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Condo towers near Central City centre in downtown Surrey, British Columbia on March 15, 2017. (BEN NELMS for The Globe and Mail)

Ben Nelms

Michael Heeney sits in a booth in an old diner on King George Boulevard in Surrey, B.C. It’s the kind of place with a pie stand on the counter and linoleum on the floor.

In his new position as president of the Surrey City Development Corp., it is where he takes visitors “from out of town” – by which he means Vancouver.

As most in the region are well aware, Vancouverites live in a navel-gazing world that doesn’t extend far beyond their eastern border. But as the city’s housing prices show no signs of adjusting to average incomes, Vancouver is no longer the centre of its own universe. In fact, the centre of population growth has shifted eastward, to New Westminster, which sits amid a nexus of SkyTrain stations.

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According to Mr. Heeney, in the not too distant future, that centre will shift again, this time across the Fraser River to Surrey.

Surrey is the second largest city in British Columbia, and is growing by nearly 1,000 residents a month. It’s a magnet for families, with one-third of its population under the age of 19. It also has a higher median household income than Vancouver, Burnaby, North Vancouver, New Westminster, Richmond, White Rock, Langley and Coquitlam, according to recent Statistics Canada census data.

In 20 years, Surrey is on track to be the most populated city in B.C. It means they are building a city from the ground up, Mr. Heeney says.

As principal of Bing Thom Architects, he was a lifelong Vancouver office occupant, until last fall, when he started his new job and moved into an office in the tower he helped design at Surrey City Centre, in the same complex as Simon Fraser University’s Surrey campus.

As chief of the SCDC, he is now tasked with turning central Surrey into an urban oasis, an escape from the over-priced and congested Vancouver. He knows he’s got his work cut out for him. Part of the job is to get government to take notice of Surrey’s transition from a rural farming and bedroom community into a place with jobs, affordable housing and arts and culture.

It frustrates him that Surrey is increasingly shouldering the weight of Vancouver’s affordability crisis, as people move eastward. It means the city needs to build the infrastructure and amenities that go with that – on a fraction of Vancouver’s budget. And so, they are playing catch-up.

“Psychologically, the region doesn’t recognize what’s happening here, so it’s not getting the attention and funding it needs, from Metro, the province and federal levels, to catch up. They just don’t think of it,” he says.

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“But provincially, in this last election, where so many of the seats the NDP won were in the Surrey area, that may be changing a bit. People are recognizing that Surrey is something they have to pay attention to.

“I guess where I’m coming from is I’m keen to educate people that there’s a whole world outside of Vancouver – and it’s a bigger world than Vancouver.

“People don’t realize that the centre of the region is rapidly moving to the south side of the Fraser River,” he adds. “It’s been steadily lurching southeast. The density around SkyTrain stations in Vancouver and Burnaby has slowed it down and moved the dot back a bit in the last few years, but it’s eventually going to come here.”

He makes the point that Surrey is 2½ times the size of Vancouver. That’s another challenge: Uniting Surrey’s six town centres, including Whalley/City Centre, Guildford, Fleetwood, Newton, Cloverdale and South Surrey.

“So not only are we growing like crazy, we have to service an area 2½ times the area of Vancouver,” Mr. Heeney says. “A good chunk is agricultural, but it’s still got to be done. So we’re doing our best to focus around transit.”

Good, reliable transit has come slowly to Surrey. Mr. Heeney commutes from his Kitsilano home to his Surrey office by bike and SkyTrain. It’s not lost on him that it is easier, and faster, to commute from Kitsilano to his office than it is for him to commute from his office to the Surrey neighbourhood of Cloverdale.

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A Translink light rail project is in the final approval stage, with construction expected to be complete by 2024. That initial phase of the rail system will connect the city centre with the dense town centres of Guildford and Newton.

Because the municipality doesn’t have a core, they’ve had to build one in Whalley, which has become Surrey City Centre. Since they’re working from a blank slate, they’ve had to be resourceful.

Surrey doesn’t have the old character buildings like New Westminster or the scenic landscape of Port Moody. But it is central, and in recent years it has attracted Simon Fraser University and Kwantlen Polytechnic University.

And contrary to its suburban image, it has also got a higher percentage of multi-family housing than single detached housing. The majority of Surrey residents live in duplexes, townhouses, condos, and detached houses that have been converted to more than one housing unit.

The major developers are responding to the shift in population, including Concord Pacific, Bosa Properties and Anthem Properties. Rize Alliance, the developer that is completing Mount Pleasant’s first tower (a major controversy), is investing heavily in central Surrey, with a scheduled 1,500 units of housing to come online in the next few years.

The company has been working in Surrey since 2012, and has three new projects in the works.

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“We are bullish in Surrey City Centre particularly,” says Chris Vollan, president of Projects for Rize Alliance. “We are finding a strong young end-user is buying homes in Surrey City Centre. We are seeing Surrey has done the right thing by putting the infrastructure in place, and developers are following because there’s an interest from buyers to live there.”

That interest is predominantly from the 25- to 40-year-old demographic, including a lot of single professionals, young couples and families, he says. There are some investors, but it’s overwhelmingly end users. It helps that Surrey City Centre is a half hour or so from downtown Vancouver by SkyTrain, although the goal is to attract more jobs to the region so that people don’t have to commute.

“It is the most affordable transit hub, by about $200 to $500 a square foot,” Mr. Vollan says.

He compares Surrey’s $700 or so a square foot price to Brentwood, which is around $1,100 and New Westminster, which is about $900. Metrotown is around $1,200 and Joyce Station in Vancouver is around the same.

The company is about to launch presales for the second phase of its Wave project at 133 St. and 104 Avenue, called Linea. It includes condos and town homes and is scheduled to be completed in 2019. It’s one of a slew of condo towers coming on line in the City Centre.

In the last five years, there has been more than $1-billion worth of projects in Surrey, and 20,000 housing starts, according to the city.

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The developer snapped up one of the few heritage buildings in the city centre, a low-level 1969 medical building on King George Boulevard. They intend to restore and reuse it as commercial, with a residential tower to the rear, if it passes a rezoning application.

“It’s a classic mid-century building, straight out of Palm Springs,” says Mr. Vollan.

It’s not protected, so they could tear it down, but they know it’s more marketable if preserved. They’ve also purchased a large site at 101 Avenue and Whalley Boulevard, which is also in the early stages. For that project, they’ve hired U.K-based architect Alison Brooks.

Don Luymes, director of strategic initiatives for the City of Surrey, has been working on the city for eight years. He’s involved in special projects, including the light rail system and better road connections.

He says a huge challenge in creating a walkable urban network is the existing big-box stores with massive parking lots, and strip malls and car-centric thoroughfares. They are impediments to walkability.

But conversions of shopping malls into incredibly dense mixed-use hubs are a trend happening throughout the region. He cites the towers planned for Oakridge, Brentwood, Lougheed Town Centre and Richmond Centre as examples. It will also happen in Surrey, with emphasis on getting people out of their cars. New transit will help, but he knows change won’t happen overnight.

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“For instance, there is a big development site with a Canadian Tire and Save-On Foods and other fast food restaurants in a giant sea of parking, and that site is now being redeveloped for seven high-rise condo towers, with lots of commercial retail and office,” he says.

The ultimate goal is that Surrey attracts jobs the way that, say, Mississauga has, so that it becomes a work destination, with a solid tax base - the livable alternative to Vancouver.

“The vision is to create a city that’s more complete, that has its amenities and specialized job focal points,” Mr. Luymes says. “So that it’s a place that more and more people can live a full and productive life.”

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