New West a-Twitter about TransLink consultations

Columbia Street in downtown New Westminster. Photo by Dennis S. Hurd
Columbia Street, downtown New West. Photo: Dennis S. Hurd

This is a guest post by Ruth Seeley of No Spin PR.

It’s hard not to laugh at the line in the Wikipedia listing for New Westminster (no, not the part about its seven glory years as the capital of the Colony of British Columbia before Victoria snatched the honour away). The line about it being geographically small but most of it being positioned on the side of a hill.

They aren’t kidding about that. I’m lucky enough (or smart enough) to live in the area known as Brow of the Hill, so when push comes to shove I can walk to the Royal City Centre or the library if I have to. Tipperary Park and Queens Park are both accessible on the level. But four or five blocks west of me Queens Avenue takes a terrifying plunge down a hill I’m amazed civil engineers deem road worthy. In fact, when it snows they just close off the bit between 10th and 12th because there’s no guarantee that even with all the will in the world, you’ll be able to stop at the bottom.

Heading down 6th, 7th or 8th to Columbia and the SkyTrain stations isn’t terribly do-able, and I imagine heading back up would be even worse. What I’m saying is that to access New West’s five SkyTrain stations, you usually have to take a bus. Which is enough of a disincentive for me to not be willing to take the SkyTrain downtown, much as I long to not worry about parking (or worry about whether I’ll remember where I’ve stashed the car, sigh). It’s not the length of the bus trip; it’s the length of the wait for the bus that does it for me.

If you don’t believe the hills leading down to the Fraser are steep here in New West, let me remind you that just before Christmas 2008, a bus rolled down 8th and ended up in the window of the Salvation Army store on Columbia Street. (Comments are as interesting as the article itself, if not more so.)

I was a little surprised when TransLink recently announced a series of community consultations already in progress via Twitter. The purpose of the consultations is so Metro Vancouver residents can ‘learn about the challenges and opportunities we face, what TransLink has been doing over the past 10 years and to discuss and comment on the draft 2010 10-Year Transportation and Financial Plan.’

Consultations are being/will be held in Surrey, White Rock, Vancouver, Burnaby, Langley, North Vancouver, Coquitlam, Maple Ridge, and Richmond.

As part of its social media efforts, TransLink Director of Communications is on Twitter (as @KenHardie), inviting folks to, ‘BePartOfThePlan tonight [Tuesday, June 23, 2009], ACT Centre in Maple Ridge (11944 Haney Place) from 6:30 to 9. Live Tweets start at 6:30.’

But when a few of the New West contingent on Twitter* asked TransLink’s Hardie why there wasn’t a consultation planned for New West, his reply was: ‘RE: Consultation for New West folks – it’s a quick SkyTrain ride to MetroTown and the Bonsor Rec Centre session.’

Yes, yes it is. If you’re close to the SkyTrain and don’t mind travelling to North Burnaby. And if you don’t mind the fact that your community’s been left out yet again. Because this isn’t the first time New West has been overlooked by TransLink.

When I worked on a project a couple of years ago to encourage greater use of public transit in the Metro Vancouver area, New West didn’t make that list either. A series of surveys were mailed out by Social Data Canada (a German-headquartered firm that had set up an office in Vancouver to complete the TransLink project) over the course of several months to various communities (Burnaby, Coquitlam, Richmond, Vancouver, White Rock and Surrey) asking people to detail their trips to and from home on a particular day, and their modes of transportation. Those who participated in the survey were given information about transit, bike paths, and ride sharing in their area, an opportunity to express their opinion on transit and transportation needs, an umbrella, and, in some cases, a bike tune-up or other goodies.

When asked a second time via Twitter why New West, with its five SkyTrain stations, wasn’t getting its own consultation, Ken replied that ‘Our time to consult is limited and we’ve tried to choose central locations. Will pitch 1 for NW Checked and time’s to (sic) tight for a New West-only TL session. Had to go with mostly centralized forums.’

Well yes, midway through the first of a two-week time period set aside for these consultations, it certainly is. The consultation was first announced via press release March 27, 2009. Since I’ve been following Ken on Twitter for months now, I must have missed that tweet.

So I called Ken to ask him how TransLink had decided which communities were going to get consultations and which ones weren’t. He explained that 22 Lower Mainland communities are part of TransLink’s mandate, and consultations were planned for 10 of those communities. The provincial election campaign meant the consultations couldn’t start till after the May 12, 2009 election, thereby compressing the time frame to get them done. Of course the election date was legislated long before TransLink planned its consultations, so I wonder how relevant that is. During the election campaign TransLink officials were busy briefing the mayors and council of its 22 constituencies, including New Westminster’s.

I thought it made sense to ask Ken when the last TransLink consultation had been held in New West, and he couldn’t think of one that had been held here. He explained that for TransLink purposes, Burnaby and New Westminster comprised a single ‘area.’ Which is fair enough. In both geographic and population terms it makes sense to clump them together. Both communities are east of Vancouver and north of the Fraser (except for Queensborough, of course, which is what, in the middle of the Fraser? It’s a bit of a no-person’s land in terms of access.)

New Westminster is at the epicentre of the Lower Mainland. Burnaby to the north (and west). Surrey to the southeast. Coquitlam to the east. Richmond and Langley to the southwest. Vancouver to the northwest. You can get from New Westminster to North Vancouver in 30 minutes’ drive time (20 minutes on the way home – uphill/downhill does make a difference). And when the Patullo Bridge was closed for emergency repairs at the beginning of this year, an astonishing thing happened – the entire community was transformed. Before I read the comments referenced in this blog post, I couldn’t figure out what was going on.

And after reading them, I realized, oh, this is what life would be like if the bulk of the traffic in New Westminster was actually New West traffic, and not merely flow-through traffic. Because suddenly Royal Avenue wasn’t a street with an endless stream of cars whizzing by at 80kph. In fact, it can’t be said that any of the traffic whizzed.

And since TransLink has responsibility not only for buses and SkyTrains, but also for bridges, and since current residents of New West are very directly affected by the routing of traffic from the Patullo Bridge through New West, it would be nice to be invited to share our vision of transportation. Even if that vision includes some negatives. I have never forgotten the story of the woman who operates the lingerie store on 6th Avenue who keeps her store door locked after she was attacked and robbed in the store. She says crime is way up in New West since the SkyTrain stations have gone in. And you’ll note the line in the Wikipedia article saying to avoid Columbia Street at night (two of the five New West SkyTrain stations are on Columbia Street). The only place I’ve ever actually seen a drug transaction go down in living colour was right across from the New West SkyTrain station – never before have I seen ‘product’ and cash actually change hands except on television or in the movies. And I say that having lived in downtown Toronto – in neighbourhoods that can best be described as ‘transitional’ – for 25 years. So it would be nice to have the opportunity to get some real statistics that correlate crime rates with timelines to see if there’s any truth to the notion that crime rates have risen since New West got its SkyTrains or put it to rest once and for all.

Stephen Rees has a nice analysis of the politics behind the consultation and an assessment of the options TransLink’s looking at in this post.

Which brings us back to the mayor and council TransLink briefing and a possible divergence of view about what we want New West to be as a city. Replacement of the Patullo Bridge would not be under consideration if there was significant political opposition to it, said Hardie, and that while former New West mayors Helen Sparkes (1996 to 2002) and Betty Toporowski (1988-1996) were adamant that nothing be done to increase the flow of traffic through New West as opposed to to NW,  the new administration wouldn’t be talking to TransLink about replacing the Patullo Bridge if it weren’t willing to sanction increased flow-through traffic, because that will certainly result from the Patullo rebuild.

I have to wonder if New West City Council thinks of parking for those in transit to Burnaby or Vancouver as its ‘killer app.’ During the Patullo Bridge closure that coincided with #snowmageddon, TransLink posted this media release from the City of New Westminster on its web site, reminding commuters from Surrey that parking’s available in New West and rather than brave the unplowed streets they could drive to New West and hop onto the SkyTrain to continue their journey downtown. Let’s look at the economics of this a bit: suddenly your drive from Surrey to Vancouver costs you whatever you’ve spent on gas and overhead for your car; $6 for parking all day; and close to $4 ($3.75) for a two-zone ticket to get from New West to Vancouver. You’ve not only spent close to $10 to get to work, you haven’t even had a cup of coffee yet, and, more important, most of the money you’ve spent has gone into TransLink’s or the New West municipal coffers, none of it to area merchants and/or residents employed by those merchants.

And it was funny, reading TransLink’s backgrounder ‘What have we done for you lately?’ to see in the New West section that the first accomplishment listed was the repaving of the Patullo Bridge. That really only benefits New West if you’re trying to go to Surrey or if we were benefiting from the traffic flowing through New West from Surrey on its way to Vancouver. And I’m not so sure that we are. The suggested parking lot is far enough from both SkyTrain stations on Columbia Street that it’s unlikely anyone would stop to pick up coffee and a muffin while walking from car to SkyTrain station. And what’s open at 7AM anyway? Maybe a couple of sit-down greasy spoons whose coffee you wouldn’t want to drink and the area Starbucks. Other improvements to come include road improvements to the north bank of the Fraser River between the Queensborough Bridge and United Boulevard; a bus to run between the 22nd Street SkyTrain station and Walnut Grove, FTN service on routes connecting New West with Vancouver, Richmond, Metrotown, Brentwood and Coquitlam; and new community shuttle routes and improved service to Annacis Island and Queensborough.

Then of course there are the other issues, like the anticipated growth of New West itself. The City estimates its population will hit 85,000 by 2015, up from the current 55,000. Much of the large scale development underway is at the Columbia Street end of town, where several large towers are nearly completion. The infrastructure and the retail mix on Columbia Street is going to change now that the city’s finally acquired the waterfront land it wanted for so long – it’s going to have to change to accommodate the influx of new residents (perhaps the Heritage Grill will have to double in size. Although I’d rather see some new restaurants spring up).

A day or so after I talked to Ken I read about a New Jersey community of 2800 people (about the same size as Lions Bay). A woman there is starting a community farmers’ market to capitalize on the 50,000 visitors that pass through the town during June, July and August on their way to beaches elsewhere, which is a brilliant idea that will probably benefit the whole town in the summer months. Once stopped, people will want to have coffee (lunch, dinner, ice cream) as well as buy produce for their weekends away. With its user-unfriendly back-in angle parking on the part of Columbia Street between 4th and 8th, it’s not likely New West will benefit from increased flow-through traffic without making some significant changes.

I mention Lions Bay in the context of these consultations because I used to live there. As part of its ‘what have we done for you recently?’ round-up, the TransLink document mentions increased service from Lions Bay to both West Vancouver and downtown. Too late for me, and, as my former landlady said to me, “All those years of chauffeuring kids to dentists’ and doctors’ appointments and sporting events and now as soon as they’re grown there’s a bus every hour.” Which is why consultation and planning are critical. Squeaky wheels do tend to get more oil, and perhaps Lions Bay wasn’t squeaky enough in the past. While there are some families with young children in Lions Bay, its overwhelming demographic is baby boomers with grown children. Perhaps that will change now that transit service is more frequent. But perhaps it won’t, and hourly bus service may not be necessary.

What has become glaringly obvious as Ken Hardie livetweets the questions asked at the consultations is that each community has its own specific set of priorities and concerns, as well as its own topographic challenges. Depending on how the financing goes and whether the plan is approved or not, TransLink may be back out in the communities it serves in as little as two or three years – or it may not be back till much closer to 2020. I’ve asked that the next consultation be held in New West rather than Burnaby, and Ken was open to that idea. In the meantime, if groups in New West want to get involved and have their say, they’re welcome to attend the final session in Richmond on Wednesday, June 24, host a ‘Front Room Forum’ or share their views on the consultation discussion boards.

Community and stakeholder consultations are labour- and resource-intensive efforts at the front-end stage (preparing presentation and handout materials, getting the word out via public relations, social media and advertising, selecting and booking venues, organizing catering, co-ordinating schedules) and labour-intensive at the delivery phase. TransLink CEO Thomas Prendergast, who took over the role in July 2008 after a distinguished career with New York’s transit system, has attended all but the Surrey consultations to date, presenting the TransLink vision for transportation in the Lower Mainland till 2020. My hat’s off to him. I just wish that instead of the advertising dollars spent on ‘Be Part of the Plan,’ there had been more money and effort spent on public relations so more people would have realized what this consultation was all about. I’ve seen the ads on television and I’ve seen the print ads in the Vancouver Sun and The Province. For some odd reason – it must be the use of 2010 – I’ve thought for months this had something to do with the traffic plan for the Winter Olympics in 2010.

But it doesn’t. Let me know in the comments if you too wish we’d had a chance to have our own presentation and consultation here in New West.

*Note: @10thtotheFraser, @gnb, @waferboard, @duckbeaver, @matthewlaird, @jenarbo and @ruthseeley are among the most vocal of the New West contingent. You can follow New Westminster-related Tweets by searching for #NewWest.

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Paying the Piper

Guests received the royal treatment, with golden crowns for centrepieces and silver tea services.
Guests received the royal treatment, with golden crowns for centrepieces and silver tea services. (Photo: Ruth Seeley)

New Westminster loves not only a parade, but events in general. Today’s ‘royal’ tea at Century House was no exception. The place was packed and the event sold out, with Mayor Wayne Wright and New West city councilors, MP Dawn Black, Poet Laureate Emeritus Edna Anderson, Salvation Army Captain Dave MacPherson, and Qayqayt First Nation Chief Rhonda Larabeeall in attendance. After being piped in, the pipers were paid and Master of Ceremonies Don Andrews introduced the mayor, who welcomed the crowd to the kickoff event for a year of celebration to commemorate the proclamation of New Westminster as British Columbia’s first capital in 1859.

Paying the piper (Photo: Ruth Seeley)
Paying the piper (Photo: Ruth Seeley)

‘Celebrating Our Past, Embracing the Future’ is the theme for the year (one tiny quibble, Embracing Our Future would really sound better – wouldn’t it?). And the event organizers did a bang-up job of making Century House look beautiful, with golden crowns as centrepieces on every table and silver-plated tea services everywhere.

Royal Engineers Living History Group re-enactors play Gov. James Douglas and wife Amelia (photo: Ruth Seeley)
Royal Engineers Living History Group re-enactors play Gov. James Douglas and wife Amelia (Photo: Ruth Seeley)

After walking the gauntlet formed by the Royal Knights and the May Queen Suite, members of the Royal Engineers Living History Group attended while Governor James Douglas read the proclamation officially naming the site of what is now New Westminster as the capital of the Colony of British Columbia on February 14, 1859.

Miss New Westminster 2008 and the 2009 Hyack Ambassador candidates shared a very small stage as they took turns presenting anecdotes from 1859, including a short speech about Caroline Kennedy, one of the first non-aboriginal women to live in New West and another about W. J. Armstrong, the city’s first merchant. After opening a general store, Armstrong went on to become sheriff and justice of the peace.

Mayor Wayne Wright cuts the cake (Photo: Ruth Seeley)
Mayor Wayne Wright cuts the cake (Photo: Ruth Seeley)

After an enthusiastic round of God Save the Queen (who chose the city’s name because Westminster was her favourite part of London), the tea began. There were the usual fancy sandwiches, mini scones, and pastries. And then, of course, there was cake. We must have seemed hungry, because the catering staff kept dropping off more plates of sandwiches – and more pots of tea.

I was particularly fascinated to hear Rhonda Larabee speak. I had never heard of the Qayqayt First Nation before, and it was moving to listen to her talk about her people’s original village site on the banks of the Fraser, and the creation of three reserves after the Royal Engineers began building the city. These reserves – located at the old Scott Paper plant, Bridgeview, and the burial grounds on Poplar Island – were all closed in 1916, and Qayqayt First Nation now comprises only 48 people and is the only First Nation in Canada without a land base. “We are the River People,” said Larabee, who successfully established that the Qayqayt were not extinct and launched a claim to regain her Indian status in 1994.

A city that remembers its past will hopefully not be doomed to repeat it. As New Westminster enters an era of rapid population growth* in uncertain economic times, I hope the spirit of inclusiveness that seems to prevail here will be one of the things we choose to preserve.

* The city estimates New Westminster will have 84,000 residents by the year 2021, although other sources put that figure as high as 88,000.

Breakfast and Blunch in New West

This is a guest post by Ruth Seeley of No Spin PR.

I’m more likely to go out for breakfast than for any other meal these days. Working from home, it means I can give my day a little ‘shape’ by getting up early, reading, writing, tweeting, pitching, greeting, etc. for three or four hours, then take a shower break and head out to do errands, get some fresh air, and have breakfast.

On bad days this sometimes doesn’t happen till 2 or 3PM, however, so I’ve had to invent a term to cover this late fast-breaking meal. I’m going with ‘blunch’ – deal with it.

Coming Home Café 753 6th St. at 8th (604-288-9850)

Cash only, but kick-ass food, small-portioned, bio-eco-friendly breakfasts. Great organic coffee, multigrain fruit breads, fresh eggs, funky furnishings – definitely worth a visit.

And that’s what I wrote before revisiting it. This morning I had a breakfast sandwich of two scrambled eggs, turkey, brie, and roasted veggies (eggplant, peppers, zucchini, mushrooms) with fruit salad (cantaloupe, red grapes, honeydew melon, dragon fruit, pineapple) and coffee – good KickAss coffee – for $8. I was so impressed I had to have a breakfast square as well, so I could continue to savour the coffee. As they say, ‘Like visiting Grandma if Grandma make KICK ASS Coffee!’ – maybe someone could tighten that slogan up a bit?

I keep trying to buy the cute little leopard print tub chairs from the café owners, but they seem determined to hang onto them. We’ve agreed I’ve got visitation rights though. Open seven days a week.

Heritage Grill on Urbanspoon The Heritage Grill @ 447 Columbia St. (604-759-0819)

Breakfast till noon. Decent coffee (second only to Coming Home Café, actually, in the coffee rankings). Nice breakfast for about $8 – sausages, crispy home fries, properly poached eggs, toast. Blunch at The Heritage Grill offers infinite possibilities: the crab cakes with avocado, apple and cilantro salsa, the roast turkey with cranberry sauce and Brie on ciabbatta, fresh mescalin mix salads with a saucy dill vinaigrette – mmmmmmmm.

Mom's Cafe on Urbanspoon Mom’s Café 821 12th Ave. at Edinburgh (604-524-2088)

Nice folks, including Mom, who nods and smiles and soaks up the sunshine. Mom’s is never crowded, the service is great, there are two tables right in the window and it’s on a quiet part of 12th so you can just sit there and slowly wake up. Breakfast specials (like the Truckers Breakfast, 2 eggs, bacon, toast, home fries) start at $3.25 (till 11AM, coffee or tea included). Best deal in town. Closed Mondays. Phone number’s changed since brochures were printed.

The Two Amelias

Amelia on Urbanspoon Amelia Restaurant @ 640 12th St. (604-522-3288)

Amelia’s has gone considerably upscale since my last visit a year ago, despite the endearingly outdated sign that promises free delivery. Amelia’s doesn’t deliver. It does, however, serve cheap and cheerful breakfasts, including a weekday perogie breakfast for around $6, a bagel breakfast, and real desserts like Mud Pie (should you be interested in taking the high-caffeine, high simple carbs, high fat breakfast route). Last time I was there I was tempted by the Monte Cristo sandwich – not too many places around serve ‘em. Its devotees won’t hear of eating at the other Amelia’s. They sort of sniff when you ask, ‘on 6th?’ Bad coffee.

Amelia Café @ 538 6th St. (604-520-3836)

Sometimes you can’t get into Amelia’s on 6th, which is what first sent me to Jim’s. Great breakfast specials here though if you can wait to eat till 10 or 11AM – I like the French toast, poached eggs and sausage special – with watery coffee, about $6. I try to avoid the coffee here. And there is a Starbucks right across the street.

Jim's Cafe on Urbanspoon Jim’s Café @ 518 6th St. (604-522-1288)

Cheap and cheerful with booths. Standard breakfast/greasy spoon fare. Stick with the traditional breakfasts and you can get in and out of Jim’s in 20 minutes for $6 or $7. Same bad coffee as Amelia Café.

Youngs Cafe on UrbanspoonYoung’s 612 12th St. (604-525-1238)

Classic greasy spoon, mixed Chinese/Canadian menu. Odd assortment of photos of the famous. I sat by Janis Lyn Joplin, B. Jan. 19, 1943. D. Oct. 4, 1970.

See Jim’s, the two Amelia’s, Mom’s.

International House of Pancakes (New Westminster) on UrbanspoonIHOP 514 8th Ave. @ 6th St. (604-521-3212)

I’ve headed to IHOP in mid-afternoon for ‘blunch’ a couple of times when I’ve forgotten to eat, for one reason or another. They make the best Philly Cheese Steak Sandwich I have ever had – with choice of onion rings, French fries, hashed browns and more. Not sure why I’ve headed back to IHOP twice to have one for breakfast, but I have. Whether it’s their specialty pancakes, French Toast, or just a standard bacon/sausage/ham/toast/eggs breakfast, IHOP delivers US-portion sized breakfasts and decent coffee served in carafes. The question is whether you want to pay $15 for breakfast or not, and sit along with Middle Canada (sorry, but if you’re looking for ‘edgy,’ head for The Heritage Grill and pray). Watch out for lineups on Sunday mornings. I prefer to go in mid- to late afternoon so I can have a booth to myself.

Moonrakers Neighbourhood Pub on UrbanspoonMoonraker’s

Again, when it’s more like blunch than breakfast, I sometimes head to Moonraker’s for their Reuben. It’s a fat, juicy smoked meat/pastrami sandwich on a nicely textured rye bread, with just the right amount of gooey Swiss cheese. It may well be the perfect antidote for both #snowmageddon and #fogmageddon. Certainly the little backroom library is charming. You never know what charming little tome you may encounter there. I hadn’t noticed the lingering smell of smoke, but it is a sports bar, so best for when you’re in a world of your own and the rowdiness just seems like background noise.

The Pantry 425 6th St. at 4th (604-421-7115)

Really good waffles – two and a half inches high – with something sinful on top, like ice cream or whipped cream or both – solid, non-intrusive service – decent coffee – a little pricey for what it is, but don’t cross it off your list entirely.

Waffle House on UrbanspoonWaffle House 636 6th St. (604-524-8118)

My visit to the Waffle House was completely unmemorable in terms of food and coffee (I would have either remembered or gone back if either had been good-to-great). What I do recall about my visit there was that it was noisy and crowded.

More New West restaurant listings

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