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The Surrey Central City is part of Simon Fraser University and was designed by architect Bing Thom. (Rafal Gerszak/Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail)
The Surrey Central City is part of Simon Fraser University and was designed by architect Bing Thom. (Rafal Gerszak/Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail)

Urban Renewal

Surrey, Vancouver's 'ugly sister,' puts on a fresh face Add to ...

Figuring out tricky problems seems to be one of Ms. Watts's greatest strengths. With the backing of the united, nine-person council, she initiated an "unsightly bylaw" requiring owners of neglected, slum properties to pay up to $10,000 for repairs that the city undertakes on their behalf. Once the Olympics are complete, some of the modular structures where athletes are now rooming will be transported to Surrey to provide 52 units of supportive housing.

But the improvements are not only environmental and functional. Surrey is aiming to position itself a city with a distinct aesthetic.

This inspiration comes from Surrey Central City, a brazen testament to the power of architecture that landed in the city's banal commercial heart in 2002 and triggered elevated visions for the future. There, Mr. Thom converted an existing regional shopping mall into an elegant retail complex and office tower, topped with a satellite campus of Simon Fraser University. For the galleria, he invented a roof structure - fashioned from "peeler cores," the formerly wasted inner rings of logs that have been stripped for plywood - that is as exhilarating as it is intricate.

Designed in collaboration with the Vancouver engineers who would later create the highly acclaimed roof in the Richmond speed-skating oval, the structure looks as though a woven basket of cedar has been lowered into the atria. Natural light is channelled through an elliptical slit in the roof. From the outside, the interior gives off a golden glow. Even late at night, the halls buzz with student energy.

With Central City (which will also get a major upgrade) in mind, Ms. Watts calculated an economic-development strategy that includes the revitalization of all Surrey's main town centres. That's why her office dedicated $300,000 for the Townshift design competition, co-ordinated by architect Allen Aubert with curator and critic Trevor Boddy. Central City is currently home to an exhibit of dozens of submitted explorations of hip street gateways, enlivened public squares and landscaped edges meant to soften the façades of shopping malls. (The winners will be announced on Wednesday.)

"I think the range and depth of the entries from 31 countries indicate that we - and I most certainly include Mayor Watts - hit a nerve in contemporary architectural and urban culture," Mr. Boddy says. "Many of us believe the next frontier in the green revolution lies in adapting and urbanizing the suburbs."

Roger Keil, director of York University's City Institute, has just completed a major research project on suburbs and new forms of density. He says the enormous land mass of edge cities such as Surrey or Mississauga demands separate nodes of development, transportation links and sports and entertainment complexes.

He has witnessed some of the pressures first-hand: "You can see the tension building around York University. What was once an empty, barren field in the 1990s turns out now to be one of the most networked places in the [Toronto area] That means a GO [transit]station, subway, buses and Canada's first urban national park. ... So rather than looking at it as a marginal area to which you move because you haven't enough money to live downtown, on the contrary it is becoming a very attractive option."

But as Surrey sees it, such growth also requires hot-to-the-touch architecture, to persuade people to come out of their bungalows and into dynamic public spaces. The design competition is not the only move in that direction. The old City Hall, which has sat since the 1970s as a lone wolf at the corner of King George Highway and Highway 10, will be redesigned by Moriyama & Teshima (Toronto) along with Kasian (Vancouver) and built as part of a major new civic precinct next to the existing Central City. It will include a new city hall and a science-and-innovation centre meant to help incubate new businesses, as well as commercial floor space.

As well, within a stone's throw of his Central City, Mr. Thom has designed a $36-million Surrey Central Library (to be completed next year) that in conception appears to surge forward like an ocean liner with massive windows seemingly framed by the monumental ribs of whales.

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