Hyack Square’s so-called “Revitalization”

By now we've all heard gripes about the so-called Hyack Square revitalization project, just recently completed with a replaced overpass grand re-opening this month. ince the grand reopening of Hyack Square, criticism has come on multiple levels. Now that it's all open, however, it is an evident lack of criticism that concerns me most - lack of criticism of the replacement of a totally inaccessible pedestrian walkway to a now public facility that has no other safe wheelchair or stroller [...]

Dear TTTF Readers: I wrote this post sitting in a coffee shop only a stone’s throw from the infamously barren Hyack Square. I had every intention of publishing it right then but didn’t primarily because I didn’t want to just join the chorus of disappointment in the square’s reno if there was a movement afoot to fix it or if there was something in the works. This week we heard from Will at a recent council meeting that time and cost had limited the square’s final appearance – reminding me that other considerations are always at play. The City’s laudable Wheelability Project has inspired me to put this post out there as my contribution to the fresh discussion this initiative has raised about making New Westminster more welcoming to all. After all, if as a city we are going to undertake construction of public spaces, shouldn’t we also ensure that all of the public can make use of them?

By now we’ve all heard gripes about the so-called Hyack Square revitalization project, just recently completed with a replaced overpass grand re-opening this month. Last October, the whole square was closed for renovations made possible by the BC 150th Anniversary “Spirit Squares” project, in which Mayor Gordon Campbell contributed more than $382,000 to an estimated $1.5 million upgrade the square in time for the 150th anniversary celebrations for New West and the Province of BC. The proposed renovations were to include “a possible water feature, band shelter area for celebrations and an amphitheatre incorporating stairs, leading to the pedestrian overpass.” Since the grand reopening of Hyack Square, criticism has come on multiple levels. Now that it’s all open, however, it is an evident lack of  criticism that concerns me most – lack of criticism of the replacement of a totally inaccessible pedestrian walkway to a now public facility that has no other safe wheelchair or stroller access, as part of the renovation of Hyack Square. Despite the $1.5 million spent on this project ($200,000 over budget and $50,000 spent on art), the square is now LESS wheelchair, stroller and disability accessible than it was before (due to the construction of more stairs that are ostensibly amphitheatre benches). Since the construction of the Westminster Quay Public Market and the redevelopment of the Quayside area in the mid-80’s, level, safe access to this new public space on other side of the railroad tracks has been difficult for pedestrians and tourists. If you can’t do stairs because of a mobility impairment, age or the need to use a stroller or grocery basket, street access is not an option for you. The pedestrian overpass has several flights of stairs on either side of the railroad tracks making it completely inaccessible to all but the most able-bodied people and those without small children in tow. Given that ours is a city of elders and young families, this seems like quite a large proportion of the population to exclude when building an access route to the City’s biggest attraction. This lack of attention to accessibility is even more curious given that the Quayside Drive social housing co-operatives have some of the only adapted housing for people with disabilities in the area.

View Wheelchair Access in Downtown New West in a larger map
There are two alternate routes to the Quay area from the other side of Columbia Street. The first, and shortest, clocks in at 499 M (almost twice the distance of the route over the pedestrian walkway, 264 m), a route which goes from New West station to Columbia Street, and up three blocks to Begbie. At Begbie and Front Street there is a complex intersection involving crosswalks across Front Street, the BCRail tracks, and the tail end of Quayside Drive. The three sets of tracks themselves are difficult to traverse in a stroller or wheelchair, each of which has a gap of approximately 4cm. This is wide enough for my wheels to sink into, and the uneven pathway has caused accidents for myself and people with canes and strollers. The third crosswalk is frequently blocked by cars backed up from the train crossing waiting to go across Front Street – and if there’s a train crossing, this route to the Quay is unavailable for up to a half hour. Another route leads down Carnarvon Street to the McInnes Overpass. I tried to get a % on the grade of the slope from the south side (from Carnarvon) but couldn’t find anything easily available online – what I can tell you is that I am a very strong, active wheelchair user with arguably more power going up hills than most manual wheelchair users and stroller pushers, and the north end of the overpass is just on the edge of my ability to wheel up independently. And that was before the scaffolding was put up over that part of the overpass to allow for construction. More bad news: this route is more than three times longer than the Hyack Square overpass route, 798m vs 264m. It involves two very steep grades and a long walk back through a scenic parking lot behind the Inn at the Quay. To give you a sense of the only transit solutions to this problem, check out the result I got from Translink’s Trip Planner when I put in FROM: New Westminster Skytrain Station TO: Westminster Quay Market:

Picture 2 The C4 doesn’t even stop at the Westminster Quay on the other side of the railroad tracks. The closest it gets (except for non-specified “limited service only” is Quayside at the McInnes overpass (note that I think that Translink’s TripPlanner has produced very strange results here, all requiring a trip from NW into burnaby first.) All the more reason to ensure that a $1.5 million renovation of the small square at the foot of the pedestrian overpass and the gateway to the Quay incorporated ways to provide safer, more direct and usable level access to the Quay.

Even more worrisome is the city’s continuing plans to improve upriver – this powerpoint presentation from a June ’09 workshop on proposed developments for downtown and the community consultation results received provides an interesting view into the City’s understanding of what “accessibility” means – given that two more “access” routes are planned for future developments toward the foot of 6th street on the newly-acquired riverfront… and both involve stairs. There is no doubt that this is a difficult access issue to solve, for the city, developers, and for transit. It’s not a new problem, either – but at least until the Hyack Square “revitalization,” they had the excuse that it was done in a previous age, that the overpass was too old to change and that there were no funds earmarked for this type of project. The minute the Hyack Square project involved replacement of the overpass, I believe the onus is on the City to replace it within existing BC Building Code, which dictates that new additions to existing buildings require wheelchair access to main entrances. This building project doesn’t fit perfectly into the Building Code’s provisions on wheelchair access, but to claim there is no requirement would be to use legalism to get out of a civic responsibility: the fact is that this city landmark and tourist attraction provides only vehicular access to those who can’t climb stairs, and puts many, many wheelchair users, stroller pushers, and those with other mobility impairments at risk every year by forcing them to two other very sub-standard alternatives for crossing the railroad tracks. So what could be done? It’s a tough one for sure – but if I can come up with three options, how many more could trained city planners and active citizens come up with by putting their heads together?

    1. Re-design the overpass to incorporate a lift on the north side, from hyack square to the pedestrian overpass. This could be arranged to be a daytime-only service, locked out by maintenance personnel for the Quay building at night, removing some of the risk of vandalism and abuse. The south side could either have an elevator or be re-aligned to incorporate a combination of ramps to allow entrance to the Quay building. Perhaps this could be designed to construct an elevator providing service to the ground level entrance of the Quay, as well as the 2nd level entrance and the pedestrian walkway – making it possible to enter the Quay restaurants after the market (where the building’s only elevator is located) itself has closed. 2. Create a cost-sharing agreement between the City of New West and Translink to provide frequent, uninterrupted shuttle service between the door of the New West Quay and either Columbia or New West Skytrain Stations. There have been several short-lived attempts at Quayside bus service to the Quay itself, however none have lasted, presumably for cost and volume reasons. This agreement would see the Parks Department subsidize provision of this route in order to make up for the lack of access by other routes. 3. Create a separate crossing over the railroad tracks directly from the platform of New West Station that either joins the pedestrian bridge or provides a separate route of access.

Jocelyn Tomkinson

Jocelyn Tomkinson is a really valued member of the Tenth to the Fraser community. Interested in joining our pool of writers? Please see these submission guidelines.


  1. 50k on art? Seriously? Dear lord. The "native" art community should be ashamed. It cost less than 10k in resources to choose and install that totally uninterpretive work.


  2. The 'art' does have one thing in common to the square; it is somewhat 'inaccessible'! There is indeed a fine art to creating lovable public sculpture. Perhaps we just need more practice.

  3. While I completely agree there are serious accessibility issues getting from Columbia Street to the Quay which must be addressed, there are a few minor points I wanted to make.

    First the level crossing, I agree this is in a sad state of disrepair, even cycling over it on the road section I worry about getting caught in the gaps for the rails. The pavement between the rails has been allowed to deteriorate and become uneven and the flangeway filler needs replacing. This should be a priority project if this is indeed how they expect those in wheelchairs or with strollers to access the Quay.

    As for transit service to the Quay, there actually is an option for most of the day, Translink’s trip planner is just lacking in an ability to find it. All eastbound C4s between the hours of 9am-3pm and 6pm-midnight go via the Quay Market and actually stop right outside the Fraser River Discovery Centre. You might say eastbound doesn’t help those coming from Skytrain, however thanks to the recent route extension via the IGA, if you board the C4 on 8th St at five minutes before the hour or half hour during the hours I listed above, you can take the C4 from NW Station around Quayside Drive directly to the Fraser River Discovery Centre.

    Yes, it might be a bit of a round about way, probably about a 10 minute bus ride for what would be a 3 minute walk for an able bodied pedestrian, but the option does exist. Of course I won’t even get in to the issues I’ve raised in the past with high floor Community Shuttle buses and the challenges they present for those who aren’t able bodied. If we have a mandate all new standard buses shall be lowfloor, why does that not apply to Community Shuttles? Anyhow….

    The final point was to do with Plaza 88. Assuming the developer doesn’t try to cut back on what was originally promised, there is a plan for the retail development to have a level plaza from Skytrain platform level straight across to the McInnes Overpass. As you indicated, this is still the long way to get there, leaving you approximately two blocks from the Market when you reach the far side of the overpass, but it will remove the need to hike up the northern side of the overpass. Those who need it will be able to use the Skytrain elevator, exit at the platform level and head straight across to the overpass.

    The long term solution would be an overpass from the Skytrain (new civic centre if the city elects to go with that site and not save The Burr) straight across Columbia and Hyack Square to the existing overpass. But sadly that’s many years away.

  4. Matthew: I didn’t know the new civic centre was planned at the SkyTrain site. That’s a great location. an elevator-accessible overpass from there to the Quay would be ideal.

  5. I do think art, as a word when applied to Hyack Square should be in quotation marks. For example: “the ‘art’ at Hyack Square was budgeted at $50K”.

  6. Twitter Comment

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    @kenhardie wondering why there isn't more regular bus service to Quayside Dr. given many obstacles to disabled locals: [link to post] – Posted using Chat Catcher

  7. I was wondering that myself – It's very likely given that a chunk of the money was from the Province of BC "spirit squares" initiative, but there have been several pots of money that opened up in relation to the Olympics and 2010 Legacies now that were specifically to make BC's tourist attractions more accessible – I think the mandate was something like "Most accessible destination city" or something like that.

  8. **I should mention that the powerpoint presentation I mentioned in the post was taken down in the meantime since I wrote the post. I’m trying to get ahold of it, I’ll amend the post when it becomes available.***

    I’ll stipulate that the square itself is a bit of a tangle of competing issues – however I’m hoping that the debate about the square’s renovation and how the money was spent on it will be a good excuse to examine how and why existing public inaccessibility was ignored when it has been such a long-standing need.

    However we feel about the “art,” I’m curious to hear about how people feel about how the square’s funding was allocated, rebuilding something that’s already inaccessible, in light of access needs that pre-existed the reno. How do we prioritize? Can we really continue to call these “public spaces” if a significant section of NW’s “public” are systematically denied access? should it matter?

    Matt Laird brings up some good points about many potential projects that might be part of the solution for those visiting Quayside, but none address the problems for people coming from their homes on Quayside Drive to the station, or those coming back to the Skytrain Station from the Quay. (As mentioned, the issue of the Community Shuttles and their notorious inaccessibility is a matter for its own post.) The 10 minute drive, lack of service around rush hour (disabled people commute to work too!), and downright confusing schedule involving a looped route that changes based on the time you take it means that I’m not sure we can consider the community shuttles a practical, accessible alternative from Quayside Drive to the Skytrain Station yet.

    Matt’s comment about Plaza 88: “as long as the developer doesn’t cut back on what’s promised” exemplifies the danger in allowing private development to have sole responsibility for fixing existing inaccessibility to public spaces or resources. Case in point: the problematic wheelchair lift at Columbia Station. For years it was out of order because Skytrain did not own the lift and the commercial building owners who did were under no obligation to maintain it. It was out of order and unusable for I believe three years. With no wheelchair access to Columbia Skytrain Station for several years and despite complaints from all sides, (from what I understand) only a change in the commercial building’s ownership improved the situation, which remains problematic at best.

    For now, I believe that the only way to have an appropriate, secure access solution is for the City to take a lead in creating it and (if built by a private development) securing legal agreements around its use. I agree with Matt that a good near-term step would be to improve the Begbie street railroad crossing to make it safer and easier to navigate, install signage for wheelchair users directing them to “access” routes, and to undertake a consultative and engineering evaluation of the options so that commitments can be secured to fix the problem. We’ve put a few ideas out on the table – I’m sure there are more out there.

  9. To be honest, I kind of miss the old square. I thought it had more character. What it lacked was better lighting and programming to attract the public and discourage rabble. It was a bit of a lonely place, but I always thought having a coffee cart & cafe tables in summer would have been lovely there – and the summer music programming was an excellent idea.

    If given the choice, I would have supported a program of minor aesthetic and entertainment programming improvements, instead allocating funds in a way that provided better wheelchair & stroller access to the Quay.

    I wonder though if the terms of the funding were such that the money had to be spend on landscape/hardscape and “art” rather than on the Quay access.

  10. The overpass bridge belongs to the River Market just so you know.

    Has anyone looked at the plaque on the wall of the stair case?

    Seems Hyack Square has two names hmmmmmm?


  11. James – thanks for the comment. My understanding is that since the City took possession of the River Market, thus the overpass is theirs too. Following that, even if the overpass wasn’t the City’s to adapt, public funds were used to renovate/replace it during the Hyack Square reno, meaning that it would still need to follow building code.

  12. Not sure where that information came from but the city did not take over the River Market for certain. Hence the River Market owns the overpass to the top of the stairs. This is why the city only replaced the stairs on the side of Hyack Square.

    During the discussions around the renovation of Hyack Square the issue of accessibility was brought up (an elevator was out of the budget). We all agreed that the another way (ie over the tracks) had to be enhanced. Making it safer and well marked so that wheelchairs, strollers and seniors had a alternate way over the tracks. We have yet to see that happen! A number of other things did not get done for all kinds of reasons (we were told later) but that's history now.

  13. Jocelyn, James is right – the city doesn't own the River Market. It was bought by another private company. Thanks for the extra insight into the planning process, James.

  14. Hi James – thanks so much for the insight into how this all came about. This was the sort of info I was hoping to shake loose with this post!

    Perhaps it may seem reckless, but at this point I don’t honestly care who owns what anymore. That overpass has been there for so many years, as has the dilapidated railway crossing. I know that in order for anything to change, the actual owners of the property would have to be impressed with the need, and the money would have to be found… but I do feel that too often the “we only own half of it” sort of argument is used as an excuse not to deal with something. Much like the issue of the elevator at Columbia skytrain station that I mentioned in my post.

    Believe it or not, much of my life and access to public places is ruled by these sorts of ownership decisions – “we have no responsibility for that because we only own this much of it…” type of thing. I get that the city likely doesn’t have the money and definitely doesn’t have the ownership here, but what it does have is tax and (some) political power.

    How about:
    – a civic “public/private spaces” commission who could negotiate solutions for public spaces where there are concerns about parts of those spaces that are on private land (such as the River Market)
    – a tax break for tenants in “problem buildings” if they show proof of access upgrades?
    – incentives for developers to provide solid, consultative wheelchair access in their plans that involve public spaces (I’m thinking of the McInnes overpass and condo development here)
    – advocacy from the city with the province or local businesses to pressure them to make their properties adhere to basic accessibility.

    I realize that none of this is going to happen now while the economy is such a great excuse.
    The sad thing is that many of these problems would be dealt with by a federal law like the Americans with Disabilities Act. The fact that Canada has never had one standard by which we can hold others accountable to make all public spaces accessible has really set back our ability to welcome everyone into our communities.

  15. This might not be on topic, but I have to comment on how disappointed I am with the the Christmas tree in Hyack Square. The new square is very open, even bare, and could have accomodated a much grander tree. The one that is there now looks like it would be more fitting in someone’s living room. Even the star on top looks like it should be on a larger tree.

    I know that City funds are tight, but I really was hoping for a centerpiece for the downtown holiday display.

  16. Belinda: We're with you on that. We made it down to the parade just in time for the big Christmas tree lighting ceremony. It was something of a letdown at the big reveal to see such a small tree in such a barren square.

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