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The Globe and Mail

Surrey's East Clayton a dream community with growing pains

Students from Hazelwood School in Surrey run around the school portables during a break from class February 09, 2012.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Hazelgrove Elementary School opened less than three years ago in the East Clayton neighbourhood in Surrey with space for 480 pupils. However, the smartly designed school with bright yellow doors was woefully inadequate for the community.

Four more classrooms were added, but that was not enough. The kindergarten classes, with 119 children, were moved to another building. And the school still needed 11 portables, including one for a washroom, to accommodate all the children.

This September will likely be worse. Early registration indicates Hazelgrove Elementary will have to find space this fall for 105 more children, which will raise its population to more than 900.

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The 2011 census, released earlier this week, showed that, over the previous five years, the census tract that includes East Clayton was by far the fastest-growing census tract in Metro Vancouver, more than tripling its population to 14,034 from 4,132 in 2006.

For those interested in urban planning, the census is not just a listing of population shifts. The numbers focus attention on the management of growth and how well urban planners and municipal councils have prepared communities for change.

The best-laid plans

When East Clayton was sketched out more than a decade ago, the community plan was the leading edge in reimagining how to respond to rapid urban growth. The high-density community plan, designed by Surrey in partnership with the University of British Columbia's Design Centre for Sustainability, aimed to redefine what a suburb looked like.

But not everything in East Clayton turned out as planned. In an interview this week, Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts talked about lessons learned and "the pluses and negatives" of East Clayton. "When you look back, I think we could now do it better," she said.

The overcrowded school, however, has not dampened the enthusiasm that those who walk their children there every morning feel for the community.

It's not a surprise that families are moving into East Clayton, said Carrie Johns, president of the school's parent advisory committee. "It's a great area. People just want to live here," she said. "On a nice day, you drive through the neighbourhood and everyone is outside, playing with their kids."

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East Clayton is clearly not your typical suburban subdivision with huge three-car garages fronting the street and neither shopping nor work within walking distance. "It feels like a community, a small town where you get to know your neighbours," Ms. Johns said.

A place to raise kids

The 2011 census shows that the population of every municipality within Greater Vancouver increased since 2006, although some neighbourhoods experienced a drop in numbers. Surrey, with a 19-per-cent increase, had the second-largest jump, topped only by Port Moody, where population numbers rose by 20 per cent. Vancouver increased by 4.4 per cent. West Vancouver, North Vancouver, Delta and White Rock, with increases of less than 4 per cent, had the lowest jumps in population.

Surrey anticipates continual growth for the next 15 years. About 800 to 1000 people move there every month. Around 5,000 babies are born there each year.

As seen in East Clayton, the people coming to Surrey are predominantly young couples from other areas of the Lower Mainland looking for a place to raise their children. One third of the population of Surrey is under 19 years old.

The most pressing challenge is to meet the requirements for schools, hospitals, transportation and other infrastructure, Ms. Watts said. The city is concerned about ensuring a variety of housing with a range of affordability. Overcrowding at the schools, including overcapacity at the Surrey campuses of Simon Fraser University and Kwantlen Polytechnic University, is also an issue, she said.

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Although some elements of East Clayton's plan have been adopted in municipalities across Metro Vancouver, Ms. Watts believes the subdivision could have been better. It should have included more green space. More pressure should have been brought on provincial government to provide adequate school funding, she said.

Planning meets politics

Construction of East Clayton began in 2003. The project was to include a mix of housing, integration of affordable rental accommodations, a variety of shopping within walking distance, and a natural drainage system to ensure zero impact on the ecological system, said Patrick Condon, a UBC professor involved in the project who is the James Taylor Chair in Landscape and Livable Environments.

East Clayton introduced back lanes and front porches to the suburban subdivision and allowed rental suites in new single family homes and coach houses in backyards. Cul-de-sacs were eliminated to open up the shortest possible route for traffic. Frontage for several lots was reduced to as little as 26 feet to increase density. Almost overnight, an instant neighbourhood was built on rural land.

But economics and politics reshaped the community. The B.C. Liberal government built only one of two schools that were anticipated in the plan. Land set aside for a business park was developed for housing. Some areas for home-based businesses were changed to single-family homes. Transit did not materialize, which has meant traffic congestion in a community built for walking.

Prices start at about $450,000 for a three-storey, three-bedroom single-family home in a duplex, said real estate agent Raja Lehal of Century 21 Coastal Realty.

Surrey school board chair Laurae McNally first ran for the board 28 years ago as a mother upset about her child's overcrowded classes. Not much has changed. Surrey currently has 260 portables for the overflow from the schools.

The B.C. government, which has not provided money for new schools for more than five years, announced new initiatives last October but has yet to sign a cheque. Construction projects are stalling. Education Minister George Abbott spent Thursday in Surrey, touring schools and meeting with trustees. Ms. McNally walked away with the feeling that Mr. Abbott understood the district's needs.

The school board, municipal government, business community and parents speak with one voice on the need for support of new school construction, she said. They want the B.C. government to recognize what the 2011 census has made obvious. "We're out here and we're growing," Ms. McNally said.

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