Surrey and SFU: Building the Future – Together

October 03, 2019

Presentation to the Surrey Board of Trade

Andrew Petter
President and Vice-Chancellor
Simon Fraser University

In my nine plus years as President of SFU, speaking with the Surrey Board of Trade has been a great and consistent pleasure.

The Surrey business community has given SFU your unfailing and enthusiastic support, and made me personally feel incredibly welcome – at your gatherings and in the community generally.

So, first of all, thank you.  As I stand to deliver you my last address as SFU president, I feel enormously appreciative for the relationship we have had over the past nine years.

And while I confess to feeling a tad nostalgic about those years, I’m also feeling bullish about our institutional relationship going forward.

As I look around this room, I know that my successor will be able to count on you for the same warm welcome and dedicated support that you have given me.

I foresee another exciting decade expanding post-secondary education and research, while contributing to social and economic development, here in B.C.’s fastest growing city.

In that vein, I plan to use my time today to put our extraordinary relationship into context – to look back on what SFU has contributed to the City of Surrey, and what Surrey has given, so generously, to SFU.

A great part of our mutual success revolves around the development of Surrey City Centre, and that story begins long before our Surrey campus was contemplated.

This image, dating back to 1975, comes from one of the earliest proposals to turn what was then known as the Greater Vancouver Regional District into a Livable Region.

As some of you may remember, that was a time when “Central Surrey” was better known for strawberry fields than urban ambitions.

But the GVRD recognized even then that growth in the region would inevitably head east.

They looked for a sensible focal point for that growth – and proposed a town centre south of the Fraser in an area called Whalley.

Twenty years later – as shown in this image from the 1996 Livable Region Strategic Plan – there had been further growth.

But even with the arrival of SkyTrain in 1994, Whalley was still far from a city centre – for Surrey … let alone for the region.

That was the reality in 1998, when the late architect Bing Thom and then-ICBC Chair Bob Williams showed up in my office to seek provincial support for a new university in this location.

Now here I need to deviate for a moment into my own political history.  

As many of you know, I was an MLA and cabinet minister in the 1990s, and in 1998, I carried responsibilities both for the Ministry of Advanced Education and for the Provincial Capital Commission.

Bing and Bob had requested a meeting, supposedly to discuss ICBC’s development plans for the Capital Region.           

I say “supposedly” because, toward the end of the meeting, they asked if they could raise another matter.  And when Bing pulled out a map of Whalley, I quickly realized that this was the real reason they had wanted to see me.   

One decision left to me by my predecessor in Advanced Education was to finalize the location of TechBC – a new technical university that had been announced to increase access to post-secondary education for stduents in the Fraser Valley … with Cloverdale the proposed site.

Pointing to a struggling shopping mall next to a Whalley SkyTrain station, Bing made the case – as only Bing could – that if the mall were redeveloped as a mixed-use structure that included TechBC and an office tower (to which Bob proposed to move ICBC’s headquarters), the facility would become a catalyst for the transformation of the area into a vibrant city centre.

Had the pitch been made less intelligently, less passionately, or by anyone other than Bing, I would have been highly skeptical. In the circumstances, it was irresistible.

The decision to proceed – and the City of Surrey’s willingness to help make land available – marked an inflection point in the history of Surrey City Centre.

TechBC, launched in 1999, never completely found its feet.  And the proposal to move ICBC’s head office to this location fell by the wayside.

But Bing Thom designed one of the most innovative mixed-use projects on the continent.  And suddenly the vision of the long-term planners started coming into focus.

As an aside, Bing’s concept of a mixed-use development was subsequently heralded by the great American architect, Witold Rybczynski, who in 2011 praised its execution and success, saying:

“The longer I walked around Surrey Central City, the more convinced I became of the profound correctness of this innovative solution.”

Getting back to my timeline, SFU entered the Surrey City Centre story in 2002, when my predecessor, Michael Stevenson, was asked by the then Liberal Government to take over the fledgling operations of TechBC.

And, by all accounts, from SFU’s first efforts to engage this burgeoning community, it was an amazing relationship, facilitated by SFU Surrey’s first Executive Director Joanne Curry.

By 2006, when we moved into Bing Thom’s remarkable structure, SFU Surrey was well on its way to having 2500 full-time student equivalents … with the Province promising to double those numbers by 2015.

This was, and remains, incredibly important.

As I mentioned at the outset, Surrey is the fastest growing city in the province … with the youngest demographic … and a continuing shortage of post-secondary spaces.

Surrey School District is the number one feeder district, not just for SFU’s Surrey campus, but for the entire university.  We need these seats to ensure opportunities for the next generation.

Surrey has also been a brilliant partner.

Our Surrey Community Advisory Council has been invaluable in helping us to engage productively and to develop relevant programs and effective outreach.

And the City of Surrey’s engagement has also been remarkable. 

I know that Surrey Council didn’t decide to rezone the city core, build the Surrey Central Library or relocate City Hall …

… just for the benefit of SFU – any more than SFU decided to establish a Surrey campus solely to be a catalyst for further development.

Yet all of those decisions worked – extraordinarily well – together.

With the relocation into Central City of the Fraser Health Authority …

with the development of Innovation Boulevard as a health technology precinct …

with the creation of community-oriented programs such as the SFU Surrey–TD Community Engagement Centre and Coast Capital Savings Venture Connection …

what was once a declining suburban neighbourhood has become a vibrant urban centre.

During my time as president, I have been both dazzled and proud of our shared successes.

Even when I first arrived at SFU in 2010, I could see in Surrey a working model for the kind of community engagement that I hoped to support across the university.

SFU’s 2012 strategic vision – with its goal of establishing SFU as Canada’s most community-engaged research university – took its inspiration, to a considerable extent, from the examples and benefits of engagement exemplified here in Surrey.

As to our more recent contributions …

… I am especially proud of SFU’s new Sustainable Energy Engineering building which was, again, very much a collaborative effort.

As many of you know, in 2016 there was a time-limited opportunity to secure federal and provincial funding for a major infrastructure project; and it required us to move very quickly.

Surrey stepped up immediately, making land available for purchase, expediting approvals, and providing letters of support.

With that assistance, we were able to secure $90 million in funding from the federal and provincial governments for this beautiful new structure – one of Bing Thom’s last designs.

The Province also committed funding for a new Sustainable Energy Engineering program, the first of three phases of expansion that SFU had proposed in response to the longstanding promise to double our student seats here in Surrey.

The new program, a first of its kind in Western Canada, will enable SFU to generate the talent and research that B.C. needs to be a leader in the development and application of clean technologies and sustainable energy solutions.

It sits alongside other nationally recognized SFU Surrey programs, including our School of Mechatronic Systems Engineering, which also has a presence in the new building, and our School of Interactive Arts and Technology.

It’s heartening to note that the Sustainable Energy Engineering program has attracted a cohort that is 42-per-cent female. That’s more than double the average in other engineering programs and in the sector at large, giving us a population that is both engaged and diverse.

And it has already been a magnet for further investment.  Western Economic Diversification Canada recently announced over $1 million toward a research facility to prototype clean technology solutions for the aerospace industry.

And some of you were there yesterday when the Province announced a $17-million commitment to a new Quantum Algorithms Institute that SFU will host on our Surrey campus.

The Institute will be a collaboration between industry, government and a number of universities, advancing Surrey’s status as a centre for high technology research and development.

All of which brings me back to the word “catalyst” – to the metaphorical notion of a substance that increases the rate of a chemical reaction.

I certainly believe that SFU has been a catalyst for growth, development and economic and social activity in Surrey City Centre.

But it’s never been a one-way street. The benefits that have flowed to Surrey as a result of SFU’s presence and activities have been matched by reciprocal benefits for our students and faculty – thanks again to the supportive reactions of those with whom we have engaged.

I think of the Downtown Surrey BIA, which has hired more than 100 students over the years, including 12 just last summer.  I also think about the many other co-op employers who enable our students to find practical application for their academic knowledge – and pathways for future careers.

So, now we look to the very promising future.

Especially in light of the other part of yesterday’s announcement in which the Province committed itself to promoting Surrey City Centre as a second downtown hub for the region, and to supporting development of an innovation corridor that will create jobs and opportunities from Surrey through to the Fraser Valley.

With respect to Surrey City Centre, the potential is huge.  Consider the land still available for development. This image gives you the big vision, so you can see how much development has already occurred and how it fits within the region

This one gives you a better view of the prime development space that remains between our original campus and the library and city hall.

Known as Centre Block, we’ve been working with the City and with other levels of government on proposals for its further development.

To begin, the City will be decommissioning the North Surrey Rec Centre, which is the largest building at the far end of the highlighted space.

The City and we are also in talks with TransLink to relocate the bus loop, which you can see in the foreground, and which sits on land SFU is holding for future development.

These actions will enable the university to double the capacity of our current campus, enable the City to double the amount of office space in the neighbourhood, and still leave room for a grand plaza that will establish the area as the social heart of Surrey – and a second downtown for Metro Vancouver.

I won’t say more because the details still need to be worked on, but stay tuned.  There’s interesting news to come.

I hope, of course, that that news will include an early approval of the remaining two phases of campus expansion that we at SFU have been planning for so many years.

Both phases address skills and areas identified as high demand in  the BC Labour Market Outlook.

The first will be a substantial expansion in our health programming, concentrating on Health Innovation.

Leveraging the strengths of our Faculty of Health Sciences, we propose to add more than 600 spaces in areas designed to improve health outcomes while reducing escalating costs.

We’re looking at Health Systems Innovation; Indigenous Health; Health Informatics … and, potentially, a transformative Medical Program that would prepare primary care physicians to work alongside other community health care providers.

In the second phase, we propose to deliver almost 300 new seats in Creative Technologies – in visual analytics, digital media and creative entrepreneurship.

We also have plans for 1,000 new entry spaces for general studies, to try to catch up with overall student demand south of the Fraser.

Now, before I close, I want to come back to the transformation that has already occurred in Surrey – and at SFU – and I want to credit once again the man whose vision and drive were so important to the inception and realization of Surrey City Centre. 

Bing Thom, who died in 2016 – too young at age 75 – was an internationally acclaimed architect, an entrepreneur and, in the best sense of the word, a provocateur.

As you can see from this photo, he was a man of abundant good humor. Beyond being able to envision and then conjure up innovative, functional and beautiful solutions, Bing was also gifted with the ability to make those visions real for others.

I regard myself privileged to have known him … and I believe we are all extraordinarily fortunate that he directed his talents and attention to this city.

We will forever be blessed by the result.

For my part, I am gratified for the contributions that I have been able to make to the development of SFU and Surrey City Centre, and I will not let up in my efforts to add to them in the remaining eleven months of my presidency.

But, I am intensely aware that none of this would or could have happened without the consistent and continuing support of you and others in the Surrey business community.

Thank you and, please, stay the course.