Architecture beyond aesthetics

Mixed-use building brings new life to the community

by Amy 23 December 2010 Urban design
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    Based in Vancouver, Bing Thom Architects (BTA) is a firm of visionary architects and planners, who share a fundamental belief in the transformative power of great architecture to uplift, not only the physical, but also the economic and social conditions of a community. Their belief in this power has become the grounding philosophy for the office and has resulted in memorable architecture that consistently taps into something beyond aesthetics.

    One project that exemplifies their adept skill is Surrey Central City, a mixed-use building that has spurred renewal for a community that had been neglected for decades. Surrey Central City is a project born of Surrey’s complex history as an edge city south of Vancouver, whose sprawl and lack of planning left it without a perceived centre.

    A regional transportation system called SkyTrain was built in the 1980s in order to link Surrey, as well as other suburban cities, in Metro Vancouver. Once the system was built, a series of planners were brought in to develop a plan for a town centre, but none of their visions took hold or shape. Plagued by high crime and challenging demographics, the area became a victim of halted proposals and failed plans.

    Bing Thom Architects believed that a large mixed-use development with a significant public sector component could kick start Surrey’s missing downtown. The firm was able to broker a deal between the city and provincial governments, whereby in exchange for the city donating land in the designated city centre, the province would agree to locate the new university there.

    At the time, BTA were also working for a large insurance company that was looking for real estate investment opportunities. BTA suggested that they option the shopping centre near the planned site for the university. The designated area of the city, known as Whalley, was arguably the bleakest part of Surrey, despite being on the transit line. Though the project was complex and could have been a tough sell, the client recognized the value of creating a city centre. They ultimately bought the shopping centre and, at the request of the province, agreed to act as the developer for both the university and a new office building.

    With a 680,000 sq ft shopping mall receiving more than 1,400 visitors an hour, a 450,000 sq ft university that would introduce 5,000 students to the area, and an additional 2,500 employees in a new 500,000 sq ft office building, BTA decided to integrate the different uses as closely as possible. The firm took the roof off the existing shopping centre and placed the university’s classrooms above it.

    Though seemingly strange bedfellows, this disparate partnership brought many advantages. Above shoppers is the hum of activity of students changing classes every hour. The presence of the shopping centre’s food court removed the need for a student cafeteria, and similarly, instead of building their own athletic facilities, the university provides each student with membership to the city’s nearby recreation centre.

    Hours of peak parking demand for the shopping mall are opposite those of school parking (evening, weekends and holidays), so parking requirements are substantially reduced. A series of atria were created to organise the various uses. Heavy timber construction — a technique historically associated with British Columbia — was used in a contemporary way to celebrate the technological focus of the university and give distinctive common identity to all the spaces. In addition, BTA created a civic plaza, the first truly urban, civic open space in Surrey. They also aligned the plaza with the mall entrance that faced SkyTrain, and it has since become the de facto entrance to the university and the complex as a whole, with thousands of commuters crossing it each day.

    Six years later, the project has accomplished its mission to create a vibrant city centre. The new campus of Simon Fraser University is very popular, and students enjoy being integrated into the community. A testament to this fact is, even though this campus is newer and has fewer resources, its waiting list is longer than the main campus of Simon Fraser University. Students actually require higher grades to gain access to this new campus. In addition, there has been a resurgence in adjacent high density development including several condominium towers being completed.

    The downtown Surrey landscape has clearly been established. Surrey Central City is a wonderful example of the power of good architecture to transform. Not only was the client able to sell the project at a very considerable profit, but the building has changed the trajectory of the city by giving the community a new sense of confidence and pride. The city has actually changed its logo from a traditional crest to a profile of the building, and will be investing a further $500 million in Surrey City Centre, which will include a new city hall and office building, additional space for Simon Fraser University, a central library and a major civic plaza that will become the heart of Surrey’s outdoor events, celebrations and festivities.

    Building on an updated city centre plan prepared by BTA in 2008, new civic construction will include a Performing Arts Centre with a 1,600-seat theatre and a 250-seat studio theatre, as well as a new Central Library (designed by BTA and now under construction) and a mixed use building possibly accommodating hotel and office facilities.

    The City believes its investment will build on the earlier success of Central City and will serve as a further catalyst to attract both public and private sector investment in additional transit improvements; the addition of thousands of jobs in a growing office and commercial core; a growing tourism industry; the presence of thousands of new residents in a high density residential neighbourhood; the creation of walk-able streets through thoughtful design guidelines and development practices and the investment in infrastructure to complete, tame and beautify the road network.

    The urban lifestyle will be supported by the addition of entertainment and cultural facilities including performing arts venues, galleries, sports arenas, community centres and additional retail, restaurant and entertainment venues. It will be a sustainable, complete neighbourhood where people can live, work and play in an environmentally responsible community.

    Client Brief: BTA’s original client for the project, the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia (ICBC), wanted a regional headquarters with facilities that could sustain changes in technological advancement, as well as provide revenue from other tenants. BTA suggested they build in a blighted area of Surrey that would benefit from the investment, and was also the future home of a new university, an existing shopping centre and adjacent access to public transportation. The client agreed, and acted as developer of Surrey Central City to create a downtown Surrey; with space for the university, additional retail and public space.

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