SURREY — After years of crying out for revitalization, residents and businesses in Newton Town Centre finally have reason to celebrate.
Light rail transit is coming, and with it, inevitable redevelopment for the community that will serve as the end of the line for the first phase of the project.
“It’s going to be a catalyst that drives all investment in the area,” said Philip Aguirre, executive director of the Newton BIA.
While the area around the town centre is “ripe for potential and ripe for development,” according to Aguirre, several properties have sat dormant for years, awaiting development and “waiting for this moment to be finalized.”
That “moment” arrived on March 16, when the province and the region’s mayors agreed on a plan to fund the final and “regional share” for phase two of the 10-year transportation plan across Metro Vancouver. It was then solidified this past Monday, when Ottawa and B.C. signed a $4.1-billion funding deal to pay for transportation projects in the region.
Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner called it the “final piece of the puzzle” for the LRT project, which in all will see 27-kilometres of rapid transit delivered in two phases, including a second line along Fraser Highway to Langley.
Hepner predicted phase one — the 10.5-kilometre Surrey-Newton-Guildford (SNG) line — could be running as early as 2021-22.
Newton Town Centre will be home to the terminus station for that line, which will run from Guildford down 104th Avenue to City Centre and from there down King George Boulevard to Newton.
“Developers want to maximize their return, like any business,” said Aguirre, “and the harsh truth is those properties have been sitting there idle, below their potential, because this promise of rapid transit has been looming over Newton for decades. It’s curtailed that development throughout those years. People haven’t been investing or putting money into Newton because you can’t really build until you know what the actual plan is.”
Denser land use plan being finalized
Although the final funding has just recently been confirmed for the LRT line terminating in Newton, Surrey city hall says it has seen an uptick in developer inquiries during the past year or so.
“There’s certainly been a lot more development interest in the Newton Town Centre, and the King Geroge corridor generally,” said Don Luymes, director of strategic initiatives for the City of Surrey.
However, few applications have materialized at this point, he added.
“I think developers are trying to figure out what the market will bear,” Luymes noted. “Then, of course, also asking the city what would the city’s stance be – will there be any change to status quo – we’ve had a fair bit of inquiry.”
City hall isn’t aware of property value increases since the mid-March announcement that all the LRT funding had been secured, but Luymes said he “wouldn’t be surprised” to see an uptick in property values.
The the City of Surrey is developing a new Land Use Plan for the Newton Town Centre, which has been in the works since 2014.
“The densities will be higher than they currently are,” said Luymes, “and I think that most developers who have an interest in that area have a good understanding about what those densities are likely to be.”
It’s a similar exercise the city undertook in its efforts to encourage redevelopment in City Centre, although Luymes expected the densities would likely be lower in Newton Town Centre.
“The final touches on the (Newton Town Centre) plan need to wait until the actual design of the (terminus of the) light rail transit station is finalized and that’s getting very close,” he explained.
The end of the line will “bend off King George” to a TransLink-owned property south of 72nd Avenue on King George.
“TransLink owns some land there and the city also owns land, so that creates an opportunity to make sure development parcels are developed in co-ordination with one another,” said Luymes. “Some roads will change, there will be some land swaps and rationalization of development parcels but TransLink will work with the city.”
Luymes said while he expects high-rise developments to materialize adjacent to the light rail terminus station, he says lower density projects will be likely further away.
“Most of the developments (elsewhere in the town centre) would likely be in the six-storey range…. Certainly there are some opportunities for mixed-use development.”
While a land use study is expected for the King George corridor where the line is proposed, Luymes said that would likely be six years away. In that area, affordable housing will be a focus, he said. Several manufactured home parks run along King George and Luymes said the city is “very cautious about not triggering situations where affordable housing is lost.”
An affordable housing strategy is expected to come before Surrey city council this spring and Luymes said “it will have some policies about the replacement of rental units and we’d require that any developers of a manufactured home park have a very robust compensation plan.”
But Luymes said the priority is clear.
“The first priority is the Newton Town Centre itself.”
Realtors already organizing land
John Barbisan is president of the Fraser Valley Real Estate Board.
Although he hasn’t seen property values spike along the planned LRT line yet, Barbisan said he’s been actively working on conglomerating properties along the route for the better part of a year.
So far, Barbisan’s work has involved putting sellers under contract so when potential developers come along, they have a committed owner.
“The bigger players in the game may not be involved here,” he explained. “It’s what they call scaleable. A lot of people that can get money together and joint venture it and be able to participate and get a profit from it, because in the end that’s what it’s all about. Having said that, it’s scaleable, so a developer like Bosa, they don’t look a year or two down the road, they look seven or eight years down the road. The people looking right now, they’ve been looking for a while.”
Although, the work being done isn’t “terribly obvious” because most assemblies aren’t put together through a multiple listing process, said Barbisan.
“Developers will not buy properties individually, they want them assembled. That’s where we come in,” he added. “What we’re talking about is gather potentially anywhere between six to 10 lots adjacent to each other.”
Barbisan said he’s been working at several points along the line, zeroing in on areas where LRT stops are planned. Eleven stops are planned along the line, at this point.
“Anything within 800 metres of a station – that’s where you should be looking,” he noted.
It’s expected higher, yet mid-level densities will be allowed along the King George corridor.
“They’re not going towers so much, they’re probably going low-rise, so not so much density that it will blur the landscape,” Barbisan mused.
“Four to five storeys?” he guessed. “But heavens, you’re not going to recognize it. It’s going to be a big change.”
Newton yearns for new identity
While the Newton BIA is celebrating the news that LRT funding is in place and all systems are a go, questions linger for some.
“There’s concerns with the construction of LRT, how it’s going to disrupt business in the community, how it’s going to disrupt residents’ commute,” said Aguirre.
Affordability is also causing some anxiety.
“It’s going to be more difficult, because with the installation of LRT, property values are going to increase. And they’ve already been increasing in the last couple years at a substantial rate all throughout the region,” said Aguirre. “Small businesses are going to feel that crunch because property owners will pass along those costs to small businesses.”
Aguirre is also a long-time business owner in the area, running his family’s Old Surrey Restaurant just west of 72nd Avenue and King George Boulevard. He said in the 11 years since he’s owned the Old Surrey Restaurant, the property taxes have skyrocketed from $26,000 a year to $46,000.
“And that’s a half-acre lot,” he noted. “It’s a large percentage, and a small business has a hard time making that difference. Especially with the rezoning of the area due to LRT. When we rezone, we’re going to add density into a different class of density. That will put us into a different bracket of taxation. Even though there’s no height to the property, it will be taxed at that height.
“It’s short-term pain, for long-term gain.”
The creation of the Newton BIA, now in its fifth year, was spurred by tragedy: First, the killing of hockey mom Julie Paskall just outside the Newton arena in 2013, and then the 2014 murder of teen Serena Vermeersch after she got off a Newton bus. Serena’s body was found near railway tracks in the 14600-block of 66th Avenue.
“But out of something horrible, we started to build a community,” said Aguirre. “We did that by coming together. And by coming together, by building community, we’ve really shown the strength of Newton.”
For the BIA’s part, its worked to activate vacant lots, including converting an empty lot known to attract prostitution into a dog park, as it awaits redevelopment. The business group has also established and payed for a Community Safety Patrol in the area, a “Team Tidy” that picks up garbage, as well as commissioning several murals to “awaken” dormant spaces.
And LRT and the resulting redevelopment has been a missing piece of the puzzle, Aguirre said.
“People do care, and have cared, about the town centre.”
Ten years from now, Aguirre envisions Newton Town Centre having what he calls its own identity.
“I’d like to see Newton come into its own,” he said. “I’d like to see people proud of the community and development happening within their community. I see a town centre at a crossroads at 72nd and King George, a bustling metropolis for the entire community where there is entertainment, unique and independent businesses, and a sense of pride in the community.”
Read more about the planned LRT line at surreylightrail.ca.