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City builder

By Roberta Staley | December 1, 2015
City builder
Linda Hepner

As Mayor of Surrey, B.C.’s second-largest municipality, Linda Hepner must balance economic development with the demands of a young and growing citizenry

For many people, the din of construction – hammering, welding and drilling – outside their window is cause for stress. For Mayor Linda Hepner, such noises infiltrating her sixth-floor office at Surrey City Hall are welcome – the soundtrack of the fastest-growing metropolis in British Columbia. “I certainly expected growth, but the phenomenon that we see today is really exciting to me,” she says.

Less than a year into the job, Hepner is confronting the infrastructure challenges that come with the arrival of 1,000 new residents each month. Three decades ago, when she began working in administration in the Surrey City Manager’s office, the municipality’s population was 142,000. Today, it is 520,000. By 2021, Surrey is expected to surpass nearby Vancouver, becoming B.C.’s largest urban centre.

The influx consists mainly of young families drawn by Surrey’s low land costs compared to Vancouver and other neighbouring cities, Hepner says. Mindful of the pressure that this rapid population growth puts on services ranging from transit to recreation to healthcare, the city is pushing ahead with plans to ensure that its infrastructure keeps pace. In some cases, this means turning to innovative funding models to get the job done. Such efforts dovetail with a strategy to attract more businesses to Surrey so residents can work where they live.

A new $2.14-billion, electrically powered light rail transit (LRT) system tops the list of infrastructure priorities. The proposed 27-kilometre line would connect Surrey’s Newton, Guildford, Fleetwood and Clayton town centres, Kwantlen Polytechnic University, the local outpost of Simon Fraser University and the City of Langley to the east. This ambitious project is a major expense for Surrey, which, like other B.C. municipalities, is forbidden by provincial law to run a deficit. Transit improvements will not be funded through property taxes, Hepner vows. The city is still sourcing its portion of the LRT project’s total cost “with interested parties,” she says. Surrey will continue to work with the provincial and federal governments on funding; in September 2015, it received a federal pledge of up to $700 million.

Other must-haves include limited-stop articulated buses to help decrease the number of cars on roadways and link LRT stops. The goal is to have 220,000 Surreyites living and working within a five-minute walk of a transit connection point, Hepner says. Another priority is tackling congestion on major thoroughfares by widening roads to fix bottlenecks and accommodate more automobiles and bicycles, as well as improving sidewalks.

For Hepner, who expects that better transit will lure new businesses, efficiency is key to urban centres; people must be moved quickly and in a way that “shapes growth and provides opportunity for densification and development.” Surrey, whose 316-square-kilometre footprint makes it the largest municipality by area in Metro Vancouver, is shifting from single-family to multifamily housing. The city’s Official Community Plan calls for higher-density residential and commercial development in its six town centres and along frequent transit corridors. Increased density will result in more efficient delivery of services, Hepner says.

The benefits of transportation improvements also include lower pollution, explains the Mayor, who says shrinking the city’s carbon footprint is crucial. Surrey’s new organics biofuel facility, set to open in 2017, will feature a closed-loop, fully integrated waste management system that generates renewable natural gas to fuel waste-collection and operations-service vehicles. The city estimates that this plant will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 40,000 tonnes annually. Surrey has structured the project as a public-private partnership that will see consortium Iris Solutions design, build, partly finance, maintain and run it.

The city is also bolstering its recreational infrastructure to meet young families’ needs. Projects include the $32.8-million, Bing Thom Architects-designed Guildford Aquatic Centre, the Grandview Heights Aquatic Centre, a soccer centre of excellence, and a contemporary arts space and gallery in South Surrey. “We have a broader vision of a large performing arts centre in the city,” Hepner says.

Also in the works: a multipurpose recreation centre and library in the Clayton neighbourhood, an expansion of the Surrey Museum and a new Cloverdale Arena for hockey, skating and curling. “All of those capital expenditures are challenges that I have to meet,” Hepner notes.

Surrey’s youthful population is key to its prosperity, she contends. The city has the youngest population of all Metro Vancouver municipalities, according to the 2011 Canadian census, with 26 percent of residents 19 years of age and younger. “It’s an advantage, as we have the workforce that will be needed in the future,” Hepner says. “By extension, it becomes very attractive to business.”

Surrey is being proactive when it comes to creating an environment where businesses can flourish. Its Economic Diversification Strategy has four main objectives: to boost the ratio of local jobs to residents from 0.7 to 1; to create more balanced tax revenue by shifting from 70 per cent residential and 30 per cent business to a 60/40 mix; to foster a resilient knowledge-based economy; and to build a globally competitive and connected city. Surrey is focusing on five sectors identified as high-growth opportunities: health technology, clean technology, agricultural innovation, creative industries and advanced manufacturing. (The city is home to companies with expertise in satellite communications, robotics, 3-D simulation technology, and aerospace systems and subsystems.)

All of this planning seems to be working. A study released in June by Vancouver City Savings Credit Union named Surrey the top Metro Vancouver destination for starting a small business, citing its growing population and relatively low operating costs. This year, the city was also named one of the world’s Top 7 Intelligent Communities by the Intelligent Communities Forum, a New York-based think-tank. And in 2014, Surrey received an Open for Business award from British Columbia’s Small Business Roundtable.

For Hepner, success shows in the numbers. Every year, according to City of Surrey statistics, an average of 2,000 new companies set up shop in the municipality, which has the second-lowest business tax rate in the Lower Mainland after West Vancouver, she says.

Although she’s served three terms as City Councillor, Hepner admits that her new role has been a “learning curve” as she confronts high crime rates, congested streets, a dearth of rental housing and long hospital wait times. Meeting the health needs of this growing city is especially challenging. In 2013, the emergency department at Surrey Memorial Hospital was expanded, but an increase in patients quickly pushed it to capacity, according to the Fraser Health Authority. On the healthcare front, Surrey is developing solutions through the Innovation Boulevard project.

So far, Hepner’s biggest disappointment during her first mandate was the firm “No” from regional voters this past July in the Transportation and Transit Plebiscite soliciting support for a Metro Vancouver Congestion Improvement Tax. This would have hiked the provincial sales tax within Metro Vancouver by 0.5 per cent, boosting the region’s transit and transportation budget by $7.7-billion. Part of the money was earmarked for replacement of the antiquated Pattullo Bridge, which links Surrey to Vancouver and other Lower Mainland centres. The improvement tax would also have funded light rapid transit lines and enhanced bus and HandyDART services.

When it comes to affordable rental housing, Surrey faces the same shortage as neighbouring municipalities: “There’s going to be an urgent need for rental accommodations,” Hepner admits. However, Surrey’s densification strategy could help solve the problem by spurring more residential condominium development.

Hepner must support growth and attract business while nurturing a sense of community and ensuring that quality of life isn’t compromised. The Mayor knows that the decisions she makes today will help shape the Surrey of tomorrow. “It’s a challenge to make sure that what you are doing is going to serve the city well in the future,” Hepner says. “It’s always at the top of my mind.”

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