‘We need to be innovative’: Surrey Mayor Doug McCallum looks ahead to 2019
Doug McCallum doesn’t see himself as a disrupter.
Instead, the Surrey mayor sees his second go-around in the job as an opportunity to get the fast-growing city back on track after years of overspending on projects he says weren’t in the public interest — including the new city hall building, where he sat down for a long, wide-ranging interview ahead of the new year (“It’s too sterile,” he said of his new office).
Between discussions on everything from housing to solving the growing homeless problem, policing and SkyTrain projects, McCallum repeated that his priorities were for the good of the people who elected him.
“I sort of look at myself not as Doug McCallum but as a messenger for the people of Surrey,” he said. “They said they wanted change and they wanted it quick, quick, quick so that’s what we’re doing.”
McCallum’s first two months back in the mayor’s chair have naturally been dominated by his big shifts on public safety and transit. But he said he’s also been pushing hard for what he calls “smart development” — slowing down building in some parts of the city while ramping it up around major transit corridors, specifically purpose-built rental housing.
This development also means getting public infrastructure, including schools, in place at the same time as housing developments are being built.
“If we’re going to put 300 houses into an area, we need to build the schools at the same time so that when people move into those houses, they have a school for the kids to go into,” McCallum said.
“Right now, what happens is the houses go in, people move in and then sometime a few years later the province gets around to [saying]: ‘Oh, we better look at that area and study it to death,’ and then they [build a school]. So smart development means we build those things at the same time.”
McCallum said the city also has a responsibility to have public facilities, including recreation centres and playing fields, in place with those developments. Despite angering many residents by halting some long-promised projects — including the new hockey arena in Cloverdale — as part of the new city budget, McCallum said he is still committed to getting those and other spaces built as well as finding smarter ways to build them.
“We’ve been looking at getting the private sector to partner with us, where we give them the land and they take a percentage of ice time as a financial incentive for them to build,” he suggested. In the meantime, he said dealing with the city’s debt was more of a necessity.
“When I left [as mayor in 2005], we had no debt and we had about $300 million in cash reserves so we were in good shape,” he said. “Fifteen years later, they’re $515 million in debt and very little cash reserves so we were stuck with this problem we have to deal with, and it’s not going away.
“But neither are these projects so we will get them built. We need to keep our kids busy so we want these centres built.”
Building around the clock
McCallum said all of these projects — the community centres, the schools, the rental housing — can be built faster and more affordably if the bids include non-stop construction.
“We have to look at building seven days a week, 24/7, around the clock,” he said.
“Not only will it be a quicker process but it will also save us a lot of money because if you can build a school in half the time, you’re going to save costs on inflation and a lot of other areas.”
The mayor said this is one idea that fast-growing municipalities across Canada, including Surrey, should take from cities around the world.
“I was in Qatar recently, and they’re building three SkyTrain lines simultaneously and four giant stadiums because of the World Cup,” McCallum said. “They’re getting them up extremely fast because they’re building through the night, seven days a week.
“We need to be innovative,” he added. “We’re way behind the rest of the world here in Canada, and we need to join them in adopting fresh ideas and building faster.”
SkyTrain or bust
That idea of building around the clock is a big part of why McCallum has continuously argued with TransLink’s assessment that the money isn’t there yet to switch from LRT to SkyTrain — one of the major political battles he has faced immediately following his election win.
“Where the price goes up is the longer we delay it,” the mayor said. “It’s been estimated it’s going to cost $500,000 more every single day TransLink delays this project and doesn’t get a shovel in the ground so we need to move quickly.”
WATCH: Coverage of the Surrey SkyTrain on Globalnews.ca
McCallum’s push for SkyTrain has run into some highly visible roadblocks at the first two Mayors’ Council meetings since the October elections, particularly as the few mayors who won another term find themselves defending a plan for LRT they had already signed off on before McCallum tore it up.
But McCallum said he’s not concerned about animosity towards his agenda and suggested the mayors need to get on board for the good of the Lower Mainland.
“They can’t just be looking at their city on that board. They need to look at the whole region,” he said.
“When I was chair [of the Mayor’s Council] while I was mayor before, that was when we built the Canada Line. That had nothing to do with Surrey, but I approved it because it was good for the region. The same thing needs to happen here.”
McCallum says he’s found a good ally in Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart, who has said the Surrey-to-Langley SkyTrain extension is one part of an overall plan to connect the entire region to UBC. With the mayors of the two largest cities in Metro Vancouver in the same corner, McCallum said it improves the chances of getting his line built.
“That [plan to UBC] pulls the whole region together,” he said. “Kennedy and I have had lots of conversations, and I think we can get this done together. But we need to get going now.”
Sharing policing resources
McCallum’s partnership with Stewart is also paying off in his other big election promise to switch to a municipal police force.
The city recently announced the Vancouver Police Department would provide advice and research during this transition and will ultimately provide the model that the future Surrey force will follow. But McCallum said the VPD can provide a lot more than that.
WATCH: Coverage of the Surrey policing debate on Globalnews.ca
“We’re looking at sharing their crime lab so we don’t have to build one of our own. That will save us a lot of money,” he said.
“We might share police dogs, we might share a homicide squad, we might share a drug squad. Of course, we would pay them a bit for that, but it would be a lot cheaper than paying to build our own [lab] and other things.”
McCallum waved away concerns that having Vancouver and Surrey operate out of one crime lab and splitting other resources will cause a strain across the region, arguing he’s looking ahead to the future.
“I think cities are going to start sharing services around Metro Vancouver in a big way in the coming years,” he said. “If we can work together, I think it would benefit the region and the province because it will save costs, which is something the public wants to see.”
All of these ideas of sharing costs and resources means the transition is exceeding McCallum’s already lofty expectations.
“It’s moving faster than I thought,” he said. “I thought I was being pretty fast when I said it would be done in two years, but we’re on progress to complete it earlier.”
Keeping kids safe
The new budget, narrowly approved by council in December, included no new officer hires for 2019, which McCallum has said will not have an impact on public safety. But he recognizes there are major concerns within the community about gang violence, which he said he’s committed to addressing in the coming year.
“I’ve listened a lot to members of Wake Up Surrey and police officials from Vancouver and Surrey, and we’ve already gone ahead with some of their recommendations,” McCallum said, citing the RCMP’s new BarWatch-style program as an example.
He added that more federal money is coming for community groups to start programs aimed at keeping the city’s youth out of gangs and that the city will be working with the school board to develop new after-school programs and sports leagues to hopefully eliminate youth gang recruitment.
“The real dangerous time is between 2:30 when kids get out [of school], and 6 o’clock when the parents get home because the kids are just standing around, and the gangs are sitting in their cars waiting for them,” McCallum said.
“We also need to protect girls who are being recruited as mules, which is happening in Surrey as well, so we need more resources and programs for them, too.
“I think the bottom line is let’s be proactive and get in front of it, not reactive,” he added.
Innovative homeless solutions
McCallum said Surrey also needs to step up its support for the growing homeless population, as tent cities have sprung up due to a lack of low-income housing and advocates for the homeless say the number of people living on the streets continues to grow.
While the mayor supported the building of three modular developments to house residents of the homeless camp on the Whalley Strip earlier this year, he says more permanent solutions are needed faster than most people realize.
“The leases [for those developments] end in about a year and a half, and we can’t renew them because of the property they’re on so we’ve got a big problem coming to us,” he said.
McCallum said his experience working for the Law Society of British Columbia taught him a lot about how to address the long-term needs of the homeless, including honouring their sense of community.
“People don’t realize that where these people are situated in the streets or the alleys, that’s their home. If you try to move them, they don’t want to so moving them to five parts of Surrey, which was the game plan up until now, isn’t going to work,” he said.
The new council has approved a large transitional housing development of over 100 units on Green Timbers Way, and BC Housing has committed to building more permanent housing to replace existing modular projects. But McCallum is once again thinking outside the box.
“One of the concepts I’ve kicked around is…maybe we can set up some kind of trailer park,” he said. “It’s low cost and good affordability for people. If you have social supports in the centre — recreation facilities, those type of spaces — and then have trailers surrounding them, that might be one way to look at housing the homeless. It would also ensure they stay in their community.
“We have to be creative and be proactive in how we approach the problem because it needs innovation.”
As he looks to what he wants to accomplish in 2019, McCallum says he will continue pushing to achieve the promises he made during the campaign while getting the city back to responsible planning.
“Residents keep telling us they want this city safer, they want it more active and they want better transit and housing options,” he said. “They also want us to have a tight fiscal plan and not waste their taxpayer money so we’ll be working on all of that.
“The public doesn’t want to hear any more talk. They want to see us do things so let’s get things done.”
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