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AND FRANKLY: Shades of 1986 about Semiahmoo Town Centre plan

Proposal to build highrises in South Surrey met with strong opposition more than 35 years ago

The Semiahmoo Town Centre Plan, scheduled to be voted on by Surrey council on Jan. 31, has a strong whiff of “deja vu” about it.

Highrises are the focal point of both the plan, which is intended to guide development in an area centred on 152 Street from 16 to 20 Avenues, and spirited opposition from some residents within the plan area and living adjacent to it.

This is very similar to strong opposition to highrises in the same area, proposed way back in 1986. At that time, there were no highrises in the community plan, and none stood in either White Rock or South Surrey.

Just a few years earlier, the entire 160-acre plot between 16 and 20 Avenues and 152 and 148 Street had been a large forest – home to White Rock Utilities’ water source. Development of the property began in the late 1970s.

In 1986, the tallest building in Surrey was the Ted Kuhn Tower on Old Yale Road, across from Surrey Place (now Central City). Highrises in the Whalley area were thought of as a distant possibility, likely after SkyTrain extended to Surrey. The extension to King George Station opened in 1994.

The proposed Semiahmoo plan calls for highrises up to 24 storeys on both sides of 152 Street, north to 18 Avenue, and on the Semiahmoo Mall property. A corporate report given to council in March, 2020 states that this is “lower than the maximum building height permitted in White Rock.”

Whoever wrote that line was blissfully unaware that a new council had been elected in White Rock in October, 2018, with a strong mandate to reduce building heights of highrises in the White Rock town centre. A series of skirmishes over heights was underway at the time the report went to Surrey council, and the end result is that buildings are now restricted to 12 storeys and a height of 40 metres in White Rock.

Semiahmoo Residents Association has a number of concerns about the proposed plan, with high rises and higher densities being the most significant. The plan also calls for a “transition zone” next to the highrises, with heights up to 12 storeys. SRA would also like to see lower buildings with more of a green focus.

The association is also concerned about traffic and makes the logical point that rapid transit along 152 Street in South Surrey and White Rock is highly unlikely. Increased density in the area, with no transit beyond rapid buses, will mean much more congestion and increased parking challenges.

The future of Semiahmoo Mall is an open question which the plan does not really address. Obviously, the property owner has a lot to say about that, and an application for three towers on the mall property is already a possibility. With most of the property zoned for highrises, where will the current shops and offices go? Some will certainly relocate to the lower floors of highrises, which will become commercial space, but the future of retail in the area is murky.

A statistic from the 2020 corporate report is significant. At that time, 35 per cent of the population of the area was over 65 – almost three times more that the Surrey average of 14 per cent. Thirty-seven per cent were single-person households. Many of these people, particularly as they get older, don’t drive or do very little driving. They walk to shops, medical offices and other service-oriented businesses.

Right now that is pretty easy, with a one-storey mall and moderate traffic (away from 152 Street) making pedestrian travel fairly safe. Increased densities, high-rises and the scattering of existing businesses will make that more difficult.

One good recommendation of the plan is to increase medical-oriented development in the area north of 16 Avenue, adjacent to Peace Arch Hospital.

The plan raises a lot of questions, and council may want to be sure it has answers to them before endorsing it wholeheartedly.

Frank Bucholtz writes twice a month for Peace Arch News and at Email