If you were to randomly pluck a dozen men off the street in Surrey, you’d likely find at least one in the group who at some point in time had downed a pint or two of Rickard’s Red while watching strippers dance at the Byrd.
“A lot of people know the Byrd Pub,” says Mark Aylott, general manager of Whalley’s storied Flamingo Hotel since 2009.
“Almost every guy over 30 I speak to, and tell them what I do, says, ‘Oh, I’ve been there, I’ve been with my dad.’ It’s kind of like a rite of passage for going in with their first beer with their dad, at the Byrd. Pretty much everybody I’ve spoken to.”
Indeed the hotel, with its loud, pink “Live Nude Girls” sign on its side, is one of the Lower Mainland’s last “peeler bars” in operation. The exotic dancer show pub, with its stage and brass poles, was set up in the 1970s but the hotel itself had a much more wholesome beginning 60 years ago.
The Flamingo officially opened in July 1955 as a motor hotel with more than 1,000 people attending the ceremony. It had 20 rooms, cost $275,000 to build, and featured a drive-through leading to ample parking out back.
“It was at the time quite a desirable place,” Aylott says. “People would come over here for Sunday dinners, so forth.”
(A band plays during the opening of the Flamingo’s Rusty Nail in September 1965. Photo courtesy of Surrey Archives.)
Weddings were held there. There was also a cabaret, lounge, full dining room, and a coffee shop where the beer and wine store is today.
Along the way, the hotel, pub and Tropic Lounge have collected their ghosts.
In 1985, the Byrd gained international notoriety after staging a dwarf-tossing contest, and last year, a 31-year-old man was stabbed in the pub on Nov. 22.
It was also the last place at least two people were seen before they were murdered. The body of Norma Jane Cowley, 31, was found on the front lawn of a home on 108th Avenue on April 12, 1997, a few hours after she’d left the lounge. Four years earlier, Vancouver drug dealer Roy Eldon Alle, 29, was found in a Whalley ditch with a bullet in his head and a yellow rope tied around his neck. Police found his jeep parked at the hotel.
The Flamingo itself will pass into history as development takes hold.
“We continue to operate this as an old-school, blue collar stripper bar,” says Aylott, standing next to the stripper stage.
“(It is) one of the very few that’s left in Vancouver, and we’ll continue to do so until the natural progression of demolition.”
Indeed, big plans are afoot for the dingy watering hole and hotel.
Surrey land developer Charan Sethi, of the Tien Sher Group, is keen to unveil a future vision for the site. If things go his way, the Flamingo won’t see its 70th birthday.
The developer’s literally monumental connection with the neighbourhood began in 2005 when he bought a large parcel of land east of the hotel on the other side of Whalley Boulevard, where his Quattro and Balance condominium developments are today.
Driving in from Richmond to visit his daughter in Fraser Heights, he spotted a “for sale” sign, bought the land and a dream was born.
Over the next decade or so, Sethi aims to build three residential towers along with some smaller buildings and some inviting park space on 4.3 acres. The land runs north from 107A Avenue to the hotel’s north side and from Whalley Boulevard east to King George Boulevard (pictured).
Besides the hotel, the property has a seedy little strip mall containing the Triple XXX video store. Behind it is a fenced-in yard where the RCMP park their vehicles, across from the District 1 police station at the south corner of 107A. Out back, there’s Pancho and Lefty’s bar, an unkempt lot and a sea of pavement.
Sethi concedes the area has “had its good days, bad days and terrible days as well,” but he envisions his Tien Sher Group’s continuing work in the area as being Surrey’s answer to Vancouver’s Yaletown district.
“Yaletown comes to Surrey,” he calls it. “It’s a exciting era for us, to be revitalizing Whalley. Every day I wake up it’s an exciting day, because of this. It is a new Yaletown; we are making it happen. It will be as good, if not better, than Yaletown, as far as I’m concerned.
“It’s really a first-class location, and the prices compared to Vancouver are so much cheaper.”
The Quattro development’s phases one, two and three have already sold out and of 56 Balance units only four have yet to be sold. In a couple of weeks, Sethi said, he will launch another development project called “Venue.”
As for the Flamingo block project, he intends to develop from east to west, from Whalley Boulevard to King George, with a six-storey building at back and the taller towers closer to the George. He’s starting at the back, from Quattro on.
“We’re cleaning up that block right now.”
The Flamingo block will be divided into four mini blocks – with a street cut through to 108th. There will be a gallery, a coffee shop, a restaurant and parkland.
Sethi’’s hoping spades will be in the ground in early fall of this year, “then moving forward, one at a time,” with the towers.
Depending on B.C.’s economic health, he says, “If everything goes as planned, we could be in here about 12 or 13 years.”
The Flamingo, he says, will be “one of the last buildings that is going to come down because this is where the iconic tower gets built.”
Sethi estimates the entire Flamingo block project – roughly a seven-minute walk to SkyTrain – will consist of 1,900 homes housing roughly 3,700 people.
He may incorporate local history into his project. For example, one of his towers might be called the Flamingo, or maybe there will be a Byrd Park.
“This is not just a run-down area as it is sometimes perceived to be,” he says. “There is a lot of people who are very proud of living in Whalley and they do not want to see the Whalley name abolished off the map.”
Sethi’s vision, all told, will see him invest some 20 years in Whalley. He is tenacious. In 2008 a spectacular fire levelled the four-storey Quattro 2, destroying 116 suites at 107A Avenue and 138th Street and causing about $9 million in damage. Undaunted, Sethi rebuilt it from the ashes.
“I’m very passionate about fulfilling my own dream, which is making this into a mini-city on its own, the gateway of the city centre,” he says of the Flamingo block. “Something world class I can be proud of, and show my grandchildren this is what we’ve done. Moreso I think for the community as well, because the community has been extremely nice to me. When we had the fire, you would not believe, the fire was one of the most disastrous things that can happen to a developer. But the community came out and supported us. The night of the fire we had the whole neighbourhood turn out, giving us cookies and coffee and water, the whole thing, and the Salvation Army came in. Months afterward, people were coming over to us, shaking our hands and saying thank you so much for continuing on with your dream.”
Meanwhile, until the wrecking ball arrives, Aylott intends to keep things going at the Flamingo “with an old school feel.”
You can’t deny the place has character. Two episodes of the television series Supernatural were filmed there last year.
Moreover, a scene in the TV series Fringe was also shot inside the beer and wine store and the Byrd, and most recently a scene for the film An Army of One with Nicholas Cage was shot at the bar in the Flamingo’s lounge.
“Bands love to play here,” Aylott says of the lounge, which features a suspended concave ceiling.“They call it the toilet, not because it’s crappy, but the music swirls around.”
There’s also karaoke and drag shows.
“We have a pretty diverse clientele. We have the blue collar crowd coming in after work. We have an emerging LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) community.”
Sethi notes that Innovation Boulevard further south along King George is adding some high-end spark to the area, now “full” of people in the medical field.
“Now it’s coming to some fabulous times we’re heading toward,” he says. “We are seeing a lot more people recognizing, outside the city centre, ‘Hey there’s something there.’ The Innovation Boulevard itself has created so many jobs in the area. So many doctors and scientists are coming into the area.”
That said, Surrey Urban Mission Society at 10776 King George Boulevard, is a pebble’s toss from the Flamingo. Homeless people are shuffling outside, pushing shopping carts full of junk, collecting bottles.
What will become of them?
“We did take a few people off the street and gave them jobs,” Sethi says of his earlier projects. “It didn’t work out totally good because what happened is you can give these people a job but they also need other supports as well. They need mental and medical support.
“I personally don’t deal with it but Surrey and the provincial government seem to be dealing with them very nicely,” he says. “There’s a new shelter being built just close to the new RCMP head office down by the hospital. I know there’s a lot of effort being put into it to take care of these people. There’s a winter shelter beside where the old Dell hotel used to be.
“This is no different than any other growing city,” Sethi says. “These are growing pains you go through. I’m actually very happy that everybody is being very pro-active about what to do with this situation as well.”
Places like the Phoenix House, he says, “will take care of these type of people” and other agencies will help feed them “and try to give them shelter where they can.”
“I think they’re doing a tremendous job in taking care of them. As far as taking care of everyone, I don’t know whether it’s possible unless the provincial, federal, everybody gets involved in it and say we need to take care of it.
“It’s part of the growing up pains you have to go through.”