Hillsdon looks at his options and likes what he sees in Surrey
Six months ago, my boyfriend and I started talking about living options once his lease in Vancouver was up. We knew that we wanted to move in together, but he wasn't prepared to have me spend my limited student loan money on rent – nor was I for that matter! After a long process of elimination, and a budget of $900 a month, we were able to secure a 1 bedroom, 577 square foot unit at Concord's Park Place adjacent to King George SkyTrain Station. Here's what we discovered during our move to Downtown Surrey:
He is currently sharing a two bedroom apartment near Fairview with a roommate, paying roughly $750. Without any financial contributions on my part, our max rental budget was $900. This does not include utilities, hydro, or any other living expenses.
He works on the Broadway corridor, while I commute to SFU Burnaby. Walking distance to SkyTrain was the highest priority for us both. We eliminated basement suites early on because of personal preference. The remaining rental stock consists either of purpose-built apartments from the post-war era, or privately owned condos.
Not surprisingly, Vancouver was out of the picture quite quickly. Purpose-built rentals were simply beyond our budget. North Vancouver was pushing the limit of our budget, but it was the inconsistency of the SeaBus schedule that eliminated it from our choices. Most of Richmond's rentals are a bit of a distance from Canada Line and the lack of ethnic diversity was a turnoff for us.
The lack of rapid transit accessible rentals was quite frustrating actually. Rentals seemed to be everywhere but near a SkyTrain. This was especially confusing with the Millennium Line, which traverses through industrial lands ripe for re-development. It's just bizarre.
The three clusters of rental options near SkyTrain were at Metrotown, New Westminster, and Surrey. Metrotown has a large swathe of old purpose-built rental south of the SkyTrain line with prices for 1 bedrooms around $850 to $900. New West's rentals were often several blocks away from the two stations, again in older purpose-build apartments at the same price point. Their new towers downtown were not within our budget.
Surrey has a number of options. All of these units are in newly built towers or wood-frame condos, often next to or just a few blocks from either Gateway, Surrey Central, or King George SkyTrain stations.
So why did we end up choosing Surrey over Metrotown or New West? The main tradeoff for us was between a longer commute versus a new unit. Housing options north of the Fraser were old, questionably maintained relics. Thin walls and windows would make for increased energy bills. Build quality and materials could have a negative effect on our asthma. None of these buildings included amenities, nor did they have in-suite laundry.
For the same price, and a 10-20 minute longer SkyTrain ride, we got a nearly brand new building, with a variety of amenities, in-suite laundry, and much brighter units with today's emphasis on large windows and views. On the downside, units today are built much smaller than in the past, meaning we would sacrifice 100-200 square feet. After walking about the new units in Surrey, we felt the space tradeoff was one we were willing to make.
Developments in Surrey
We toured all the major new developments in Downtown Surrey: Quattro, CityPoint and Evo, all near Gateway; D'Cor and Urban Village, both near Surrey Central; and Park Place near King George.
Quattro was a nice development with great long term potential. The developer had built two four-storey buildings, with a third under construction. The buildings included street-front retail, but weren't yet filled. The units were small, but no smaller than all the others. It held out the promise of being quieter than other developments, but felt more like it was too far removed from everything. Quattro is located in the eastside of King George Boulevard, making for a rather long walk to SkyTrain through one of the entire downtown's most sketchy areas. Our metric was whether we would feel safe walking home at night and this didn't meet it at all. Additionally, there were very few units from Quattro available to rent. Eliminated.
Evo is another four-storey, wood frame condo building, this one much closer to Gateway station. Units for rent appeared from time to time, but this development suffers from between squished between SkyTrain on the west and King George Boulevard on the east. The noise would've been an issue to us. Eliminated.
I have some friends who live in CityPoint and am generally a fan of the developer, Century Group. They've stuck by the project, continuing to pursue sales even after initial buyers moved in back in 2009. The twin towers feature several shops in the base podium, including sushi, a market, and a Waves coffee. The buildings are literally steps from the SkyTrain station, and also include a gym and multi-purpose room. The floorplans at CityPoint were quite small though, some going into the 400 square foot terrain. While there was plenty of units available (most seemed to be owned by investors), we found them to be overpriced with owners seeking $950 for 500 square feet. From my visits in the past, the crowd that lives at CityPoint appears to be young people who long to live in Yaletown but can't afford it, with lots of groups SkyTraining downtown to go clubbing at night. The building's clientele was smeared several times to us by Quattro salespeople. In the end, the views were lacking, the space was too small, the prices too high, the neighbours too rowdy, and the area too dangerous. Eliminated.
At first, D'Cor seemed like a great option. It had oversized ceilings, making the unit feel much larger. However, its price point was oversized as well. There were also poor views from the tower, overlooking either the rooftops of old apartment buildings, or the surrounding mess of abandoned homes and filthy yards. Eliminated.
Urban Village turned out to be the runner up in our unit selection. While there were not a ton of units up for rent, as compared to CityPoint or Park Place, there were several, and one in particular stood out for us. Rented through a management agency, the unit was on the ground floor of the Agenda building. At nearly 700 square feet, it was quite large compared to other options, and included a bedroom and den, plus an expansive kitchen with an island. I had read stories about shoddy workmanship during construction, but the unit seemed great to me. What was not so wonderful was the neighbourhood. My immediate reaction about having a ground floor unit was concern about break-ins. Unfortunately, neither the RCMP, nor the City, post public crime maps, so I could not confirm my fears.
Our second concern about about personal safety. To access Urban Village, you must walk through a block of run-down, sketchy homes with yards littered with junk. My boyfriend had a friend who lived in Urban Village and was jumped at night. Again, we didn't feel safe walking to the building at night, and so, despite the right price and size, we had to pass.
Choosing Park Place
Concord's Park Place really fit the bill for us. The building has direct access to SkyTrain, and with King George as the first station on the line, we're guaranteed a seat. Across the street, a great commercial strip provides us with Japanese and Indian foods, while small shops are also expected to move in to a commercial building in the development's plaza. The unit itself, at 577 square feet, was livable, so long as space saving strategies are implemented. The unit is north facing, so it provides an expansive view of the North Shore Mountains, Coquitlam, New Westminster, and the Fraser River. I could even see Burnaby's Highgate Village from the balcony.
The building includes a number of amenities: a large gym, a yoga studio, a board room, a multi-purpose room, a podium top outdoor plaza, a movie theatre, and a bowling alley. While we were unsure how often we would actually use all these, their inclusion is an added bonus. Unfortunately, the unit did not come with a storage locker, though Concord apparently plans to allow occupants of Park Place to utilize the lockers planned for Park Avenue, a development across the street (also rumoured to include a pool).
We stood outside the building for about 15 minutes prior to the viewing and got a feel for our neighbours. The entrance was a constant stream of people, proving that, yes, humans do live here. We saw students, single families, young couples, and plenty of dogs! The ethnicities were nicely mixed as well.
Sealing the deal was a friendly landlord who was willing to lower his asking price to meet our budget. Park Place really met the bill for us – a great view, a decent size, a new-ish building, amenities, SkyTrain access, no safety concerns, local shops nearby, and within our budget.
Reflections on Downtown Surrey
From a city building point of view, I was surprised with the amount of insight I received from the process. It's often easy to get caught up in the development proposals without giving a thought to all the other elements that are needed to make the downtown work.
Crime, or the perception of safety, is still a major concern. Unsightly property was a big issue when we were searching around. It gave the impression, whether true or not, that this place was not cared for and therefore not safe to be in. For developers, controlling the image of the whole urban environment is critical to success. Concord struck a win here because they were able to build out from SkyTrain right to the next city block. Urban Village and Quattro both suffer from being surrounded by rundown areas.
Access to shops was another issue. Quattro has done this well, by including retail at the base of their buildings, although attracting tenants seems to be an issue. CityPoint, with higher densities, hasn't had this problem, and having a convenience store in the tower was a selling point to me. At Park Place, having the shops downstairs and across the street really boosted livability. I don't want to have to catch the SkyTrain or walk all the way to Central City to grab some chips. What's worse is that the area's grocery stores are still old big box buildings along King George Boulevard. I am not at all looking forward to walking 15 minutes with bags of groceries every week. At these high densities, including coffee shops, restaurants, and supermarkets in urban formats within a short distance is critical for success. When measure walking distance, it's important to include the time is takes to get the elevator down the building to the street.
The walking experience in Surrey definitely needs work. On the one hand, some of the street treatments are beautiful, like the plaza at Central City, or the boulevard down University Drive. The City's work to close off the right turn bays and extend the sidewalk at 100 Ave and King George is great. On the flip side, one poorly lit block without sidewalks was a major deterrent to living at Urban Village. Poor planning had an array of residents from Park Place jaywalking across the street, rather than walking to either end of the 144 metre block. The City has to put a greater emphasis on the experience of pedestrians in the downtown by ensuring all developments include street front retail and by reducing the block size to walkable optimums.
Unit size is definitely a long term concern for the type of people that live in the downtown. Most places being built were studios, 1 bedrooms, or 2 bedrooms max. Again, these are not 700 sq ft one bedrooms, like they built 30 years ago, but 500 sq ft units instead. While such sizes may function when tenants are young, these units would not be sufficient to house a family. The construction of larger, 2 or 3 bedroom townhomes at the base of towers, such as those planned for Ultra at Urban Village, or Concord's Park Avenue, should be encouraged as the downtown develops. Without that housing mix, families will not have an urban lifestyle choice, forcing them to more expensive, suburban options.
The final City Centre plan is expected to be released this year. I hope that it addresses some of these issues as we move into the second wave of development in the downtown core.
- post by Paul Hillsdon