The Civic Centre, is it really coming?

Where oh where shall the civic centre go?

It’s unfortunate this saga of lost opportunities, the best of course being a combination of The Burr and the prior city owned CIBC building next door. These two beautiful, historic buildings side by side, what better opportunity for historic Columbia Street? Sadly the CIBC building was sold off to a new owner who understood its value, walking past this building and looking in the window you see an amazing example of architecture.

Next it was 801 Columbia Street, this was it, this was where the long promised civic centre would go. Expropriation was even started, they were serious this time! But six months later after it’s in the city’s possession, suddenly the site is too small. One must ask, with all the work and study going in to this, why was that not determined before the site was acquired? You go to the extent of initiating expropriation proceedings, then change your mind? If I was the former land owner, I’d be very peeved indeed, to be forced off a site which will only increase in value and now the city will not even use. Personally, I’d be lawsuit peeved.

Now we’re moving across the street, this site is the one! Really! I just pulled up Google Map to look at the two parcels, honestly, when you take the parking lot of the 801 Columbia site in to account, I can’t see much difference in width, and 801 is longer along 8th St.

Google street view of the new civic centre site

View Larger Map

And then we still have the historic Burr Theatre, what do we do with you? Sell her, it seems. Which with the potential loss of The Massey would be a horrific loss for the city. And I’ll tell you a little secret I’ve heard, the arts community in New West isn’t crazy about the “theatre” portion of the proposed civic centre. A convertible theatre with pull out bleacher seating (like the Roundhouse which it continues to be compared to) won’t actually meet the arts community’s needs. They need a THEATRE, not a Fringe Festival venue.

Opportunity still exists though. We’re told the only remaining option for The Burr as the basis for the civic centre would be incorporating the Army & Navy site. However to quote this week’s Record, “but the city has known for years that the retailer is interested in redevelopment of its own in the future.” Alright, why do those have to be separate initiatives?

How tall with the new civic centre be? Two stories, three? When we continue talking of densification and better using our finite land resources, why would we use an extremely valuable piece of properly solely for a civic centre? Why not a fully integrated development?

Buy (or expropriate) the Army & Navy site. Build the civic centre on the bottom floors incorporating it in to The Burr. And construct this redevelopment above. We know any redevelopment of the site will be at least ten stories to begin with, combine the projects. Use the residential (or even office, we continue hearing about the shortage of office space in New Westminster) to help subsidize the civic centre. It’s the exact model Translink is being asked to use to help fund transit expansion, and has worked in other cities around the world. Use this finite land resource to it’s maximum potential.

Due to the grade difference, there’s another fantastic advantage, you get double the street frontage for completely separate uses. The Burr portion for example, Columbia is a theatre entrance, while Front Street could be a museum entrance, completely separate and not interfering with each others’ operations. Something not possible on a level site without stairs or an elevator to a second storey.

It would also show a commitment by the city to Front Street, something they continue to reaffirm, but such a development would put in to concrete action. For years businesses along Front Street have felt neglected, what better way for the city to show they’re committed to making Front Street viable over the long term?

Finally, we must take in to account environmental reasons, as one resident has said to me multiple times, reusing a building is a lot more environmentally friendly than constructing an entirely new one.

With all this drama and integer, land purchases, sales, and switching sites it almost makes you feel like there’s more going on behind the scenes we’re not privy to. But I hope that’s just one too many spy movie I’ve seen doing the talking.

My concern is in the end we’ll find ourselves with a civic centre that by trying to meet everyone’s needs will meet no one’s. By compromises such as having a theatre not able to sustain the level of theatrical productions the arts community wants to stage, the potential of civic life in New Westminster will be heavily diminished.

I hope I’m wrong, but it seems we’re yet again missing an enormous opportunity and abandoning one of the real gems of historic New Westminster.

First posted on Matthew Laird’s blog, Liquid Thoughts at

One Reply to “The Civic Centre, is it really coming?”

  1. Well Matthew we should make you an honourary member of The Save the Burr Coalition as you've basically taken a page from our proposal. The good news though is the Civic Centre does not have to be all in one building. Our proposal submitted to the city moved the arts centre component, with the attached DAC funding, to the Burr. There are many great reasons to do this but as far as we can tell no valid ones not to. Here are some of the pros.

    – Saving a beautiful and rare 1927 atmospheric theatre.

    – Get an arts centre up and running hopefully in 18 months versus maybe 4 years for the Civic Centre.

    – Environmentally 'the greenest building is the one already built' and the city could use it as a test

    model for geothermal energy. Recently very successfully done in a similar sized heritage building in


    – Provide economic stimulus for both Columbia St. and Front St. as the Arts Centre would be in the

    basement of the Burr facing Front St..

    – Directly across the street from the new Waterfront Park

    – Parking. The stairs from the parkade would deposit you at the entrance to the arts centre.

    – The building is very sound (concrete not brick) and the city has already spent a couple hunrded

    thousand in upgrading the roof, HVAC, and electrical.

    – The city already owns it!!

    – It will be cheaper to renovate and upgrade the Burr than to build a comparable new Arts Centre plus

    you get the bonus of a 240 seat, 8000 sq. ft. heritage theatre and a 3500 sq. ft. banquet space.

    – Provide dedicated theatre space with full access to the community for a wide variety of uses such as

    cinema, film festivals, family matinees, live theatre, music concerts, recitals, school productions, etc..

    – Did I mention the money is there to do this!

    Cons… ?

    Bottom line is it just makes sense fiscally, socially, and environmentally. Period.

    We (the Save the Burr Coalition) are trying desperately to get city staff and council to see the incredible, once in a life time, opportunity here but we need everyone's help. Please visit our website at to find out more information and sign our online petition. Or the best thing is to contact Council by e-mail or phone or however and let them know that you support this vision.

    The decision may be as soon as the Nov. 9 Council meeting so time very short!

    Jim Forgie

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