When Surrey Place Shopping Centre in Surrey, B.C., started losing business to strong regional malls, developer ICBC Properties Ltd. hit on a plan to bring more traffic to the area — a $253 million Canadian plan to top off the center with 25 stories and 1 million square feet of university and office space.

It was heralded as a billiant plan to create a new downtown for the Vancouver suburb with 365,000 residents and bring a steady stream of students and workers to the mall. But the course of innovation never did run smooth. The government canceled plans to create the Technical University of British Columbia on the site. And ICBC decided not to move all its operations into Central City as originally planned.

So even though, 85 percent of the space was pre-leased, only 70,000 square feet of office space is actually occupied at this time. ICBC Properties, a unit of the province's auto insurance agency, has said it remains committed to the project, which opened in January.

ICBC paid $C253 million for the acquisition, in 1999, and subsequent development. Known as Central City, the 1.7 million-square-foot complex is located adjacent to a Vancouver SkyTrain stop, and across the street from the North Surrey Recreational Centre, where locals can exercise and ice skate.

The idea to expand and revitalize the troubled mall — formerly known as Surrey Place Shopping Centre — by guaranteeing that office workers and university students would visit the site daily was considered innovative by urban planners, as was its design by Canadian architectural firm, Bing Thom Architects.

And those involved haven't given up hope. ICBC is looking outside Canada for tenants and is negotiating with Simon Fraser University to take several hundred thousand square feet for its annex. The university is already leasing about 70,000-square-feet of classrooms and computer labs in a space converted from a former Zellers department store in the mall. Next year, the undergraduate and post-graduate university will have 800 students, up from 600 this year.

The mall, too, is looking for tenants after expanding to 700,000 square feet from 650,000 square feet. Kathleen Allison, the mall's general manager, is looking for 50 more stores to bring the number of retailers to 150.

About 20 tenants left or were relocated to other parts of the mall during what Allison calls, the “intrusive” construction process. Nine 12-foot by 12-foot columns ate up the space to support a new three-level galleria that binds the shopping center to the office tower, structurally and architecturally.

Other tenants left for business reasons even though the mall remained open throughout construction, says Allison. “Some tenants left when their leases expired, although they wouldn't have stayed anyway because the center had been going downhill for years,” she says.

The university promises to bring business to the food court. Office workers are expected to spend money at the Central City Mall, rather than trek to the Guildford Shopping Centre a few miles away.

Despite the problems, Gordon Harris, president of Vancouver-based Harris Consulting Inc., who as a former ICBC director was involved in developing the project, is optimistic about Central City's future.

“There had to be a mix of uses, not just a shopping center, to create a city center in Surrey,” says Harris. “By rationalizing retail space and moving some tenants around, the mix and circulation will improve the performance of the retail space.”