'Ambitious' proposal aims to transform waterfront district in Surrey and along Fraser River

·3 min read

The Surrey Board of Trade wants to transform the area along the Fraser River in the Lower Mainland into a waterfront district that would combine industry, housing and recreation opportunities — but the proposal has so far fallen flat with regional officials.

Anita Huberman, the board's CEO, says the project is an opportunity to develop underutilized areas along the Fraser River in order to drive economic growth and house some of the 1.5 million people expected to move into the region by 2050.

"Yes, it is ambitious," Huberman said. "This is to enhance livability. It's to create jobs. It's to ensure that we are a region of the future."

The Fraser River has long been home to heavy industry that makes use of the waterway. In Surrey, the waterfront near the Patullo Bridge is dotted with warehouses, paper mills and port facilities.

The board's vision, presented in a proposal shared with the Metro Vancouver Regional Planning Committee in September, is to supplement the area with aspects like housing, an "innovation hub" and green space.

Support from other municipalities

The proposal highlights a similar project along the River Thames in England, which brought together 17 municipalities and the port authority.

"It's being done all over the world. Why can't we do it here on the Fraser River?" Huberman said.

The Surrey Board of Trade is currently shopping the project around to regional, provincial and federal governments to get partners on board.

The project has support from the City of Surrey, Huberman says, as well as other municipalities along the Fraser that are interested in developing their waterfronts.

Surrey Mayor Doug McCallum didn't respond to requests for comment by deadline.

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

But Metro Vancouver's Regional Planning Committee rejected the board's $300,000 request in September, opting instead to offer staff time to support the initial phase of project development.

A committee report presented to the Metro Vancouver board on Friday says the Fraser River waterfront revitalization project doesn't align with the region's current strategies, like concentrating major developments along transit corridors in urban centres and discouraging them elsewhere.

The report also emphasized the region's policy of protecting its few remaining industrial lands, which account for only four per cent of the region's land use but create 27 per cent of its 1.3 million jobs.

No 'whiff of inspiration'

Meg Holden, professor of urban studies at Simon Fraser University, says she wasn't surprised Metro Vancouver shot the the project down.

"I don't see any whiff of inspiration in this plan," Holden said.

The proposal refers to the creation of affordable housing but doesn't specify how it would achieve that, she says.

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

Cities like New Westminster, which has successfully developed its waterfront, have clear policies in place to protect rental homes. Too often, Holden says, waterfront developments result in gentrification.

"Planners are wise to a plan that says it's going to create a place for everyone when clearly it's going to push out the people who are currently there," she said. "I think that we're smarter than that in the region now."

'Huge potential'

Holden also points out that a lot of the area along the Fraser River, including in Surrey, is marshy and would be costly to develop into highrises.

But urban planner Afia Raja says waterfront redevelopment projects can create significant economic growth.

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

Raja, a professor at the University of the Fraser Valley, says waterfront development projects are often a tradeoff between environmental, recreational and housing aspects.

The key to any successful project of this scale, Raja says, is to work closely with various stakeholders and levels of government to garner support.

"If all this is in place, I think it has got huge potential," Raja said.