkway connecting their neighbourhood to the justice precinct is making that impossible.
“The garbage, the used condoms, the needles, just trash,” said Gibbs. “It doesn’t come from the neighbourhood. The cars that sit here, they don’t live here. Why do they do their drug deals here? We’ve got two dark walkways where nobody is seeing them and it’s fairly convenient.
“They come in and rob us blind here,” said Gibbs, noting his Halloween display was trashed this year.
“They literally have taken none of our suggestions,” Gibbs said about the City of Surrey.
He says he worries something worse will happen along the walkway at night, describing it as “black as an ace of spades.”
Brian Del Rosario, who lives right next to the walkway, said on July 11, a woman used it to get into his backyard.
He showed the Now-Leader video footage of the woman looking into his windows, trying to open his back door and wandering around his yard.
Del Rosario said his family was on vacation when they received a call from his security company about the incident.
He said it “traumatized” his wife and two children.
Del Rosario said his family moved from Vancouver to Surrey to have their own yard to enjoy, but said they no longer feel safe.
“With this walkway we see so many drug activities that they’ve left behind… I’ve seen needles that are left behind. And on our backyard, beers, empty beers are being thrown inside our fence. At nighttime I hear people and I smell that they’re doing drug activities.
“What is this doing for the safety of the neighbourhood? Our safety and the safety of the whole community?”
Del Rosario said none of his emails to politicians or staff at city hall have been returned.
“I feel I’m being ignored.”
Advinder Greywall works with Gibbs as the area’s Block Watch co-captain.
He has been a resident since the 1980s, when the neighbourhood was beginning to build out. In those days, there was only city hall and a farmer’s field nearby.
Greywall said through the years, the community has been forced to accept a lot.
In the early 1990s, former mayor Don Ross brought the courthouse and police station to the neighbourhood, and they remain today.
Greywall said while the community didn’t fight those changes, they did put up a fight against the relocation of the remand centre there.
“We protested a huge amount,” said Greywall. “All that was shoved down our throat… They’ve since doubled the (size of the) remand centre, they’re expanding the courthouse.”
After city hall moved to its new location in City Centre, even more justice services were relocated there.
“When they doubled the remand centre, we protested. When they put in the parole offices, they never told us…. They’ve done so many things without consulting, without a care that this is a residential area.”
Greywall said the city has a moral duty to take steps to keep the area safe after putting such facilities into a residential area.
“Even though they’ve shoved this down our throat, they have an obligation to make this as safe and secure as possible,” he said.
“Do all of that if you have to, I’m not being a NIMBY, what I’m saying is at least mitigate the risk. Close the walk way down. There are alternatives for people who wish to walk from that area to King George Boulevard.”
Surrey RCMP confirm the citizens in this area have brought their concerns to police and have met with the Newton District Commander and the Community Programs Co-ordinator.
“We have increased presence in the area including bike patrols,” Corporal Scotty Schumann told the Now-Leader.
Schumann said despite the group’s frustrations, the Block Watch program is vital to crime prevention in Surrey.
“Community engagement is paramount to discouraging and preventing crime at the local level,” Schumann said.
Gibbs, Del Rosario and Greywall agreed that their issue isn’t with RCMP – it’s with the city.
Surrey’s engineering communications manager Rosemary Silva says the residents have requested the walkway be closed or obstructed to prevent or discourage its use, but that the city was unwilling to make that happen.
“Walkways of this type are intended to encourage ease of access for residents through neighbourhoods, and its closure would negatively impact the walkability of the neighbourhood,” Silva said in an email to the Now-Leader.
“Where this type of walkway exists in the city, it is important that there be clear sightlines to all entrances. Blocking walkways with barriers may impede sightlines, whereas increasing public passage and awareness of a walkway typically leads to improved safety and community participation. Furthermore, abandoned or blocked pathways can become areas for illicit activity. Vegetation control would definitely be a priority for us.”
Silva said the city has told residents it cannot close the walkway, and it does not support video surveillance due to privacy issues.
“That said, we do understand that the Block Watch has concerns and would like to see additional safety measures along the walkway,” she said.
“Last Friday, we responded to a request for greater wheelchair and bike accessibility along the walkway which resulted in some improvements.”
Silva said city staff are reviewing the site and plan to discuss additional safety measures with the neighbourhood Block Watch in the near future.
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