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Central City Mall on King George Hwy in Surrey, B.C.

Carmine Marinelli/Carmine Marinelli

Surrey Central SkyTrain station confronts the senses with mediocre suburbia: acres of parking lots, buses roaring to and fro, the occasional drug dealer, a smattering of nondescript retail operations, and a stream of traffic on the eight-lane King George Highway next door.

The only hint of urban sophistication is the curved tower on a far side of a parking lot - a combination shopping mall, university and office building designed by renowned B.C. architect Bing Thom. Nearby, another building designed by him is under construction, a library whose curved horizontal lines complement the tower.

But in spite of this uninspiring raw material, Surrey is determined to change the view into Canada's first successful suburban downtown.

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"It's important for us," says Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts, whose city is geographically the largest in B.C. with a population approaching half a million. "If you don't have one, there's no heart. You don't have that sense of place. People like to live in a place where they feel they belong."

To create that downtown, she's promised to move Surrey's city hall from its current semi-rural location to Surrey Central, along with building the library and a performing arts centre nearby. She's also offered tax breaks for those who build projects in the designated downtown core. And the city's planners are busy figuring out how to attract small retailers and renaming streets.

Ms. Watts isn't the only suburban politician trying to go urban. As Canada's growing metropolitan regions continue to absorb tens of thousands of new people every year, mayors and planners in the largest suburbs - those that would be listed as major Canadian cities if they weren't classified as satellites - are figuring out how to transform their one-time bedroom communities into independent urban centres.

Places like Surrey in B.C. and Scarborough, Mississauga and North York in Ontario are at different stages of this transformation, with unique targets for population and jobs in their future downtowns. Growing at rabbit-like rates and with populations already between half and three-quarters of a million people, each is preoccupied with the same question: how do you build a downtown where none existed before?

Many have tried in Canada. None have truly succeeded.

The Scarborough Town Centre is a giant mall on one side of its rapid-transit stop and a collection of tall towers with swathes of empty, open space between them on the other side. There's a thin band of townhouses and apartment towers on the outer edge of the small centre.

North York's "downtown" consists of a long, narrow strip only two blocks deep on either side of Yonge Street - immense towers facing Yonge, a layer of lower-rise apartments just behind that, and then traditional suburban single-family houses beyond.

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And in Mississauga, the most advanced of the suburban downtown efforts anywhere in Canada, the town centre still consists mostly of a large regional mall, called Square One, several grand new civic buildings constructed a quarter century ago (the kind of building boom Surrey is undertaking now), and large windswept plazas.

"I know that Mississauga has tried very hard. But from my point of view it's dismal. It's just awful," says veteran urban observer and former Toronto mayor John Sewell. "And there's great talk about how they're going to do it in Markham. But it's very difficult to create a downtown."

The second wave of downtown creators aims to learn from the failures of the first.

Surrey's chief planner, Jean Lamontagne, said his group realized long ago that it was going to take more than just sticking up a few big civic buildings, some office towers and some condos and thinking it was a downtown.

The distinguishing characteristics of downtowns, besides the fact that they're commercial cores, are two things people don't always think about: They're filled with pedestrians. And there are reasons to walk around because there are residences nearby and retail among the corporate towers.

So Surrey knows, first off, that it has to fix its streets, which are still based on a rural one-acre-grid pattern."In our plan, we're calling for a finer grid system," said Mr. Lamontagne, whose home town - Quebec City - is the country's premier example of a charming central city with small, walkable streets.

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Then Surrey has to make sure it has enough people living nearby to create a local population willing to walk around the city centre.

Currently, there are 40,000 people living in the blocks Surrey has defined as its city core. The plan is to increase that by more than 50 per cent, to 65,000, in the next decade.

Finally, it has to encourage those small, interesting shops - something that planners say is the toughest part of the recipe.

"The problem is the commercial is always the last thing that comes," said Mr. Lamontagne. To kick start the process, the city is contemplating acquiring a whole block where it can direct the redevelopment and ensure there is room for quirky places.

In Mississauga, which completed its Downtown21 plan last year, the focus is on building from what was already started by improving walkability, bringing in more kinds of retail to serve the existing population, and convincing developers that there needs to be a mix of building types and uses.

One positive development in recent months has been Sheridan College's decision to locate in the downtown, which will add another use and more variety. But there still needs to be more.

"There is a large resident population living around the centre, even though the environment is not very walkable," says architect Ken Greenberg, one of the consultants brought in to help with Downtown21. "Everyone has realized there has to be more shopping that is attuned to meeting people's daily needs: cafes, food shopping."

That's something the city has been working on with five major landowners in the centre. It has also been trying to get them to realize they keep building the way they have in the past, where one developer would only do office buildings, another only retail, and a third only condos.

"Our development industry has grown up specializing in one thing. The real challenge here is learning how to do all of those as a package," says Mr. Greenberg. "There doesn't have to be a mix in each building, but it does have to exist in the neighbourhood. And they've realized if they work together, it will be a success."

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About the Author
Urban affairs contributor

Frances Bula has written about urban issues and city politics in B.C.’s Vancouver region, covering everything from Downtown Eastside drug addiction to billion-dollar development projects, since 1994. More

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