Jim has had nearly a 40-year career in the real estate and development industry, including stints with BCR Properties, Vancity Enterprises, the Port of Vancouver, Moodie Consultants and Marathon Realty where he was involved in the massive redevelopment of Vancouver’s waterfront near Stanley Park in the 1990s.
We chat with Jim about Surrey’s vision for a new downtown centre, how that plan is becoming a reality and what he thinks the future has in store for Metro Vancouver’s fastest growing city.
BuzzBuzzHome: Can you briefly explain what Surrey City Development Corporation does?
Jim Cox: It’s a real estate development company that is here to make money. We take on projects that will turn a profit, support Surrey’s community objectives and encourage further growth and development in the city.
We’re really proud of the work the SCDC has done so far. We went from a start-up in 2007, to being a profitable company today, and going forward, we think that’s going to continue.
BBH: What are SCDC’s community objectives?
JC: One of Surrey’s big picture objectives is to increase the number of jobs in the community. A planning goal is to have a job in Surrey for every person in the labour force. That doesn’t mean everyone works in Surrey, but it means we have that employment base. One of SCDC’s development projects is a big industrial park, which, of course, will create some of those jobs.
There’s an area of the city, Cloverdale, which could use some… energy, I suppose, is the best way to put it. So we’re doing a big residential project in that area to support the community and create more housing.
Then there’s South Surrey, a community that needs and wants an arts and cultural centre. We’re proposing to build that as a component of a major development project out there.
BBH: Tell us about the SCDC’s vision for Surrey’s new downtown and where developments like 3 Civic Plaza fit into that.
JC: For a long time, the City of Surrey has been looking to encourage development in the Whalley area, which is designated as the new City Centre. As a part of that, the city wanted to build a new city hall in the area to put their money where their mouth is and say ‘This is the future of the city.’ So we managed that project for them. We did the site planning, oversaw the design of the building, and now we’re managing the construction process. It will be finished at the end of this year. So that was a very significant signal to the industry that Surrey was serious about this.
And when the new city hall started to come out of the ground, a number of developers decided to acquire property and undertake new projects in Surrey. It kind of convinced the market that [Surrey’s plan for a new downtown centre] was going to happen — that it wasn’t just a dream, it was real. As a part of that, we put together a request for proposals for a site that we knew was a very significant site adjacent to the new city hall. That eventually resulted in the 3 Civic Plaza project.
We’ve been working on 3 Civic Plaza with our partner Century Group. With the proposal we wanted to do two things: we wanted a development to happen in the city centre, and we wanted this active animation of the Civic Plaza area. And so we really wanted a hotel to be a component of that project. So 3 Civic Plaza does include a hotel, retail space, offices and a major residential component. We’ve been able to influence the market to produce a development that we think will make some money and really help animate this new City Centre. And because 3 Civic Plaza is a 50-storey tower, it’s going to be a landmark building, there’s no question about it.
BBH: For 3 Civic Plaza, why a mixed-use hotel and residential development as opposed to just a condo tower?
JC: We wanted the project to animate the area twenty-four seven. 3 Civic Plaza is in a very significant location right on the Civic Plaza with the SkyTrain station. So the notion of a hotel — it has activity. Maybe not around the clock, but more than a business day. It will have restaurants, bars and coffee shops in it, and we really felt it was a great way to animate the area and the plaza. We also wanted Surrey to have a quality hotel in City Centre as part of the complete community.
When we went out for request for proposals for the site, we made it pretty clear it wasn’t going to be for just another residential tower. It had to be a pretty significant building, and we also made it pretty clear a hotel was something we were interested in seeing.
BBH: It could be said that Surrey — like many other cities — has struggled in the past to create a vibrant downtown core. How is the new City Centre finally defining Surrey’s downtown?
JC: It has all the components you want in a city centre. It’s got great transit and, geographically, it’s where you need another central business district. You have Vancouver, but this is the next one. It’s really going to support the cities south of the Fraser River, which are big communities. Surrey on its own is almost as big as Vancouver.
But the biggest contribution to the project’s success is the City’s investment in what I call the Civic Centre – the new library, the new city hall and the plaza that’s being built. This is what told the development industry that Surrey is serious about this. You’re building a 200,000-square-foot building that’s going to have 800 or 900 employees in it. It’s going to animate the area. Without that investment, I think some people were going to question whether this was really going to happen. But I don’t think anybody questions it now.
BBH: Is there one specific aspect of the new city centre that you’re most excited about or proud of?
JC: I know the city hall building is going to be an unbelievable building, so we’re pretty proud of that. It’s an iconic building that we’re on budget and on time with. And it’s not easy to be those things with this kind of project.
And then there’s 3 Civic Plaza, which, as I said, is going to be an absolute landmark tower. It has got the best location. I think the interesting thing — and something that I think proves the vision for Surrey’s new downtown is really going to happen — is that all major developers are out here now, or they want to be out here and are trying to buy real estate. That’s exciting. If you look around in the next 10 years, you know there’s going to be 10, or 12, or 15 new towers built out here, so it is really going to happen. And that’s exciting from my perspective.
BBH: Cities often experience resistance from some members of the public where major development is concerned. Are you seeing any pushback from citizens regarding the rapid growth of Surrey’s new downtown?
JC: No, absolutely not. People welcome it. They’re not fighting it at all. I think that’s partly because it’s been in the planning stages for probably 20 years. People are aware of the plan and are used to it. And I think they’re glad to see it happening, so absolutely no pushback.
Also, Surrey City Council works very hard to keep communication open with the public. I know in a week there’s going to be a community event when they’re going to spend the day speaking with the people. So they do work very hard at that, but also, nobody is taken by surprise. Everybody knew about the plan, so as new projects come forward, it’s not a surprise at all. The citizens of Surrey are supportive of the change and I’m glad to see it.
BBH: What is it about Surrey that’s attracting so many newcomers and major development projects to the city?
JC: I think people are attracted to all sorts of places outside Vancouver. Surrey is the largest, so it’s getting the largest share. The city is also affordable. You hear all these things about Vancouver being so unaffordable. And, well, the City of Vancouver may be, but Metro Vancouver isn’t. If you’re a young couple and you want to own a home, you can do it in Surrey.
Surrey has also, quite consciously, been creating complete communities — providing shopping, jobs, education and cultural community facilities. The development in Surrey is not typical urban development. It’s community development, and I think people appreciate that.
Surrey is a series of town centres and communities that surround agricultural land, meaning it has pretty identifiable and walkable communities. It also has lots of history. People can choose to live in complete communities that exist already, which I think make it an attractive place to live. Surrey is really on the forefront of being creative about the types of development. It has lots of townhouses and laneway housing, for example. It’s really current on the amount and variety of development opportunities.
BBH: Beyond 3 Civic Plaza, what does the future hold for Surrey’s new downtown? What do you envision for the area 10 years down the road?
JC: Over the next years there’s going to be lots of new residential development, there’s no question about that. There are also a couple of new office projects that are in the works, one of which is for Coast Capital. I think over the next 10 years we’re going to see more commercial development, which will be good. It will become more than just a place to live – it will become a place to do business, and that’s something that we want to encourage.
Over the next 10 years there will also be a number of transit initiatives taking place that will link up all of Surrey and Langley to the new City Centre. I would actually say transit is going to be the most significant change in the next 10 years and it’s really going to help the City Centre develop that commercial core. It will be the destination you get to by transit in Surrey.
Thanks for buzzing with us Jim!