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Major downtown development projects are helping to make Surrey into its own urban center.

Once rightfully thought of as a bedroom community of Vancouver, Surrey, in British Columbia, has steadily climbed its way into the world of cityness. It’s now the 12th largest city in Canada, and the second largest in B.C., but both of those rankings are likely to be short-lived. The city is expected to keep growing and is likely to overtake Vancouver as the province’s most populous city within the next 10 or 15 years, becoming one of the top ten in Canada. Considering the pace it's growing now, it could happen even sooner.

Surrey’s population grew by about 47,000 people between 2001 and 2006, and by more than 75,000 people between 2006 and 2011, according to the latest census figures. Now home to about 468,000 people, it’s still got a ways to go before it meets Vancouver’s current mark of 603,000. But at a regional scale, Surrey is growing at a much faster rate. Surrey’s population increase accounted for about 37 percent of the growth in the metro Vancouver region between 2006 and 2011. Vancouver city, by comparison, only contributed about 12 percent.

With nearly three times the land mass of Vancouver, it’s not especially surprising that Surrey would be able to see that much more growth, says Christina DeMarco, a regional planner at Metro Vancouver, the region’s association of governments.

"Surrey is the area that has the most developable land supply, both for residential and for industrial. A really important part of the industrial land supply in the region, something like 40 percent of the available land, is in Surrey," DeMarco says.

Much of the area's industrial land hasn’t yet been developed, but a lot of the city’s residential land has or will be shortly. Housing is fueling growth in the city. Recognizing its increasingly fast transition from suburb to big city, the leadership in Surrey has embarked on a major building effort to create a jobs- and housing-rich downtown in a place that for so long didn’t really have a center.

“We’re building a city from the ground up,” Mayor Dianne Watts told a crowd at the recent Vancouver Cities Summit. “We have opportunities that a city that is doing infill redevelopment doesn’t have.”

In the past few years, the city has set out on an ambitious building spree to create a central core in the city. New civic buildings and public amenities are being added to the landscape, as are major institutional buildings. More than $3 billion worth of infrastructure is being added to the city’s new downtown, according to Elizabeth Model, executive director of the Downtown Surrey Business Improvement District.

"We’re a fairly young city, and we’re building a brand new downtown within an existing city. Where else does that happen? It’s a chance for new and revitalized thinking," Model says.

The emerging downtown of Surrey will be home to a new civic center, which will include a city hall, a 1,600-seat performing arts center, a studio theater and the recently completed City Center Library, designed by architect Bing Thom. Adjacent to all this is a new $12 million expansion of Simon Fraser University, a $240 million surgery and outpatient care center, a shopping mall and a station for the region’s SkyTrain transit system.

A large emergency hospital and critical care tower are being built now, a roughly $600 million project, according to Model. And more is on the way. A number of developers are building new condo and office towers in the area, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police are planning to build a nearly $1 billion complex to serve as its division headquarters.

Surrey is not only creating a new core for itself, but is positioning its core as a new downtown for the entire region, especially the similarly growing suburban communities to the south of Vancouver.

“That is part of the reason why we’re building a downtown core that services everything south of the Fraser [River], because we do recognize that this is where the growth potential is, this is where it’s going,” says Model.

It’s also in line with regional goals to spread out employment to different places within the region, beyond Vancouver.

“Vancouver represents 30 percent of the population in the region and 40 percent of the regional economic production, but that’s starting to distribute more widely in certain sectors,” says Lee Malleau, CEO of the Vancouver Economic Commission. She says that much of Surrey’s growth has been in population, not necessarily in jobs or economic output.

But that’s starting to change, and the development of the downtown is part of making the city attractive to businesses, which has been a key goal of the mayor’s administration, and of the region in general.

“What we’re trying to do, both individually as cities and collectively as a region, is build population and employment centers where there’s actually a relationship between population and employment,” Malleau says. “So for Surrey, it’s really important for them to continue to do that.”

“Vancouver can only support or sustain so much population growth. And so we need to look at some of the communities outside of Vancouver to share in accommodating that population growth,” says Malleau. “It makes a lot of sense for people to look at Surrey.”

To handle these shifts in population, much emphasis has been placed on concentrating higher density housing in jobs-rich areas like Surrey’s emerging downtown. As a result, the housing stock in the city has undergone a dramatic change.

“Something like 75 percent of the units are attached, either townhouses or apartments, and 25 percent are single detached,” says DeMarco. “That’s very different from 20, 25 years ago when those two numbers would have been flipped for sure.”

As Surrey continues to grow, it’s likely to become denser and home to more of the region’s jobs. And even though many predict that it will overtake Vancouver to become the biggest city in B.C., few expect Surrey to replace Vancouver as the urban center of the region.

“The metropolitan core will remain the downtown for the province,” says DeMarco. “Surrey, to me, will be the sort of second downtown.”

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