Vancouver and San Francisco have a Chinatown, Toronto has a Greektown. Now Surrey is poised to create a Little India.
Big cities around the world have long embraced the notion of ethnic enclaves, which pull communities together by offering food, clothing, and services from their homelands.
Surrey, with a huge Indo-Canadian population, is now jumping on board, with plans to transform a section of Newton into a “cultural commercial precinct,” or Little India, serving up everything from Indian pyjamas and bangles to chai tea and butter chicken in an outdoor mall-like setting around the intersection of 128th Street and 80th Avenue.
The move is set to not only to cater to Surrey’s growing Indo-Canadian population but to cash in on the increasing number of South Asian businesses flocking here from Vancouver.
“We know there is a shift from Vancouver to Surrey and we’re trying to capture that demand,” said Surrey planning manager Nicholas Lai. “What we are providing them is a commercial area and they gravitate to that area for a mixture of shops.
“You go to different cities in the world and they have different districts … Little Bombay, Little Tokyo — it’s a reflection of the ethnic population we have. It makes the cultural fabric that much richer.”
The move follows the rapid rise of hundreds of quasi-commercial businesses scattered around the Newton area, even though it is zoned industrial. Most of them are allowed because they include a mix of warehouse or distribution centres with banquet halls or small retail, selling Indian staples like jewelry, saris and sweets. Business hubs York Centre and Payal Centre, as well as the Punjab Cloth House, act as anchors.
The idea is to consolidate all those businesses in one commercial precinct catering to South Asians, with large, treed boulevards for pedestrian access, commercial shops with their own entrances and a large parking lot serving the mini-mall. A public hearing is slated for Monday on the first rezoning application for the precinct development, while others, such as an application to expand the Punjab Cloth House, are in the works.
“The city has had some issues in enforcing some of the bylaws in some of those areas,” said Coun. Tom Gill. “When we looked at what was happening in terms of tourism, shopping and demand, we understood there was an opportunity here.
“The irony is now we have people coming in from Vancouver to shop.”
Suvash Chander, owner of the Punjab Cloth House, predicts the proposed precinct will usurp popular shopping meccas such as Scott Road and Vancouver’s Main Street. He noted the top 10 Indo-Canadian shops on Main Street 30 years ago are now in Surrey, while Scott Road is “going to die.”
“It used to be booming on Main Street and Scott Road,” Chander said. “Now a lot of Vancouver people are moving to Surrey. There’s so many reasons behind it. There’s no parking there, the rate of property tax and values are too high … in Surrey, it is cheap.”
Indeed, it is so affordable on the 128th Street corridor that a city staff report notes that it’s time to “level the playing field.” The report suggests most businesses around the proposed Little India site pay significantly less in property taxes because they sit on industrial-zoned land and don’t have to pay higher costs for their commercial enterprises.
Chander, who says his business is 70-per-cent distribution and 30-per-cent retail, for example, spends about $50,000 annually on property taxes.
If the land is rezoned, businesses would pay significantly more for development cost charges, as well as property taxes.
The estimated value for raw industrial land on 128th Street, for instance, is $25 per square foot while it’s about $50 per square foot for commercial. At the same time, DCC charges for a one-hectare site with a two-storey, 60,000-square-foot building would also be significantly less, at $208,300 for an industrial development compared with $444,000 for commercial.
“It is new revenue for us because they are now developing as commercial,” Lai said. “There could be a lot of economic spinoffs, too, in terms of attracting tourists. I was told people already know about this particular area of Surrey.”
Gill maintains his relatives from California always go to 128th Street corridor to shop when they visit. He added the South Asian community has become more elaborate in its tastes and designs over the past 30 years, while more young people are turning to traditional clothing.
There is enough demand for additional businesses in the study area to accommodate up to 12 hectares of commercial development or more over the next 15 years, according to a report by GP Rollo & Associates, land economics consultants.
“Given the mass in terms of the South Asian population that has really embraced Surrey, the demand and supply of what’s happening has changed significantly,” Gill said.
Surrey has seen a huge increase in its South Asian population, especially since the early 1990s, according to University of B.C. demographer Daniel Hiebert.
According to a 2009 City of Surrey fact sheet, immigrants composed more than 40 per cent of the population of Newton, and of those 62.1 per cent were born in South Asia.
Newton was named after harness maker Elias John Newton, who received a Crown Land Grant in Surrey in 1890. The land totalled 65 hectares between 72nd and 76th avenues and 124th and 128th streets, according to the Surrey History website.
Chander maintains that while the proposed Little India precinct will cost him money, the city is being “smart” with its plans.
“I support it for our future. It’s good for the Indian community, just like Chinatown is in Vancouver,” he said. “If it’s an Indian market, everybody will come.”