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Building a new city centre

Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts stands with a view of the part of the city she would like to see redeveloped

Mayor Dianne Watts wants to reshape Surrey, and her vision includes building a downtown from scratch. Does her vision include a run at the premier's office? ‘You never say never'

Ian Bailey

Surrey — From Saturday's Globe and Mail

Like a gamer on a groove with an Xbox, Mayor Dianne Watts is picking off pieces of the Whalley area of Surrey that will have to go to allow her ambitious plans to create a downtown core for British Columbia's second-largest city. No actual buildings are damaged in the exercise, but Her Worship's intent is clear.

Many cities tweak their downtowns. Ms. Watts wants to create one from scratch, starting with a plan to move the functions of the 47-year-old City Hall 13 kilometres north, into a $100-million new building in the 12,000-square-metre area below her.

As she talks about all this, Ms. Watts is sitting in an office 18 storeys up in Surrey's Central City tower, part of a complex that includes a campus of Simon Fraser University and a shopping mall.

“There are areas I want to blow up,” the 50-year-old Ms. Watts, who has a poised, stylish political persona, said in reference to pieces of a parking lot, strip malls and a bus exchange far in the shadow of the 25-storey tower.

The City Hall and a public square are to be done in about four years, eventually followed by a 1,600-seat performing arts centre and new central regional library. Streets will also be reshaped, and life brought to this sprawling city of five component communities, including Fleetwood, Guildford and Cloverdale.

Civic leaders in Surrey have talked about this for years. Ms. Watts, now in her second term, plans to get it done.

Why is it happening on her watch?

“Probably because I am bullheaded,” she said, chuckling. “You've got to set the direction. You've got to set the vision, and when you have got the vision, then you have to work towards that vision. There's no point having a vision if you're not going to realize it.”

Others have visions of Ms. Watts in Victoria as Liberal premier in the inevitable post-Gordon Campbell era. The Liberal Leader, recently elected to a third term, has said he will run for a fourth in 2013. Few pundits believe him.

Two Vancouver mayors – Mike Harcourt and Mr. Campbell himself – became premier. But so did former Surrey mayor William Vander Zalm. Rita Johnston, Mr. Vander Zalm's immediate successor, was a Surrey alderman.

“She's obviously done a very good job as mayor,” Mr. Vander Zalm said of Ms. Watts. “People speak highly of her.”

Mr. Vander Zalm noted that governing B.C.'s second most populous city, growing by 1,000 new residents a month, is a great “training ground” for running the province. sky train

“You get every sort of problem you might ever want to imagine,” he said, noting Ms. Watts might be especially appealing if Liberals are looking for an outsider to give the party a fresh face as it seeks a fourth term in power.

Ms. Watts's premier potential came into play last week when she topped an Angus Reid Strategies online poll of 15 possible successors to Mr. Campbell, running way ahead of Liberal cabinet ministers and even her Vancouver counterpart, Gregor Robertson, seen by some as an inevitable leader of the NDP.

“[Ms. Watts] is obviously not somebody involved in the provincial political scene or too closely associated with one political party or another,” said Hamish Marshall, the Angus Reid research director who designed the survey and came up with the list of candidates presented to respondents.

“But I think she has a lot of attractive qualities that could make her a popular successor to Mr. Campbell.”

Ms. Watts took a challenging route to office. She was elected to council in 1996 and decided to run for mayor in 2005, taking on long-time incumbent Doug McCallum after accusing him of presiding over a controlling city hall culture. She became Surrey's first female mayor. For the 2008 election, she created a party called Surrey First, which ran a slate of candidates and gave her a majority on council.

Ms. Watts describes Surrey First as a group of councillors from the centre left and centre right, more issue-based than “politically driven.”

Marvin Hunt, an independent Surrey councillor, acknowledges that Ms. Watts is popular with the media, and responds well to community concerns – “key pieces of leadership in today's world.”

But the former president of the Union of B.C. Municipalities wonders how Ms. Watts would play across B.C.

“It's a tremendous challenge to be able to represent the small, the big, the urban, the rural and try to run with a cohesive vision in it all. I think Dianne has shown a good ability working here in the city of Surrey. I give her good marks for that. Can she make the transition to doing that same thing for the whole province? I don't know.”

Throughout this week's interview, Ms. Watts seemed to be waiting for the premier question. When it came, she reacted as if she had heard an especially effective punchline.

After she finished laughing, she acknowledged that she has long been asked whether she is interested in federal or provincial office, but said she would be worried about missing time with her two teenaged daughters.

“You have got one chance with your kids, and you can't take it back,” she said. “We have so much fun together. We like shopping and getting our hair done, our nails done.”

But teenagers turn into adults, freeing their parents for other pursuits. The mayor, who said she will probably seek a third term and is not organizing for a provincial run, considers that, then opens a door just a bit.

“Well, you know what? You never say never,” she said.

Until then, Ms. Watts describes the downtown project as her current “number one priority.”

It's not just about development, but about asserting Surrey's place as B.C.'s second-largest city, which, Ms. Watts suggested, doesn't get the respect it deserves.

“We're like the poorer sister across [the Fraser] river. We do more with less, but it's not good enough. I think the people south of the Fraser and in the city of Surrey deserve to have these facilities,” she said.

Details on funding are vague, but the mayor doesn't see a problem. “If you wait until everything is in place and all the i's are dotted and t's crossed, it will never happen. You'll be sitting here having this conversation with me in 10 years,” she said.

“Trust me. It will get done.”

Jim Cox, president of the Surrey City Development Corp., formed to advance city goals through real estate development, said the idea is to concentrate jobs, high-density housing and shopping in one place, then reap the positive consequences in terms of synergies.

It will start with the end of the current city hall, opened in 1962. By Mr. Cox's count, about 600 people work there now. In the new city centre, they would shop, draw business and otherwise create activity. “Where it is – and it's no offence; I'm not critical of it – it functions very well, but it doesn't have any spinoff values. Here it's going to have all kinds of spinoff values.”

Bruce Ralston, a former city councillor now NDP member of the legislature for Surrey-Whalley, generally supports Ms. Watts's plan.

“Having what's generally considered to be a vibrant, genuinely vibrant downtown core is a powerful way of building a city and attracting businesses and people to it that would otherwise not be attracted to a more standard, sprawling suburb,” he said.

Although it would mean big change for the Whalley area, troubled by homelessness, poverty, addiction issues and crime, one long-term resident relishes that possibility.

“We think it's a good thing as long as there is consultation with the residents. It could turn out to be very positive,” said Lucie Matich, a community volunteer who has lived in Whalley for 50 years. “It has been talked about for umpteen years, so people are used to hearing about what the future will look like.”

Surrey has picked an architectural firm to design the city hall and outside public plaza central to that future, but a spokesman said it's too early to talk about what it will look like.

Don Kasian, president of Kasian Architecture Interior Design and Planning, talks about an animated, somewhat transparent building where people will be able to see into spaces as part of a principle of accessibility, but adds, “We haven't designed it yet, so we don't know what it will look like.”

He promised it will be distinctive. “We're going to make this a little bit more of a people place than a monumental place,” said Mr. Kasian, whose company's credentials include the airport station of the Canada Line.

If the series of projects works, it could be good for Ms. Watts's political credentials, said political scientist Norman Ruff.

“By presiding over [the new downtown], that would demonstrate proven leadership qualities,” said Mr. Ruff, a professor emeritus at the University of Victoria. “You can see the [political] message that would be used if that goes well.”

Mr. Ruff said Ms. Watts could be politically attractive as “the mayor of this newly emerging metropolis.

“It wouldn't be the first time a Surrey mayor has become premier.”

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