Surrey has often been called a “city of cities,” a patchwork of communities stretching from the strip malls of rootin’ tootin’ Newton to the rodeo clowns of Cloverdale and the seaside cottages at Crescent Beach. Six town centres — Whalley, Newton, Guildford, Fleetwood, Cloverdale and South Surrey — sprawl across a land mass big enough to hold Vancouver, Richmond and Burnaby combined.
Each is separated by streams, rivers and one third of Metro Vancouver’s agricultural land, and each bears its own social, cultural and economic challenges.
But as Surrey transforms into a city set to rival Vancouver in population by 2040 (a projected 766,000 people each), city officials are wrestling with how to shape and stitch those centres together and provide residents with what they need to live, work and play in each.
Whalley, for instance, has long been the bane of Surrey jokes, associated with gangs, crime and hookers, but is in the midst of change as part of it is developed into a walkable, transit-oriented downtown, renamed City Centre.
Newton, with its strip malls and big Indo-Canadian population, is Surrey’s densest town centre, with easy access to Highway 10, King George Boulevard and the Alex Fraser Bridge.
South Surrey has a robust arts community and well-heeled seniors population. Cloverdale has retained its small-town heart while creating a dense urban neighbourhood in nearby Clayton. And Guildford and Fleetwood, located along bustling 152nd Street, are transforming from single-family neighbourhoods into robust economic centres.
Housing in Surrey is still affordable compared with cities such as Vancouver. Schools continue to be built to serve the growing student population, which is the biggest in B.C.
Parks, walking and bicycle trails are being expanded, while the city continues to build and upgrade recreation centres and libraries and has the largest number of artificial sports fields in the province.
But the city has work to do if it truly wants to reach big-city status: Despite its size, Surrey has few high-end restaurants, lounges or entertainment venues. There are just three live theatre venues: the Bell Centre for Performing Arts, Chandos Pattison Auditorium and Surrey Arts Centre.
Although areas of South Surrey, such as Morgan Crossing, are starting to attract more high-end restaurants.
City officials plan to start updating town centre plans this year, some of which are 10 years old. The challenge is how to serve those communities — where 43 per cent of residents have a mother tongue other than English — while retaining their unique characteristics. Areas like Guildford, for instance, may need more child care facilities, while South Surrey and Fleetwood may need more senior support services.
Work has already started on some projects, such as aquatic centres with Olympic-sized pools for Guildford and South Surrey, a covered youth park and recreation centre in Cloverdale, the new Chuck Bailey Recreation Centre in Whalley, a 1,600-seat art theatre for South Surrey, and walking and cycling trails across the city.
Surrey has been able to keep pace with its rapid growth because of a $400-million Build Surrey program, launched in 2009 to boost the economy and provide amenities in the town centres. The program is unique, Vancouver did something similar during the 2010 Olympics to replace aging infrastructure at Riley Park. Surrey’s efforts, however, are more comprehensive.
Surrey’s transformation has already started in the new City Centre, at King George Boulevard and 102nd Avenue. A Bing-Thom-designed library, Simon Fraser University’s Surrey campus, and new City Hall have helped shape the area into a walkable, transit-oriented downtown core. Surrey Memorial Hospital’s new outpatient centre, and the new precinct for the RCMP’s B.C. headquarters, buffer the development.
Surrey is putting in more ice surfaces this year at the Fleetwood arena, partly because it’s more economical to add ice to an existing complex. Yet new ice is needed in Cloverdale. While the entire city can use the Fleetwood arena, it’s a fair drive from Cloverdale.
While all six town centres will see increased densification, it will be at different degrees.
The City Centre, for instance, will maintain single-family homes on the periphery of the downtown core, while other communities will include a mix of townhouses, apartments and basement suites to ensure housing remains affordable.
Only Guildford and possibly South Surrey’s Semiahmoo Centre, both of which are on 152nd Street and have shopping malls and strong bus service, are tapped to potentially be transformed into high-density town centres similar to the City Centre in the next decade.
Surrey is highly transit-deficient compared with Vancouver, New Westminster, Burnaby and Richmond. An express B-Line is slated to run along King George to Newton’s transit depot, but Mayor Watts’s transit wish list is more ambitious.
She wants light rail to run along 104th Avenue between Guildford and City Centre in Whalley; along King George Highway from Whalley to Newton (and eventually to South Surrey); and along Fraser Highway between the City Centre and Langley. Streetcars are pitched for Cloverdale, with rapid buses or community shuttles to fill in the gaps.
TransLink has made Surrey a high priority for better transit, but is struggling to find the money for it. Surrey is also facing competition from the much-denser Vancouver, which wants transit dollars to put rapid transit along the crowded Broadway corridor. Watts argues Surrey, which gives $164 million annually to TransLink, should get something in return.
“We’re shaping the city and the infrastructure is absolutely key at this point in time to ensure people are getting out of their cars and not being car-dependent,” Watts said. “The sooner we get that infrastructure in place the better.”
Surrey has taken steps to urbanize and densify its City Centre and made a strong pitch for light rail. “Its aspirations are very different now,” Price said. “That’s where the fastest growth is and what they’re doing south of the Fraser is more important than what’s happening in Vancouver.”
The disparity is evident across the region. Whalley, and the new City Centre, is better off than most, with four SkyTrain stations — Gateway, Scott Road, Surrey Central and King George. But critics argue those stations only serve to help people get in and out of Surrey to other parts of Metro, and not to other points within the city. There are buses, but they are few and infrequent.
Meanwhile, Surrey is working on other forms of transportation in the town centre strategies.
City officials plan to develop 75 kilometres of greenway trails, which will be used to connect many of the town centres through bikes and walking paths. Off-road trails in Green Timbers, and power line right-of-ways in Newton and Fleetwood, are also potential pathways that could be developed as part of the greenways plan.
While the City Centre is developing, the city hasn’t lost sight of its plans to remain the City of Parks. From the new Central City tower, next to the SFU campus, one can see the Fraser River, Green Timbers Urban Park and even the North Shore mountains.
“It’s interesting because you can see a lot of green.”