Learning, shopping in the Surrey mix

September 21, 2006, volume 37, no. 2
By Carol Thorbes

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Not too long ago, it was inconceivable—marrying academics with shoppers and office workers. But the vision of an internationally renowned architect and two interior design companies has done more than wed a shopping mall and office complex to Simon Fraser University's Surrey campus in Whalley.

It is already making Central Surrey a resounding success in the eyes of Joanne Curry and Gordon Price. Curry is the executive director of SFU Surrey, and Gordon Price, a former Vancouver councillor, directs SFU's city program, an urban issues initiative.

Since their August move into their futuristic new digs, rising 23 stories above a mall and adjoining an office complex, SFU Surrey's faculty and staff have been witnessing an interesting phenomenon: shoppers, especially on weekends, are window-shopping for education.

"We're getting a steady stream of shoppers with their children coming into our grand hall and inquiring about our programs," says Curry. "Many people are curious about the activities of our campus and a number have commented that it is the first time they have been on a university campus."

An open third-floor galleria of walkways above the mall leads to glass-enclosed classes and labs, offering shoppers' a bird's-eye view of SFU Surrey's goings-on.

Price predicts this redevelopment of Whalley will become a template for the revitalization of other problem-plagued suburban areas craving the vitality of a more urban area. "Central City transcends the isolation and invitation for crime often accompanying large-scale suburban development," notes Price.

At Central City, Surrey's predominantly large blocks, expansive parking and low-rise development set back from the street give way to a more intimate and bustling environment. "Just as all good pedestrian districts have an anchor that attracts myriad uses and supports a mix of transportation choices, so now does Whalley," say Price. "That mix of uses, attracting diverse groups of people at many times throughout the day will attract other users, and continue the transformation of Whalley into a true centre."

Interior designer Raven Design and its production partner Omicron used colossal structural features, bold colours and open floor plans internally to mirror Bing Thom's pioneering, exterior vision of Whalley as Surrey's new town centre.

"The inspiration for the interior architecture is derived from the character of the faculty and the student body—youthful, exuberant and talented," says Raven's Sally Emmerson.

Thom envisioned it not only as a multi-purpose destination where people inspire each other to work, play, shop and learn, but a venture in which multi-use partners share costs and amenities, such as parking.

"Architects come from Europe and the United States to look at this project," says Thom, the first architect in North America to conceive of grafting new space for a university onto a shopping mall and office complex.

Thom predicts that the Lower Mainland's mushrooming population will shift the region's centre from Vancouver to Surrey, and Central City will be ready and waiting to take centre stage.

Omicron partner Bruce Knapp predicts the marriage of learners, workers and shoppers will be a vibrant and enduring one. "The sheer distance between each part of the complex helps office people to not feel spied upon, and prevents students from being distracted by mall activities on floors below. The secret to the design is a strong sense of visual variety within overwhelming spaces filled with light."

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