Westminster Pier Park: controversial, audacious and vital

Perhaps nothing better symbolizes New Westminster's often polarizing politics than the Westminster Pier Park project. The ambitious, even audacious, $25-million project involves reclaiming a long stretch of blighted brownfield bordering the Fraser River for a new public park.

The future site of Westminster Pier Park. Taken July 2010 by Dennis S. Hurd.
The future site of Westminster Pier Park in July 2010. Photo: Dennis S. Hurd.

The news came out today that the Westminster Pier Park project is a finalist in the Canadian Urban Institute Brownie Awards (Update: We won in the categories of sustainable remediation technologies and technical innovation!), which recognize leadership and innovation in sustainable remediation technologies and excellence in neighbourhood project development. It rekindled in me the pride I felt in our city when I first heard about the proposal for this project. I was also reminded, however, that no matter how successful the park might be, it is likely to remain highly controversial in the near future.

Perhaps nothing better symbolizes New Westminster’s often polarizing politics than the Westminster Pier Park project. The ambitious, even audacious, $25-million project involves reclaiming a long stretch of blighted brownfield bordering the Fraser River for a new public park.

A 3D visualization of the complete Westminster Pier Park
A 3D visualization of the complete Westminster Pier Park

Even with two-thirds of the project bill covered by the federal and provincial governments, critics of the project blanch at the price tag, and fear that the cost could balloon if the site proves to be more contaminated than expected. But even at this cost, even if the cost goes up, what better omen for the future of New Westminster than to transform a tragically damaged ecosystem into a verdant oasis downtown?

This isn’t just another local park project. Westminster Pier Park is another beacon of hope that transformation can occur, that the mistakes of the past can be reconciled if not undone. As one of the oldest cities in B.C., the New Westminster of today is burdened with many mistakes made in the past, not only contaminated sites but forgotten cemeteries, historic institutionalized racism, and more. The true test of our city’s (and citizens’) character is what we collectively choose to do about it.

As John Wooden famously said, “If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not doing anything.” I don’t believe in heaping ashes on our heads over mistakes made by those who lived here long ago. All anyone can ever do is make decisions based on the best information available at the time. If our forefathers knew then what we know now, I’m sure they would have made some different choices.

Saddled with the mistakes of the past, it is up to us to decide whether we take responsibility to correct those things we do have the power to affect today. Ignoring New Westminster’s brownfields is an unjustifiable abdication of our responsibility to this place we love. I am proud to live in a city that has the chutzpah to take on the challenge of rehabilitating abused sites like these when it would be so easy to simply look away.

Briana Tomkinson

Briana Tomkinson is a Montreal-based writer and original founder of Tenth to the Fraser. She really likes to write letters by hand.

Briana 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. Great park in North Van. Successful Market. Easy access in spite of trains. Good support from the businesses located on the waterfront. Can we afford to "Take Back" more River without a revenue stream? Don't think so!

  1. I can agree with the reclamation of a Brownfield and good on New Westminster.This Park Bomb was dropped on the Taxpayers as a surprise election announcement in 2009 without consultation, and is still the carrot hanging out there in 2011. Unfortunately the truth is 25 million is not the final dollar, try 50 million once complete. The area could have been developed with commerce and economic benefits in mind. But no, this Mayor and Council have once again created a tax drain which only benefits a few residents and more CUPE jobs, no economic benefits and no revenue to offset the costs of maintaining it.. A luxury we can no longer afford.

    1. John, those are some interesting points. Adding some commercial elements to a park provide some payback is a good idea. Some retail space, a multi-use facility for the public, and maybe an unobtrusive office building would certainly keep costs down, and would also bring more people to the park.

      I also think New West needs a convenient, cheap and fast way of getting people from Uptown to Downtown without resorting to a car. I really wish they would re-create the old trolley system, even if only in the summer. It would be a tourist draw, and would liven up the city. I'd love to spend more time at the Quay, but I don't want to drive, and the C4 is too inconvenient, and too pricey for a family of 4 on any day other than Sunday.

      If we had two or three interesting things (and I am not talking about a giant tin soldier), New West could be more than a bedroom community – it could be a destination.

      1. I agree the concept of a waterfront park, and reclaiming forlorne industrial lands for re-use, is a good one. But as seems to be typical of projects in New Westminster this one appeared out of no-where, was adopted without public debate, and seems unconnected to any overall economic or civic plan. A concept that tied the park into the refurbishement of Front Street, and associated the park with some economic focus – as in North Vancouver, would have reduced the fiscal impact on the city. But that would take serious planning and discipline. Too many projects in this city seem to be approved on a whim of the mayor and council – without much or any atttempt to create an overall plan for the community that they will stick to.

        1. I would argue that it is a central part of a well understood and publicized civic plan that has been shopped around for over 5 years and gained NWest staff awards from Urban Institutes etc.
          It is easy to say this is all the whim of so-and-so but the facts are the facts.

          1. Will, correct, facts are facts and possibly you need to dig a little deeper! Public was not even aware of this park until 2009. It was all done in the back rooms of City Hall. Voice NW brought it to the public prior to 2009 election and were accused of leaking documents. Public consultation my ass.
            You should also wake up to the fact Labour now controls this City. I am surprised you don't. Talk about the Fox looking after the Chicken Coop. If you look at recent motions pased and how they benefit staff and Union Jobs, and to hell with you the Taxpayer, I am sure you understand, Red Herring or not.

    2. A park is hardly a tax drain, especially in a commerical area and especially one mostly paid for without city tax dollars. The park development opens the doors to higher property values surrounding it, greater buisiness viability for the commercial sites northwest and and downstream and delivers the punch needed for commerical / residential development just upriver and north around the 300 block of Columbia. It will be no more of a tax drain than Stanley Park or the new park at Coal Harbour by the Float-Plane terminal. It will benefit thousands of citizens and non resident business owners.

      Brining up CUPE is a red herring. not every issue is related to unions good vs bad. I am frankly tired of arguements that say New West Mayor and Council is 'hostile to unions' or is 'in bed with unions', especially on topics that have little to do with organized labour. It is devisive and off topic.

    3. John, you and Mike both mention a $50-million price for the park. Where are you getting that number? I spoke with someone from the city today who said that (so far) they are within the budget and timeline range they had projected.

      I don't know if you've seen the presentation online about the projected economic benefits of the park (link: http://www.newwestcity.ca/database/rte/Westminste…. Granted, most of them are intangibles (for example, making downtown New West a more attractive place to live and work, thus attracting more businesses and residents) but it does answer some questions. I also see that there is a space for a concession and they have planned space for a future restaurant to go in the park as well. I'm with the others here who would like to see a tasteful commercial element adjacent to the park. As for other economic benefits, I'm no economist, but I would think that transforming a brownfield into a park would improve property values in the area. If that occurs, it would increase revenue for the city via property taxes.

      I am glad that they're not just extending the Quayside condo city along that part of the river. Quayside is a lovely place to live, but the whole city will now benefit from this park.

      1. Briana, you are correct about the 25 Million particularly the point you made in brackets (so far).! Sorry I could not open link to the intangible economic benefits of the park..If my information is correct you might be aware that the small pier park lands are dwarfed by land east of the Quay and still owned by developers (Larco) who speak of a 5 tower complex between the park and the city. DCC's would have paid for a good portion of the costs and should still do so if the development moves forward. I would not be happy to find that later, the park become a selling point for a 5 tower complex at taxpayer expense.
        One would hope our new Mayor and Council do not move to buy those lands for a Pier Park extension. I know parks are important to you and good on you. Personnaly I feel we have enough parks and it's time to utilize what precious land we have to boost the economy in New West and create business and private sector jobs. This has certainly not been the mandate of our leaders.
        Briana, that was a short Sabtical! Welcome back to your Blog.

        1. It's funny, once I confessed to my internal conflict, it resolved somewhat. I still can't post as often as I want to, but my guilt over not doing so has eased a bit, so I've been able to write a bit more often. The moral support from the people who urged me to keep going helped too!

          I take your point about the DCCs, but I thought the reason why the park moved forward so quickly was because the City wanted to take advantage of the 2/3 funding match offered by the federal & provincial governments. If the city had waited, we would have missed out on that funding. Now, chasing federal funds alone is not a great reason to do something, but there is a solid rationale behind this project, so it makes sense to expedite things to take advantage of a time-sensitive opportunity like that. If developers do build something on the other side of the park, the DCCs will fund another local project. We have a long list of infrastructure and other improvements, so I'm sure it won't be hard to find a place to put those dollars! If the park does make it more attractive for developers to build nearby, it will also improve the city's overall economic standing, as formerly vacant land is turned into condos and businesses, thereby growing the City's tax base.

          You mention that you would have preferred to see that land used in a way that better boosts the economy in New West. What would you have preferred to see happen to this land?

          1. The land is not the issue as much as use of the River is for more than sitting on the wet grass, looking at it.
            A fishermans wharf for one. I know they say the river current is fast but I haven't seen the Paddlewheeler floating away as yet. A breakwater east of the Park would create a nice calm and active Marina.
            How about a small 15 passenger Ferry making stops at Port Royal, Wall Mart and the Casino. Oop's forgot Wallmart is boycotted by the Harper regime. It would have to be run by a free enterpriser oops can't do that either Fair Living wage kicks in and it would have to be subsidized by the city (taxpayer) to make it viable… November 19th May change all this.

          2. A private ferry enterprise would not be a city contracted service and would not be subject to the living wage bylaw any more than Greyhound drivers are. Besides, a ferry operator would likely get paid a reasonable wage.
            A small ferry dock wouldnt really need a breakwater but it would need a maintenance shed somewhere, perhaps near the Qbro shipyard.
            A marina would need dredging (every 2 years), a breakwarer and would be VERY expensive to build and maintain (emphasis on the maintain, just ask Inn at the Quay or any other marina operator). A marina also only serves a tiny fraction of the population, including some non-residents.
            Passenger ferry service to/from Qbro would best be accomplished using the current facilities downriver from the Discovery Center. There are three docks there to choose from.

        2. John, the link will work if you just delete the “)” from the end of the address.

          I suspect the $50 Million figure comes from <ahref =http://www.newwestcity.ca/database/rte/Westminster%20Pier%20Park%20Master%20Plan.pdf>this report </a >. See Appendix E. That $53M does not include purchase costs. That said, I’m not sure how that estimate done in 2010 fits the park as being built.

          I share John’s concerns about the Larco Property, but for almost the exact opposite reasons. I would rather see the area between the Pier Park and the Quay remain public space, as there is lots of underutilized development space in the City that isn’t right in the centre of our waterfront. I especially fear a 5-tower copy of Plaza 88*, with 4 stories of above-ground parking becoming a permanent barrier between our downtown and our waterfront. The vision the City has provided for the revitalization of Front Street is incongruent with a 40-foot concrete parking pedestal.

          Buying the Larco Lands or scaling down the development from 5 concrete high rises that will tower over our downtown to a more human development of mixed commercial uses might be a huge boon for the rest of the City. The reality, though, is that the Larco lands are probably not for sale, and the City Piggy Bank might not have room to purchase them, or even to provide other development space in the City for compensation for changing the plan.

          *Don’t get me wrong, Plaza 88 will be a great asset to the City when completed, but at the cost of urban design along Carnarvon Canyon. The fact those three “late Soviet” concrete towers are at the end of downtown and not right in the middle of it will lessen their Stalinist visual impact.

  2. This is going to be an amazing park. It will draw people from across New Westminster and more importantly, it will provide much needed green space and playground areas to the people who live in the downtown area. As an outdoor play advocate, I would argue that providing a boardwalk park where people can get outside, connect with nature, and be active, has immeasurable mental and physical health benefits.

    1. I agree that when (if) it is finished it will be a great improvement to the city. It would have been better had the plan been tied into a more coherent view of how to improve Front St. and integrate the park with the city – which will always be a problem so long as it is separated by the rail line. One still has to wonder whether this is an appropriate, or the best, expenditure of what will be in the neighbourhood of $50 million in tax dollars before it is done? A bit more public discussion before the city charged ahead with it would have been appropriate.

      1. From what I observe, council and staff are interested and willing to reunite downtown and our waterfront. You may recall that Councillor Cote invited sustainable development rockstar Dr. Kee Yeon Hwang to come tour our waterfront and discuss with interested local folk about his experiences transforming a freeway in Cheonggyecheon, Korea into a public park (Excellent recap on Green New West: http://greennewwest.blogspot.com/2011/04/on-being…. There are also numerous staff reports on other cities' experiences solving similar problems. I'm not an expert on this by any means, but as far as I understand, the barrier in New West is that the problem spaces (the railroad, the parkade) are not owned by the city, so it's more difficult to get all the pieces in alignment. It looks to me like it's starting to come together. I know just last Monday council approved a motion to accept a staff recommendation on how to mitigate train noise, integrate Front St and connect the waterfront with downtown. I haven't read through the council minutes, but the link is here if you're interested: http://www.newwestcity.ca/council_minutes/0919_11

        I also saw that there was quite a bit of public consultation about the park. We elect council with the understanding that they will act on our behalf so that we don't have to examine every single issue and vote on it ourselves. How would you have liked council to have handled public consultation differently?

        1. I don't think, if I recall correctly, that there was much consultation, if any, before the decision to proceed with the investment in the park was made. There was consultation after the fact reagarding the design, etc, but that begs the question as to whether this was the right project at the right time. There should have been a more thorough debate over the nature of the plan, the timing of the construction, and how it will integrate into the city. The fact staff are just now considering how to mitigate the train noise (not to mention the frequent occassions where access to the park and Quay from that end is impossible due to idling trains) is a sign that this wasn't a well-considered idea.
          I think it may turn out well – and certainly having a neglected part of the waterfront restored to public access is an improvement. But is it the best use of $25 million (which is, I believe, the cost for the first stage – not the entire concept of building the waterfront the whole way to the east)? If there was a debate about the options regarding this major expenditure it appears to have been done behind closed doors.

          1. I have yet to hear where the 'extra' $25 million is coming from! It's intellectually dishonest to set that as the number we're debating without backing it up. The best answer I've had yet is that the inflation is assumed, as this is a big project. But you can't have any kind of rational debate about made-up numbers. Either way it's a lot of money, and either way, work has begun and commitments have been made to complete it (under the requirements of the federal and provincial money). If it does turn out to be over budget (which does happen with these large projects) and work has to be scaled back then I do think it's worthwhile to have the debate about whether to spend *another* $25-million to realize the original vision of the park.

  3. It will be a miscreant mecca in no time flat. Crack-heads, B&E artists, any other low-life scum that otherwise would be prowling New Waste. Only 25mil? Good deal!

    1. I'm sure there will be occasional problems with graffiti, drug use and other crime, just as there are in every part of our city from time to time. If crime happens, our police will deal with it, just as they always do. By ensuring that the park is properly lit and offers activities and features to appear to many kinds of people, it should attract enough good folk to discourage chronic lawbreaking. Is the fear of that really enough to justify not building something with so much potential for public good?

  4. Any and every piece of waterfront developed for public access, use and enjoyment – especially as a park – will have huge benefits for our City and for future generations! Specific details and politics aside, I see Pier Park as a real plus and am looking forward to it's completion. A win-win for everyone and a huge improvement to the existing conditions on that site. What would the critics have done with that site??? Let's hope someone will have the vision to can continue the park eastward to connect with Saperton Landing Park! That would really be worth working for.

  5. Here I go again, coming up the middle as a pragmatist, not an ideologicalist. I love the idea of the pier park, taking back our waterfront has sorely needed, the length of time it's sat derelict is an embarrassment and was an economic hindrance. Of course I also say the same about the parkade, tear the bloody thing down already, it's a relics of the past and with the new "mall" opening, completely unneeded (and replaceable with future waterfront development, but I'll get to that later…). I'll agree the project might not have been initiated in the best way, unfortunately there are legal limitation set by the province regarding disclosures when it comes to business deals such as acquiring land. If the public had been out cheering "park! park! park!" what do you think that would have done to the sales price the seller was demanding? Regardless of how it was done, the park is coming and I don't think you'll find many people objecting to that fact, get over it, good things are happening, let's celebrate that.

    I hear others rumble about, "what about the Canada Games Pool, the Massey Theatre?" I say, yes. Yes we need those too. I was chatting with a council member a few weeks ago over coffee, this person was saying in all their surveys of residents taxes are low on the list of issues. The issue that comes up again and again is services, they want more, they want more parks, they want community centres, pools, it's not about cutting and downsizing, it's about building the city and community within it. I agree we need to stop the downloading from higher levels of government and use of property tax for many of these services, instead finding an more equitable way to pay for them. But the bottom line is these surveys show those who grumble about property taxes and cuts are a minority, put a list of projects in front of the average resident and they'll likely say yes to all of them. So let's figure out a way to give the people what they want rather than making excuses on why we can't.

    The Larco site is another eyesore that must be dealt with, not in 20-30 years, but within 5-10 years. I was musing with another poster on this thread the other night about the idea of up-zonings with sunset clauses. You want to upzone your land (as the previous owner did before flipping it to Larco), fine, but there's a time limit on that zoning, if you don't build/implement it in a set time frame, we're taking it and the added value away. Spell the rules out in black and white so they're perfectly clear, but basically to prevent this speculation and flipping of land without any actual intention of developing it. What benefit did New Westminster get by upzoning the Larco land, spending the money on staff and public hearings, only to have it sit vacant for another decade. That's the real issue people should be fuming mad about are developers camping on valuable land and holding back our city.

    I quite liked the model in City Hall almost a decade ago of the towers and raised street height. Lots of room for more parking (and other facilities like.. a public swimming pool, fitness centre, etc) under those pillars. I'm also of the belief that to revitalize Front Street as part of this redevelopment we should examine what Seattle did a century ago, raise the street height by one storey along parts of Front Street. Have the new platform of this Larco development come overtop of the rail line, have all the buildings on Front Street use their second storey as the new "ground" floor and use the old first storey as a service/access road for good/parkades in these buildings.

    Whatever the eventual solution for the Larco lands (the real issue in the NW waterfront in my opinion), something needs to happen soon. I really don't care if this company is patient and waiting for some magical dollar value, that's our waterfront and something needs to happen. Until that happens the Pier Park will be isolated and I agree there likely will be a number of crime issues, so let's stop whining about the problems this great new park will have and instead focus on redeveloping the rest of the waterfront NOW. Let's make a grand, positive vision, not sniping and attacking each other. New park, new pool, new library, new waterfront? Yes.

      1. That giant chunk of wasteland between the park and the Fraser River Discovery Centre. They biggest eyesore of New Westminster (well, second to the downtown parkade, and maybe third to the Plaza 88 parkade, but anyhow…)

    1. Hi Matt

      I wonder how many parking stall could be added by making parkade under the new Civic Center deeper.

      This would reduce the need for the Front St parkade.

      John Taylor

  6. Hi

    At first I though the park was a great ideal but as time goes on I am turning against it for the same reason I voted against the HST …..there is no transparency……New West spends $250,000 (that's $20,800 a month) a year on communication yet they can't tell us what is going on….far too much is going on behind close doors.

    The park started at $10,000,000 then it went up to $20,000,000 then $25,000,000. Once they decided the number could not be inflate more, the park was cut in half…it has not stopped there…..you haven't seen the bill for the improvements they'll be paying for on the Larco Land so people can get to the park from the Quay….yes the City will pay to upgrade private property or maybe they will work a trade. If the City pays to upgrade the Larco Lands in return Larco will put up part payment for the 6th St ramp? With Larco holding all keys to access the park who knows what they will be given….another tower!?

    Next add the recent reported to Council for the parkade demo, 6th St ramp and 3 rail crossings, surprise another $25,000,000…….wost part is all (yes I mean more than 1) the city owned property they've decided (the report is already written) is surplus and will be sold. They've made the land surplus buy cramming a theater, arts center and museum into one building. In 20 years when the Civic Center is jammed to capacity and all the land has high rises on it people will be saying who ever decided to sell the the Giro property it would have made a great library / museum.

    As part of the 6th Street report they want to close Front Street to trucks great idea but .the alternatives are Royal and 10th Ave, that sucks……it is astounding that to make a park these people would think it reasonable to divert commercial traffic from an area with few residences and no schools to one with much higher number of homes and 4 schools.

    They've work on these reports for months, and tell the consultants moths before that what they want. Then they think it reasonable to pop the report out 3 days before a council meeting and vote on it. This is not transparency nor how any democratic system should work.

    My wish is to know how much (without selling property) all the spending will affect my taxes. Right now it is hidden behind closed doors and like the HST will vote against it.


    Lets take a look…

    1. I agree with your points. One more cost Taxpayers will have to cover is maintenance…. One would guestimate at least 5 gardeners, garbage, graffiti, removal and another $100,000 + manager overseeing it. Matt's comment about economic hinderence confuses me. It will still be hindered by poor planning. What will come to this park to create economic benefit other than to sit and watch the water go by. Will it be a Tube steak cart like WAS at Hyack square… I think council approved only the one so far. As for the undeveloped rest of the parkt? A previous commentor raved about North Vans Pier Park, I agree 100%. Their planners deserve kudo's. Lots of history preserved and they actually have spots for boats to tie up and come to the Quay for lunch and shopping.. That is a park built for the benefit of all the City. Unfortuanately this council fails to see this, and failed to direct staff down the right path. The path to self sufficiency.

  7. I'll throw this out (like I did for the Civic Center having offices above to offset the costs. I understand that the revenue from that will be required to cover the cost of staffing the center). I just hope that the Convention Ceter portion will not be run by City Staff under the anti contracting out and exsessive wages under the so called Fair Living Wage. At least not until they move City Hall (downtown) as suggested by our Mayor some time ago.
    I envision 2-3 small paddlewheeler type taxi boats leaving the park/quay, stopping at Port Royal, Queensborough Landing, the Casino and returning to the Quay. The stakeholders in this would be obvious, (no, not the city other than lease arrangement). River Market, Paddlewheeler, Queensborough Landing and all that casino funding the city sucks up for pet projects to add to their assets. This is called Private Enterprise!

    1. John

      When the idea of the pedestrian bridge to Queensborough came out I wondered why there was talk of reconnecting people to the water yet solution to cross the river was a bridge. I wonder if anyone asked for proposals to operate a ferry system or had spoken to operators in False Creek.

      At most 4 ferries carrying 12 passengers (keep it under 12 people or the regulations change) would cost $200,000 ($50,000ea). On top of the boat cost there would be the cost of the ramp,float,pilings at each new location, $300,000 per location.

      My opinion (I'd love to hear other opinions) is that small ferries would be the best most cost effective year round solution. Imagine going for a warm dry "electric" boat ride vs. a cold, wet, icy walk/ bike across a bridge in winter or in the summer sitting down with a drink an enjoying a boat ride across the river. May even be a tourist attraction.

      New West would provided a number of passenger it would be great to try a stop across the river in Surrey or on Annacis Is.

      John Taylor
      Ironwood Boats

      1. Interesting idea, Johns. Not sure who will finance this enterprise. Is the Casino interested? I doubt the Paddlewheeler pub has the $ available to help out, but the River Market might. I
        I don’t see anyone from Queesnborough Landing standing up to support this.

        If it is a “Private Enterprise!”, it will require that tickets be sold, and that hours be kept to a minimum, limiting its use as a piece of transportation infrastructure (i.e. not a replacement for a bridge, which is available 24/7).

        I'm pretty sure the "False Creek Ferry" model will not work on a riiver where the average current is 4+ Knots, andcan reach 6+knots at some tide stages, regardless, let's use that and follow through on your math. If the boats + safety equipment cost $200k, that can be financed at $20,000/year. Let’s assume the end-of-trip facilities are paid by the destinations. Staffing costs could easily be $300K (assuming two boats with a trained marine pilot, and a “Swing shift” to give 8-hour/day service 7 days/week). Fuel, Maintenance, Insurance: Let’s be generous and say you can do the entire thing for $400K/yr. If we charge $5 per ride, that is 80,000 tickets, or 230 tickets per day, year-round. that's 20 full boat loads per 8-hour day, or a full boat every 20 minutes. That's a lot of tourists going to…uh… where are the tourists attraction on Annacis Islands again?

        I would rather see something that has little operational costs and connects Port Royal to the Quayside with a reliable, dependable connection: Sounds like a bridge to me.

        My recent post Doc Fest this Weekend!

        1. Hi Pat

          I'm not saying the ferries is best solution but wondered if they'd been considered. Things like current can be solved with design and horsepower. Crew, a boat with less than 12 passenger does not need a trained pilot. Tourist they take the False Creek Ferries for a fun easy boat ride.

          Do you have any numbers on the cost of a bridge?

          John Taylor

Comments are closed.

Tenth to the Fraser