Justin Turcotte is the new face of New Westminster.
The 29-year-old filmmaker and his wife, Jaycey, moved to the city last year from East Vancouver. They bought a home in Sapperton because they could afford it, something they could no longer do west of Tenth Avenue.
But moving to New West hasn’t cost them the urban vibe they loved in East Van, says Turcotte. “It really doesn’t feel like a suburb.”
Realtor James Garbutt says he’s seeing more and more buyers looking at New Westminster as a real alternative to Vancouver but without giving up the amenities of city life.
In fact, 22 percent of visitors to open houses he’s conducted in New West are from Vancouver, says Garbutt, whose team has been tracking the numbers for months.
For detached single-family homes sold up to October, 2016, 51 percent of the buyers’ agents were from Vancouver, suggesting their clients likely are as well, says Garbutt. For condos, 36 percent of the buyers’ agents were from Vancouver.
Overall, 39 percent of buyers’ agents were from Vancouver. The next biggest source was New Westminster-based agents—13 percent—often representing residents who’ve chosen to stay in the city. Burnaby and Coquitlam were the next biggest sources for home buyers, with about 11 percent each.
“In New West, our main sources of buyers are coming from more expensive markets, primarily Vancouver,” says Garbutt. “However we are seeing a trend that New West is a sought-after community for residents in the Fraser Valley who are looking to relocate closer to Vancouver. They accounted for about nine percent of the buyers’ agents.”
New Westminster is no longer a secret, says Garbutt. “It’s centrally located, there’s a great sense of community, and, quite frankly, it’s the most affordable community to buy into that’s within 30 minutes of Downtown Vancouver.”
Many of the buyers he’s met are young, urban professionals, some with young families, says Garbutt.
Like Anna Horvath. Even though she grew up in New Westminster, it’s only when she started shopping for her first home she realized her appreciation for what the city offers.
“I thought New West was for retirees and well-to-do families,” says Horvath of her perception of the city when she was younger.
But as she looked for a home of her own, she started to see New West through a different prism.
“More and more younger professionals as well as younger families are attracted to the area,” says Horvath.
After considering areas like Gastown, Chinatown, and Mount Pleasant in Vancouver, Horvath realized there’s no place like home. She bought a condo in the Trapp + Holbrook building on Columbia Street.
“The area needed to have a sense of community,” says Horvath of her requirements for her new home. “I wanted it to be on a transit line and no bridges between my place and the downtown core. I did not want to spend most of my disposable income on a mortgage.”
The city’s changing demographic comes with difficulties, says its mayor, Jonathan Coté.
“It certainly does present a challenge to be able to anticipate that services are in line with the growing population and demand,” says Coté.
To meet that challenge, the City embarked on a three-year process to update its Official Community Plan, a kind of roadmap for growth that was last visited in the 1990s. New Westminster’s population—currently at around 67,000—is expected to exceed 104,000 by 2041.
Developers are jumping aboard.
Bosa Developments recently submitted its proposal for two tall towers between the River Market and Pier Park, joining its RiverSky project currently under construction next to the Inn at the Quay. Aragon and Wesgroup are also adding major projects to the city’s skyline. Onni is in the final phases of its massive Victoria Hill development.
But to manage the city’s growth, it needs a variety of housing options, and infrastructure like schools, transportation, recreation, culture, and jobs, says Coté.
“The Official Community Plan is definitely a document that guides us how the city will transform,” says Coté. “The timing is perfect for a city in our stage of growth that is starting to become attractive.”
One key component is the city’s new Family-Friendly Housing Policy.
It was sparked by a 2015 City of New Westminster supply analysis that ranked New West 21st out of 22 Metro Vancouver communities for ground-oriented housing and 20th for housing options with three bedrooms that are more family-friendly.
But the need for family housing is growing. Census data from 2011 shows an 11 percent increase in the number of families living in New Westminster compared to 2006. Of neighbouring communities, only Surrey and Coquitlam saw a larger jump, and BC’s overall increase was just 6 percent.
Matt Lorenzi knows the frustration of finding a family home in New Westminster only too well. He spent about a year searching for a new, larger home that could accommodate his growing family, his budget, and his desire to stay centrally-located in the Lower Mainland as well as close to transit.
“We wanted more space, something as modest as a third bedroom or spacious den,” says Lorenzi, whose family of four could no longer fit into their one bedroom plus den apartment. “We knew the supply of three-bedroom condos was limited. But we didn’t really realize just how limited it was until we started our search.”
After a series of consultations with residents and builders, the City enacted a new bylaw that mandates new multi-family projects must dedicate at least 30 percent of units to two and three bedrooms with at least 10 percent of the total comprised of three-bedroom units.
New multi-family rental buildings must also include a minimum 25 percent two- and three-bedroom units, with at least five per cent of the total comprised of three-bedrooms or more.
The bylaw, the first of its kind in British Columbia, came into effect on January 1, 2016.
So far developers have been receptive, says John Stark, New Westminster’s acting manager of planning. “There is a realization in the development community that three-bedroom units appeal to a wider market segment, like extended families and young professionals looking at shared living arrangements.”
In fact, says Stark, some projects that have been submitted by builders in the past year are even exceeding the mandated requirements for two and three-bedroom units. One of those is a new condo development planned for 100 Braid St.; 26.1 percent of its units will be two-bedrooms and 13.5 percent will have three bedrooms.
Stark credits an ongoing dialogue with developers as well as some key compromises, like not requiring the third bedroom to require direct light from a window, for the smooth transition. He says the city is committed to gauging the ongoing success of the bylaw and adjusting it if necessary.
“We’re still in the early days,” says Stark.
“The Official Community Plan allows the city to be in a better position to plan and ensure that growth will benefit the city and the people who are moving here,” says Coté.
That gives Lorenzi hope his family will be able to stay in New West, even as their living requirements change. After a year of searching, and flirting briefly with the idea of moving to Port Moody or elsewhere, they were able to find a suitable condo in Victoria Hill.
“Over the eight or nine years prior to moving (to Victoria Hill) we grew to love New West,” says Lorenzi. “The city should encourage a mix of housing, especially larger units for growing families.”
Justin Turcotte says he’s confident moving to New West was the right choice.
“It took a bit of warming up to the idea of living so far from Vancouver,” says Turcotte. “We’re discovering new things about the city and have been pretty impressed by what we’ve seen so far. I definitely still think that it’s only going to improve and offer more.”
Anna Horvath says she’s also feeling good about her decision to stay in New West, close to family and the friends she grew up with.
“It ticks most of the boxes.”
New Westminster is changing, and this is a critical time in its transformation. Planning that recognizes growth, embraces the city’s diverse demographic, and a drive to adapt will ensure it continues to thrive and be a great place to live. Who will be the face of New Westminster in 2041?