United Boulevard Extension Open Houses

If you’ve ever wondered why Skytrain has a dip in the guideway along Brunette, it isn’t to create a roller-coaster experience, but was designed to accommodate an overpass connected to United Boulevard in Coquitlam with Brunette Avenue.

Translink has been offered matching Federal stimulus money to complete this project as part of the Pacific Gateway Project, and told they must commit to this project by the end of the year or the money will be reallocated elsewhere. As part of the design process Translink is asking the two affected communities, New Westminster and Coquitlam, to approve moving in to the design phase (and committing to build the project) before year’s end. Hence the rushed public consultation occurring now. However like in so many projects, the devil is in the details.

Before heading to NWEP’s Urban Transportation Forum last Thursday night (I was on the organizing committee), I spent an hour at Translink’s by-invitation-only stakeholder meeting about the United Boulevard Extension (which it’s important to note the media was explicitly told they weren’t invited). There are two public open houses for this project coming up, the first being this Thursday November 18th from 5:30-8:30pm at the Justice Institute.

At the stakeholders meeting four designs were presented, each costing between $152-175 million dollars. It should be noted the federal money being offered is only $65 million. This leaves Translink to come up with $87-110 million to complete the project. At a time when Translink is strapped for cash and can’t even bridge the Evergreen Line funding gap, the decision to fund up to $110 million for the UBE is difficult to justify.

Moreover, in Translink’s own materials regarding their 2011 supplemental plan the numbers don’t add up. Take a look at the Municipal Update, page 5. In the funding options being proposed right now to the Mayor’s Council Translink claims the total financial impact of the UBE project to their budget is $53.2 million. That’s no where near the minimum of $87 million Translink would need to build the most basic option for the UBE. Another “funding” gap to fill?

In their own Transport 2040 evaluation, their strategic plan to encourage mode shift and lower pollution, the UBE scores 6.5 out of 10. Far below almost every other project.

So in summary, even with increased revenue from property taxes or a vehicle levy, we can’t afford the project and it doesn’t achieve Translink’s goals. So why do they want to build it? Federal money.

Unfortunately, based on the language used at the stakeholders meeting, the main push to build this project is the federal dollars on the table. Multiple times over the evening there were comments suggesting that if Translink didn’t commit by the end of the year the federal government would take their money and invest it in another project was used.  As you hopefully learned as a 3-year-old, just because someone is offering you something free you don’t have to take it.  What also rang in my head when I heard this justification was, “Evergreen Line?” Sure we’ll take the money, but let us use it where our own regional analysis show it will be most useful. Who knows more about regional transportation issues, TransLink or Ottawa?

And it’s not even the first time a higher level of government has tried to use matching funds as an incentive to build this project, in 2003 the provincial government offered a similar deal and the region turned them down because they recognized it wasn’t in the region’s best interests.

So how does this all relate to residents of New Westminster?

First, the cheapest of the 4 designs shown to us that evening involved expropriating good size chunks of commercial and residential land in Sapperton all the way up to Rousseau Street. One design involved building a new regional truck/commuter route parallel to Rousseau, connecting at Braid and then routing traffic back down to Brunette. The approximate expropriation area for this option can be seen in the diagram below. In three of the four designs (which were also the 3 cheapest, so you can guess which we’re likely to get) there would be some kind of new interchange on the west side of Brunette abutting the residential neighbourhood.

However this isn’t simply a NIMBY issue. While all cities have a role to play in accommodating movement in the region, the UBE does not serve this purpose. Instead, it shifts congestion from regional highways into densely populated residential areas with no significant gain in mobility for drivers stuck in traffic. It also encourages a shift of mode back into cars from the more sustainable alternatives. This project may merit consideration if real solutions for existing traffic problems within New Westminster were put in place first, however we are still waiting to see if solutions for increased traffic in the New Westminster region are affordable or practical. This was illustrated 25 years ago when Hwy 91 was brought to the Queensborough Bridge and no capacity was created to handle traffic within New Westminster.

“So where will the traffic go?” someone at the meeting asked. This is where things got a little vague. TransLink would commit to fix the Columbia/Front Street intersection at some fixed date, but not as part of this project. Which brings up visions of the fixed date set for completion of the Evergreen Line, which was originally supposed to be 2011.

As for the rest of Front Street, TransLink said that would be dealt with as part of the Pattullo Bridge project, however again no commitment on what would be done or when. The city has stated very clear stipulations on what it wants from an upgraded Front Street in this brinkmanship game it continues to play with TransLink and the province. But once the UBE is built and the flood gates are opened, all our bargaining power will evaporate. We’re playing a very dangerous game hoping we can negotiate an unaffordable solution after a piece of the project which makes our traffic congestion magnitudes worse is completed.

The United Boulevard Extension is a potential disaster for traffic congestion in New Westminster. The proposed connector doubles the capacity for traffic to enter New Westminster from the expanded Hwy 1 and Lougheed corridors, while there remains nowhere for it to go except to overflow onto residential streets. The portions of the NFPR through New Westminster remain unfunded, and most proposals aired so far are grossly inadequate to deal with existing traffic volumes. While the NFPR is being advertised as a “goods movement” investment, it is reasonable to expect that a significant portion of the users of will be single-occupancy vehicles, as they are on Front Street today.

Many of these travellers may choose to use the new Evergreen line and greatly improved transit service if such a service were to be provided to the Tri-Cities areas. In this sense, TransLink’s investment in the NFPR directly competes with their investment in the Evergreen Line and other transit services, and delays the inevitable and necessary shift from automobile-dependent transportation to more efficient mode choices for people, a stated goal of TransLink. With a continued “Funding Gap”, and the Evergreen Line still unfunded 10 years later, why would TransLink have a desire to spend $87-110 million on the United Boulevard Extension.

Just because someone offers you free candy doesn’t mean you take it. But this isn’t free candy. This is bitter medicine they know isn’t effective – and we are paying more than half the cost.

This issue affects more than just those whose houses are slated to be knocked down to make way for the UBE. In addition to the environmental and social costs, for the City of New Westminster, the expropriation of more commercial and industrial land to build the UBE means a further dwindling tax base, more congestion on city streets, and more burden on residential taxpayers. For the City, the project is an absolute financial and environmental disaster.

So now the issue is over to you, the citizens and taxpayers of New Westminster. Council is being asked before the end of the year to approve TransLink moving forward with this project. Go to the open house, ask lots of questions, make up your own minds on this project and let our mayor and council know your thoughts, because that is where the fate of this project will be decided. (And remember, next year is an election year.) This project will have enormous implications on New Westminster for decades to come, and we have less than 6 weeks to have a meaningful discussion on the topic.

Small footprint, quality food at Donald’s Market

By now we’ve all heard the big news; Donald’s Market is coming to the River Market at the Quay. However if you’re like me (and everyone else I’ve spoken to except one person), your first reaction was, “What’s Donald’s Market?”

A selection of food from Donald's Market. Photo: Matthew Laird.
A selection of food from Donald's Market. Photo: Matthew Laird.

I had to take a field trip to answer this question. So over the past two weekends I jumped on the Skytrain, shopping bags in hand, to visit each of the Donald’s locations. First up, Commercial & 8th Avenue.

The first thing I noticed upon entering was the vast selection of beautiful produce. For a market its size they were very well-stocked. Typically there’s an inverse relationship between price and quality for produce, but a few quick spot checks revealed very reasonable prices. I was particularly impressed by the wide selection, having some non-traditional items for North American grocers such as enoki mushrooms and garlic stems (items I typically have to head toT&T for).

I began wandering the store exploring what other wonders it held. It’s a small store, packing a lot in to a small footprint. Knowing the size of the River Market building and making a guess about how much Donald’s will take up, this is a good sign that this merchant is willing to maximize space usage. Too often, small store size means small selection. Not here. Every inch of space was used; staff were continually wandering around restocking shelves.

Going down any aisle typically involved a polite “excuse me,” while sucking in your gut to squeeze past (some of us more than others these days. I’ll definitely take advantage of the opportunity to walk home with my groceries). But again, here I noticed the difference from your typical Safeway or Save-On-Foods: a lot of specialty items and organics.

The Asian food aisle was like a T&T highlights mini-store – almost everything I use when cooking the other half’s cuisine. The Italian section … I’ve never seen such a large selection of whole grain pasta. It was difficult to spot one that wasn’t either whole grain, organic or both. But this didn’t mean huge mark-ups either. Turning around to the opposite side of this aisle, there was an amazing selection of sauces, pestos, antipastos – everything you’d need for an authentic Italian meal. I know there’s a balance between 100 mile and supporting authentic, non-industrial producers of products that may not be made locally, but I won’t get in to that discussion at this point.

The next weekend I went to visit their other store on Hastings at Nanaimo. This store is about twice the size, giving a little more space in the aisles and a lot more shelf space. I’m sure the security guard was wondering why this guy was slowly walking up and down every aisle, examining every product. As someone who’d have become a chef in another life, I was like a kid in a candy store.

The first thing I noticed was the hot food counter. I remember Mark Shieh from the River Market said Donald’s customizes its stores for the local neighbourhood. The Commercial Drive store had more of an Italian feel, but this store with its hot Chinese food, sticky buns, and such counter had more of an Asian feel. Makes me wonder what localization the New Westminster store will have.

This store was also busy! That doesn’t mean crowded, but like the Commercial Drive store it was unquestionably popular with the neighbourhood. This didn’t slow the checkout lines, however. Both stores had enough staff at the checkout, typically with line-ups no more than one customer long. A nice change! I also noticed a lot of people carrying bike helmets, which I hope we’ll see at the River Market store.

But the thing that made me squeal for joy the loudest was the fact that Donald’s carries Island Farms products. Don’t ask me why, but I just find Island Farms milk tastes better. I’ll quote my father on how he describes milk from the other main regional dairy (which I shall not name), “Sometimes it tastes like they forgot to rinse the cleaner out of the tank.”

I’m not going to give a 100% positive review. Despite all this good, there was one item glaringly missing: a butcher. There was packaged meat, as you’d expect from any grocery store, but there wasn’t a butcher or fish counter with products such as thick-sliced  bacon or fresh-carved fish fillets. However, having heard Mark’s vision for the River Market, I’m sure this is an item that will be addressed either through Donald’s or through separate butcher and fish vendors setting up shop in the market. I need to find a closer source of the pork belly for my Chongqing recipe that goes along with the garlic stems mentioned before!

I was already excited about getting our market back, but after seeing for myself this shop which my one witness had raved about, I’m even more excited! Donald’s will be a fantastic addition to the Quayside and Downtown neighbourhoods.

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 delirious.ca

New West Nobel Peace Prize Laureate to speak at NWEP AGM

For over three years, New Westminster Environmental Partners has been the voice of sustainable living and development in New Westminster. As a founder of the group, I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished in such a short time. To continue with this agenda, NWEP has incorporated as a non-profit society, opening new doors to expand its work.

With this in mind, we’re very excited to announce our first AGM on Tuesday, October 13th in the New Westminster Library auditorium. We’re even more excited to announce our keynote speaker for the evening, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and SFU Environmental Economics professor Dr. Mark Jaccard.

Besides being our AGM, the primary theme for the evening will centre on the upcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. The Copenhagen conference is a pivotal moment in our history, where world leaders will decide how the future of our species will unfold for generations to come. That is why we believe it’s so important to join others around the world in raising awareness about this summit; so residents of New Westminster can join other Canadians in letting our government know we demand immediate, decisive action on climate change.

Dr. Jaccard, who is also a New Westminster resident, will give a lecture titled “Can we save the planet from ourselves?” An apt title considering the challenges and – up until now – lack of action by world leaders on climate change. And we feel very fortunate to have Dr. Jaccard come kick off what will surely be the first of many AGMs. Besides being a Nobel Laureate, he was named BC’s Academic of the Year in 2008 and was recently named to the Royal Society of Canada.

In addition, the evening will feature a Q&A session with Ian Bruce, a climate change campaigner with the David Suzuki Foundation, on the topic of Copenhagen and climate change.

Doors open at 6:30 with the evening beginning promptly at 7pm, so please come out and join us for what is sure to be an exciting evening with two internationally respected speakers. The AGM is open to all residents, attendees need not be NWEP members but membership will be available for $5 at the door.

Past NWEP accomplishments include:

  • Lobbied successfully for anti-idling by-law
  • Partnership with Canadian Cancer Society on New Westminster cosmetic pesticide ban
  • Raised New Westminster Station pedestrian safety issues & crosswalk establishment
  • Participation in community visioning process, Translink long-range planning, Metro Vancouver planning
  • Partnership and support for Royal City Farmer’s Market and Community Garden Initiative
  • Organizing New Westminster stop on David Suzuki cross Canada tour
  • Three Pillars of Sustainability lecture evening
  • Brunette River lecture evening featuring Fin Donnelly
  • 2009 Provincial Election All-candidates meeting
  • Composting seminar at NW Library
  • Established Green Drinks in New Westminster (2nd in Lower Mainland)
  • Participation in Shoreline CleanUp, Queensweep, and Sapperton Landing invasive species cleanup

Quayside Fest: New West’s largest garage sale on Saturday

Back for a third year, the Quayside Festival & Sidewalk Sale will be back on the Quayside boardwalk this Saturday August 22nd from 10-3, with more tables, more entertainment, more activities and more food than ever before.

Quayside Festival (2008 file photo)
Quayside Festival (2008 file photo)

Organized by the Quayside Community Board which represents over 4,000 residents in the Quayside area of New Westminster, the Quayside Festival will be a fun time for New Westminster residents young and old.

With over 100 tables booked, come bargain-hunt, there is sure to be incredible treasures and ‘finds’ for everyone. Port Metro Vancouver will be present with Salty the Seagull, games, and prizes.

With so many vendors and so much browsing, take a break and enjoy one of the two bands that will be playing. The Jaimie Dale Band will be performing all day at Reliance Court featuring a unique mix of Blues, R&B and Rock. And Legal Limit will be entertaining crowds at K de K performing covers of hits of today and yesterday.

Make a day of the festival – there’s plenty of food on site as well. The Tim Hortons Community Cruiser will be on scene in the morning with coffee and timbits. The Lions Club will be selling hot dogs and cold drinks.  TJ’s Nut Hut will have fresh-roasted hot nuts available.  Riva Café located beside the River Market will be serving a salmon barbeque. QMFM 103.5 will be on site giving out Tetley Ice Tea and Talk 1040AM will have Lillydale Turkey Smokies to sample.

New West City Councillor Betty McIntosh at last year's Quayside Festival
New West City Councillor Betty McIntosh at last year's Quayside Festival

We’re also very proud to say all unsold items will be donated to the St. Barnabas thrift shop to help fund their good work in the community. Bring your cans and non-perishable goods; donations for the New Westminster Food Bank will be accepted at the festival tent. Or swing by and buy a raffle ticket with over $1,000 in prizes available, all proceeds going to the Royal City Musical Theatre Society.

Of course none of this could be possible without the help of all our volunteers and sponsors. If you want to help add to this community event, come on out at 7am to help move tables – a great workout to start the day and get you ready for all the food and fun.

Who know a small annual community garage sale hosted by The Lido at Renaissance Square, which began nearly a decade ago, would grow in to what is sure to be one of the biggest events of the year in New Westminster.