Category Archives: Development

What does growing income disparity in Metro Van mean for New West?

I read an interesting article recently from Atlantic Cities about income disparity in Vancouver, based on a research paper produced at the University of Toronto.

The report findings reveal three ‘cities’ within Metro Van. City #1 includes higher-status areas in historically upper-middle-class neighbourhoods, gentrified urban areas and redeveloped zones within areas like New West that are close to parks, views or the waterfront. City #2 includes the traditionally stable middle-class neighbourhoods and City #3 includes neighbourhoods where the average income fell more than 15% relative to the metropolitan area.

While we do have our own issues with income disparity in New West, I found it interesting to see where we stand in contrast to the region. The blue-shaded areas are the areas where household incomes have grown 15-288% more quickly than the metropolitan average between 1970 and 2005. The white areas are neighbourhoods that have seen an increase or decrease under 15%, and the red areas represent income decreases of more than 15% since 1970. If you zoom into the map (which is unfortunately pretty grainy, making details hard to see), New West shows up as largely white & blue, while large sections of nearby Burnaby, Coquitlam and Surrey have seen significant declines in household incomes since the ’70s.

Map showing average changes in household income by neighbourhood in Metro Vancouver between 1970 - 2005

A map showing average changes in household income by neighbourhood in Metro Vancouver between 1970 – 2005

A map illustrating the change in average household incomes between 1970-2005 in the Lower Mainland shows incomes in New West increasing in the Queensborough and the West End neighbourhoods, while remaining flat in Queen’s Park, Downtown/Uptown and other parts of the city. Elsewhere in the Lower Mainland, affluent neighbourhoods seem to have seen incomes increase, while many formerly middle-income neighbourhoods have seen incomes decline.

According to the report, “The three neighbourhood groupings or “Cities” represent a dramatic transition from the old model of concentric social areas with poverty at the urban core and a solid band of middle income districts in the suburbs. Relative to metropolitan changes, significant income gains and losses are occurring in both city and suburban neighbourhoods. There is more inequality with 54 percent of the 2006 CMA population living in tracts that either gained or lost more than 15 percent of their income relative to the metropolitan average over the 35-year period. Equal numbers of people, about 565,000, lived in the gaining and losing tracts.”

So what does this mean for New West? Well, the report illustrates that in the current economic climate, to those who have, more will be given. And to those who do not have, even what they have will be taken away.

I think this illustration shows New West in a favourable position within the Lower Mainland. While the actual income numbers continue to show significant lower income populations here than in many other more affluent parts of the city, it shows that most citizens have either maintained their incomes or increased them – which is significant in an era when so many have seen incomes eroded. Income inequality in surrounding areas appears to be worsening, and that will result in social issues that will impact us all.

There are troubling implications when you look at who is gaining and who is losing. The report says: “City #1 is overwhelmingly the home of the native-born. In contrast there has been a marked increase in immigrants in the remainder of Metro Vancouver, and especially in City #3, which has shifted from a majority native-born in 1971 to an immigrant majority in 2006. City #3 also includes a plurality of visible minorities (61 percent) while City #1 does not (23 percent).” I don’t have enough information to be able to interpret this nugget, but it does raise questions whether opportunities for immigrants are shrinking or if some other factors are at play.

During New West’s renaissance, the City appears to have consciously tried to guard against simply pushing out lower income populations through protecting and supporting local nonprofits, protecting low-income housing and taking the initiative to house the homeless (rather than just complaining about how it’s the job of the Province to take care of that problem). As a result, we are likely to continue housing and caring for a large number of the region’s lower income families. Is that bad? While I think many people automatically think about the most abrasive marginalized people when considering the issue (those who are hardest to empathize with), we do well to remind ourselves that low-income families include seniors, new immigrants, single-parent families and others who have simply been dealt a raw hand. We can’t just pretend these people don’t exist, and we can’t write them all off as having ‘made their own beds’ to lie in.

Juxtaposed with regional trends indicating worsening income inequality, it’s good to remember that many of us in the middle risk sliding into that red zone, whether through corporate downsizing, developing health problems and being unable to work for a time, lack of financial literacy (leading to taking on too much debt – another significant problem), retiring with inadequate savings or any number of other misadventures. We all believe these things won’t happen to us, but the reality is that we’re not so special or so smart that it can’t. Every one of us could make a mistake or fail to spot and address a potential threat that could set our families back economically. Wouldn’t you prefer to live in a city where there was somewhere to turn for help, if the worst should happen?

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Sustainability in New West: envisioning our future at Nov. 2 & 3 event

Envision 2032

Envision 2032 is the name of the City of New Westminster’s sustainability framework that will guide City planning. 2032 represents one generation from now – a length of time that is easy for people to imagine when making decisions that affect the future.

This is a guest post by Mark Allison, a Senior Planner with the City of New Westminster who is coordinating the team working on the Envision 2032 process. He has led a number of award-winning sustainability plans in communities around BC and was formerly the Senior Planner and Manager of Advisory Services for the Whistler Centre for Sustainability.

What exactly is sustainability?! The word has been thrown around so much in recent years that it’s been interpreted many ways. We’ve chosen to adapt a well-known 1987 definition created by the United Nations that is broadly accepted around the world:

“Sustainability” is meeting the needs of the present generation in terms of social and cultural needs, the economy and the environment while promoting a high quality of life but without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

New Westminster’s 2012-2014 Strategic Plan created a focus on building a high and sustainable quality of life for its residents and called for the creation of a sustainability framework, or “Sustainability Lens,” to “guide and test all future decisions and initiatives against balanced economic, social/cultural and environmental perspectives.” Envision 2032 is the name that’s been given this sustainability framework and it is intended to become the guiding policy document for the City.

ICSP sustainability lens

New Westminster’s 2012-2014 Strategic Plan created a focus on building a high and sustainable quality of life for its residents and called for the creation of a sustainability framework, or “Sustainability Lens,” to “guide and test all future decisions and initiatives against balanced economic, social/cultural and environmental perspectives.” Envision 2032 is the name that’s been given this sustainability framework and it is intended to become the guiding policy document for the City.

If you’ve been around the City for a while, you may recall that “Envision” was the name of our 1998 Official Community Plan. We thought that the name was still applicable, since sustainability planning is all about visioning the future that you want and then taking the steps you need to get there. The “2032” in Envision 2032 is the year 2032… one generation from now. While we usually think several generations ahead when planning for the future, one generation is what most people can wrap their heads around. It’s roughly the time between a child being born and the time that they become an adult ready for independence. Most people can imagine that length of time, so we thought it would be a good timeframe for the plan.

So why are we doing a sustainability plan now? Well, besides providing a logical, consistent way to move towards our desired future, most would agree that our region and the world are facing some enormous sustainability challenges to address in the social, economic and environmental areas. The idea of “think globally, act locally” is definitely fitting.

Socially, New Westminster is in a unique situation when it comes to age demographic shifts, the so-called “baby boomer tsunami.” Not only are we going to have thousands more school-age children in 20 years, we’re projected to have tens of thousands more seniors living in the community by then. It’s going to be a huge challenge to provide the schools, and the recreation, housing and health care needs of these residents.

Economically, it’s probably safe to say that most people are either concerned or very concerned about whether there will be jobs for them and their children in the future, whether their pensions will be enough to live on or whether they’ll be able to afford to buy their own home. With a global economic meltdown just a few years ago and countries all over the world close to defaulting on their debts, there’s a strong desire for communities to create strong and diversified local economies and employment opportunities.

Finally, while often overshadowed by economic concerns, it’s hard to ignore the looming environmental crises facing the planet. Many scientists, for example, say that we may already be at the tipping point where greenhouse gas concentrations may cause runaway climate change at the same time that demand for fossil fuels seems insatiable with supplies dwindling.

Sustainability encompasses not just environmental concerns, but also social and economic.

Sustainability encompasses not just environmental concerns, but also social and economic.

What can New Westminster do in the face of these challenges? Quite a lot! While communities can’t do everything on their own and local governments get the smallest piece of the government revenue pie (while having to provide most of services that people need day-to-day!), communities are where most sustainability action starts. Communities and local school boards provide the playgrounds, schools and seniors centres. Small, local businesses create the majority of jobs in Canada. Local governments facilitate affordable housing and the way that we design our communities is a major determinant of resource use and whether people will drive or use more sustainable transportation modes… local governments provide the sidewalks, bike paths and transit shelters that encourage walking, cycling or taking the bus.

While creating a long-range plan for everything that’s involved in moving a community of 60,000+ 20 years into a successful and sustainable future can be a daunting task, there’s luckily a number of existing models that we can follow. There are a number of basic steps:

  1. Create an awareness of sustainability in the community… like writing this blog!
  2. Identify all of the policy areas where you can influence sustainability.
  3. Create a vision of what the desired future looks like in each of those areas.
  4. Determine where you are now in each area.
  5. Work together with community partners to create actions that move you from where you are now to where you want to be in the future.
  6. Select key indicators and regularly monitor and report on progress towards the desired future.

Eleven policy areas have been identified, which we think covers most things:

  • Buildings, Sites and Urban Design
  • Individual and Community Well-Being
  • Economy and Employment
  • Energy and Emissions
  • Environment and Natural Areas
  • Heritage and Neighbourhood Character
  • Affordable and Appropriate Housing
  • Land Use and Development
  • Parks, Culture and Recreation
  • Resources, Waste and Infrastructure
  • Transportation and Accessibility

The next step is visioning and creating a concise set of statements that describe the desired future in each of these policy areas. This will be the focus of the Envision 2032 Sustainability Fair events being held at the Inn at the Quay on the evening of Friday, November 2nd and the morning of Saturday, November 3rd:

The first event, on November 2, 7-9:15pm,  is “Let’s Talk Sustainability.” This inspirational evening will introduce the Envision 2032 process and features an exciting lineup of engaging speakers who are leaders in the sustainability field. Doors will open at 6:30 for refreshments and networking.

The following day, November 3 from 9 am – 1 pm we’ll be presenting an interactive workshop, “Envision New Westminster,” where the vision statements that will form the foundation of Envision 2032 will be created. Participants will be able to attend breakout sessions for two different policy areas. Doors will open at 8:30 for refreshments and networking and a light working lunch will be served at noon.

It’s important for anyone wanting to help define the future that the City will be working towards, which will be the foundation of Envision 2032, to attend these events and provide us with your vision.

For more information on the process, to provide feedback and to register for Sustainability Fair events, visit www.envision2032.ca or send us an e-mail at envision2032@newwestcity.ca… and of course you can also follow the process at www.facebook.com/envision2032 and www.twitter.com/envision2032.

We’ll also provide you with regular updates on this site to keep you in the loop!

 

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The loud side of civic engagement: Sapperton speaks out on EFry

Sapperton residents posted signs to demonstrate opposition to the Elizabeth Fry Society rezoning application. Photo: Will Tomkinson
Sapperton residents posted signs to demonstrate opposition to the Elizabeth Fry Society rezoning application. Photo: Will Tomkinson

United We Roar

An outside observer could be forgiven for thinking that New Westminster is rife with problems and dissent. Each day we hear of another action group bringing attention to an unwanted project or program or another group insisting that the community is in dire need of another service, amenity, policy or facility. So many of our eyes are focussed on glossy presentation boards in public forums, riotous Twitter battles , new blog entries and comments, visceral letters to the editor and reports and editorials in our local paper. Punching well above our weight, local councillors, trustees, resident’s association members and concerned citizens appear in regional and even national media on a regular basis, broadcasting the message that New Westminster is indeed grappling with weighty, weighty matters.

But is this the case? Is our city riven by conflict and acrimony? Torn between policy alternatives? So perpetually impaled on the horns of a dilemma that no amount of consultation, committee meetings or survey results can hope to bridge our collective chasms? No, I suggest that this is not the case. I suggest that, in fact, our community is more cohesive and productive than is usually expected in a plural, urban city. Our public debates are just the evidence of our well developed civic polity.

What we see, daily, exasperatingly, is the result of thousands of New Westminster residents expressing their opinions on topics that they plainly care about and about which they have obviously done some research. While some Residents’ Associations are an outspoken organ of public opinion and others languish in irrelevancy, what is true across the Royal City is that citizens, whether united in groups or standing up as individuals, care about what happens in their town and are prepared to express their opinions and act on their beliefs. What we hear and see, however, resembles constant strife as the victories and blessings of our town are not so vocally celebrated.

The residents of the great and dynamic community of Queensborough are unlikely to fill a blog post with thanks for an expanded community centre, additional police resources and some of the best playgrounds and schools in the city. Understandably, you will hear more about Queensborough as a forgotten or neglected neighbourhood with bridge traffic, poor pedestrian mobility and threatened by flooding and rapacious land developers.

West End and Connaught residents could be boasting about an inspired rebuild of the Grimston Park playground, the muscular housing and renovation boom or the significant upgrade of the civic plumbing (yawn). No, locals in this neighbourhood instead mention the complete lack of civic facilities in this third of the city, traffic on 20th St and where exactly their kids are supposed to go to school when Tweeds goes to the K-5 model.

Over in Kelvin and Uptown, do residents praise local improvements to Moody Park and the replacement of the Kiwanis pool? Do they thank City Hall for standing up against bad landlords and for the maintenance of rental housing inventory? No, but this is no surprise. Citizens here are more likely to bring up the speed of traffic next to the park, unruly behavior during the day in the commercial area near 6th 6th and in the evenings, in Moody Park. Businesses here bring up the unending road and sewer work and the absence of attention paid to the uptown merchants.

Ahh, Queens Park; a neighborhood apart. Or is it? Do they not also have their triumphs and trials? Other neighbourhoods may point out (quickly, to a fault) that this is a neighbourhood of posh homes, boasting excellent city landscaping, the best elementary school in the region, a collection of parks – one of which is so splendid, so truly regal that its very name, QUEEN’S Park evokes the image of the great and dour Empress Victoria lording over the rest of the city, scepter in hand. But let’s all be honest, in addition to having to put up with the endless insufferable comments about how cosseted QP is (it’s not) , residents of this small section of the city have to be on constant guard against the unending and creative ways city and other levels of government remove money from their upper-middle-class wallets.

Glenbrook, a neighbourhood so awesome it needed the Real Estate community to develop a name for it, shares with Massey-Victory Heights the benefit of being filled with family-friendly tree-lined streets, larger lots and good schools (some of them quite new), but what of the increasing traffic burden of McBride, 8th and 10th? Will condos and townhouses encroach? Canada Games Pool: really – is that the best we can do for a pool?

Downtown, Fraserview and Quayside, you can comment below. The article is already too long.

The Little Neighbourhood that Could, or Could it?

I think you get the picture: from an informed and engaged population, you get a chorus, a cacophony of grasping, needing, pleading outrage. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

You may have noticed that in this list of neighbourhoods, I have not yet mentioned Sapperton. Sure the same pattern exists here as in other zones but recently, Sapperton’s reality shows us a new aspect of the relationship between neighbourhoods and the City, and illustrates the limits of a cohesive, informed and engaged group of citizens.

Along with the rest of our city, Sapperton is enjoying a rebirth of sorts. Improvement to the East Columbia St. commercial district is noticeable and retail turnover seems to have slowed. Townhouses and towers have added new vitality to commerce and the streetscape. The Brewery District has sprung to life with some great potential and the best large-format grocery store in the city (IMHO). The local small elementary school has been rescued, (for good this time) and is nestled against a well-tended park with an updated playground. Walk the leafy streets and you will see neighbours chatting on the sidewalks in front of neat, even, manicured single family homes on small lots, practically high-fiving one another at how tidy and livable their neighbourhoods have become. And yet when these same people unanimously presented an informed and reasoned defence of their neighbourhood, they failed to receive the consideration, let alone the support of their City and City Council.

Now sure, I am often told that I often view city affairs with ‘rose coloured glasses’ and I have often disagreed with those who seem to manufacture outrage where none is warranted, but in this instance, I see a clear instance where the needs, wishes and welfare of New Westminster have been set aside; where a united stance has not been enough and the spirit of compromise and engagement has been met with a deaf ear. I this instance, I am speaking about the recent approval by council to amend the Official Community Plan (OCP) for the sole purpose of (possibly) rezoning one residential lot to allow the Elizabeth Fry Society (EFry) to construct a facility as an institution, allowing them to expand their services to at-risk women and families in the Lower Mainland.

In other neighbourhoods, recent programs and proposals in New West have also stirred the ever-vigilant population to action. When the West End’s only park was slated to be replaced with an elementary school, the community responded and the park was saved. When TransLink threatened to build the United Boulevard Extension, removing a whole block of homes and adding to the traffic misery of New Westminsterites, city and Council, almost with one voice, said hell no! Now it’s a similar story with the Pattullo Bridge: the city is against a six-lane option, and Council seems to be in the same corner. But if a united voice is an important factor to stop an unpopular or ill-advised program in these cases, why is it ignored in the case of EFry?

Certainly one argument has been that the “social good” EFry delivers in the lives of women in the region shows both a societal and humanitarian benefit greater than the objections brought against the expansion. But surely this argument was also used in the above three examples also: Grimston school, UBE and the six-lane crossing. In these cases a united, engaged constituency trumped the argument of “social good” when applied to the region. more accurately, the community put one set of “social goods” against another and won (in two cases, one is still pending).

A second argument posed by the residents is that their community, and New Westminster as a city, already has a significant number of social housing assets in the city, many specifically used as women’s shelters, women and children assisted living and so on. With so many of these facilities within this small city, this has become a distinctive feature. For all of our revitalization, renovation, and development, it has been said to me that the nature of New Westminster’s relationship with outreach and services makes it the halfway-house of the Lower Mainland: the redemptive, rehabilitative space between Surrey and Burnaby (metaphorically). Still, we are a generous city, willing to shoulder some of the burden shuffled off by our neighbours.

Sapperton residents particularly, during delegations to council prior to the OCP vote, cited the fact that their community is ringed by these services and facilities, many of which are not mapped, documented or referred to for the protection of their clients. This fact was brought up not to say that no new facilities should be built, nor that some should be closed, but rather that the saturation of social services counters the argument of NIMBYim. Sapperton, the residents contended, welcomed its supported housing neighbours, but suspending parking, zoning and the OCP for one property on a residential street is a clear and unacceptable threat to their streetscape, especially when other options exist for EFry.

In a nutshell, EFry intends to purchase this lot and house and develop a multistorey administration and services building to support the work this national women’s charity society is known for. Consequently, areas in the EFry “Blue Building” would be freed for more long-term supported living space. The new building will also house “long-term housing” for women with children (in 375 sq foot suites I am told). For EFry, the rezoning of this low-cost residential lot and repurposing of their parking lot is the best case and cheapest option in a city willing to change zoning and parking regulations to support the EFry program.

Representing Whom?

For the South Sapperton neighbourhood, there are no second chances, no Plan B, no alternative method of resolving their concerns. For EFry though, they seem to have options. On East Columbia, immediately adjacent to the EFry blue building is a poorly utilized commercial lot. Next to that lot is a vacant one. Also, if it is true that the new construction will be for the purposes of administration, the office space being built in the Brewery District would be both close and require less capital outlay. EFry could also, and correct me if I am wrong, simply buy the lot in question and renovate/rebuild within the existing zoning, running residential services or day-care facilities as is done in dozens of houses throughout New Westminster.

Why EFry wishes to pursue their course in the face of workable options and near-unanimous local opposition is a mystery for me. It is possible that they are so convinced of their vision and services that their directorship believes they override the inconvenience of seeking compromise and neighbourliness. From my vantage point, the EFry leadership may view the concerns of a “privileged” property owning middle class invalid in the face of their work, a vocation to which they have devoted their lives and perhaps their credulity. In the same way, the EFry support on council insist that “they know best” and demonstrate a level of paternalism in that, “The people who don’t realize the advantage of having those services available in their community aren’t doing enough research,” as expressed by Councillor Puchmayr, one of three council members in favour of the proposal (vote was 3-1 with one councillor recused and another in the Mayor’s Chair for the evening).

Time after time, our council has stood up for the rights of residents to defend the livability of our neighbourhoods. To close their ears to the overwhelming opposition of Sapperton residents to this project will erode confidence in the integrity of this council as advocates for the citizens of New Westminster. It is the mandate of council to see the bigger picture beyond neighbourhood concerns, but councillors also have a responsibility to hear and respond to the concerns residents have brought forward.

  • What will council do to limit the further impact of this and similar service organizations on the residents in the city, who through no fault of their own, have decided to raise their middle class families in this city?
  • What will be done to ensure that the citizens of Sapperton receive no further negative impact to the parking problem in their neighbourhood from the construction of a new tower and the removal of an existing parking lot?
  • What will council do to explain why the compassionate, reasoned, civil opinions of the locals in Sapperton should be put aside, essentially with no response, in favour of the goals of the EFry Society?
  • Why are the many possible alternatives for EFry, none of which raise the ire or fears of the community, not being considered or advocated by councillors, city staff or the EFry leadership?
  • Why, when popular, near unanimous defence of livability can halt building on parkland, regional transit initiatives or (hopefully) the building of a six-lane Pattullo bridge, can it not even be considered as reason for pause on this subject?
  • And finally, what is it that is motivating council, and possibly staff, to ignore the citizens, ignore the OCP, ignore parking and zoning laws and their own re-election possibilities, to back this proposal when clear alternative exist, even in a city overpopulated by similar facilities. What makes EFry so special?

Perhaps we will learn the answers to these questions in the coming months. Perhaps the program will stall at the rezoning level. Perhaps the people of New West will form a trust and buy the lot themselves and “put their money” where their neighbourhood is. We will see. I welcome civil and on-topic comments in the section below.

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Preaching the gospel of community in New Westminster

Rainbow-spotting in New Westminster's West End. Photo: Briana Tomkinson

Rainbow-spotting in New Westminster's West End. Photo: Briana Tomkinson

One of the things I love about New Westminster is that there is a very strong sense of community here. At times, local events almost feel like church revival meetings as we all come together to reaffirm our friendship and faith in The Church of New Westminster. We have been saved from the anonymous hell of suburban living, and escaped the perilous prices of downtown. Our congregation is diverse and evangelical, and will enthusiastically preach the gospel of community.

As I was walking through the West End on a recent sunny Sunday I felt again the deep pleasure and conviction that *here* is a good place to live. I felt grateful for the quiet, tree-lined streets, the children riding their bikes, the people walking their dogs and the pack of children I would find back on my block, deep in raucous front-yard play. It got me thinking about the elements of community. What builds community? And why is New West so successful at this, more so than any other city I’ve lived in?

New Westminster was planned in a time when people’s lives were not so independent and anonymous. The smaller city footprint, with its older homes and narrow streets gives us an environment that is more conducive to building community than some newer parts of Metro Vancouver.

Many parts of New Westminster are dominated by older homes. Mine was built at the end of the 1940s and many of the homes on my block are even older. There are a few ways I think older-style homes improve the sense of community:

  • The garages suck. They are inadequately small, tumbledown affairs stuck at the back of most older homes. It’s often more convenient to just park on the street in front and use the garage to store all the random crap that homeowners accumulate. Instead of entering and exiting your home encapsulated in your car, neighbours encounter each other as they go to and from their homes. You know when your neighbours are home or if someone’s home sick when their car is parked out front. I never realized how much this matters until we moved into our home with its dangerously leaning garage and awkward back gate.
  • There are few driveways in front of homes. Related to the first point, but offering a different suite of benefits. No driveways means safer, more walkable streets. When I go walking with my kids in my neighbourhood I can let them run ahead on the sidewalk for long stretches without having to worry that a driver will back in or out without seeing that there’s someone there. No driveways also means greener streets. Instead of a concrete pad and the faceless door of a garage, we see green grass, leafy trees, front stoops and flower beds.
  • Older homes need a lot of maintenance. Not so awesome for your wallet, but home repairs are great conversation-starters with the neighbours. We’ve swapped advice with our neighbours on roofing, landscaping, window replacement, plumbing, drain tile and more. When your house is new and shiny (or at least not falling apart) this stuff isn’t on your radar yet. Interior cosmetic repairs have less neighbourly conversation value: we see the outsides of each other’s homes more than the insides.
  • Porches. Sadly, my home has no front porch, but many of my neighbours do. Porches contribute to a front-yard culture of informal conversation, and add eyes to the street, improving safety.

Pedestrian-friendly streets are another huge factor in building community. When people pass each other face-to-face, each little nod and smile builds familiarity over time. This doesn’t happen when you pass another driver in a car. Several factors impact how pedestrian-friendly a street is:

  • Short blocks. In older cities like New West, blocks are short. For pedestrians, this means that you feel progress when you’re walking – long blocks *feel* long. It also provides more options to vary your route, which makes walking more interesting and allows more ways to avoid walking on busy streets.
  • Small city footprint. It doesn’t take that long to walk or bike from the West End uptown or down the hill to the edge of downtown, from downtown to Queen’s Park, from Glenbrooke to Sapperton. In most parts of the city, it’s only a short walk to get to a business district to buy milk, indulge a craving for sweets, meet a friend for coffee or select fresh vegetables.
  • Frequent, (mostly) reliable public transit. In our wee city we have five SkyTrain stations. For most trips, the wait to catch a bus is 15 minutes or less. Our system is not perfect. There are dead zones in the city that are awkward to access via transit and I know some there have been problems with some community shuttles serving the Quay. Still, it is easier to take the bus or SkyTrain in New West than anywhere else save Vancouver’s downtown core.
  • Green boulevards. Maybe not all our streets are as green as they could be, but New Westminster’s network of beautiful streets covers a huge part of the city. On most walks, sections of ugly streets don’t last long.

Aside from the city’s physical traits, I think there are a few other elements that help connect us:

  • A single high school. Almost all the children who reach their teenage years in New Westminster end up at NWSS. Grads who choose to raise their own families in New West end up with a large network of local friends and acquaintances.
  • Twitter. Holy cow, what a network. Vast groups of New Westies have met and formed new social groups over Twitter. If you’re not there yet, check out the #NewWest hashtag to meet some new friends.
  • NEXT New West. It’s a new group, but is a very powerful way for younger adults to make new social connections in the city and explore new things to see and do. It’s awesome.
  • Kids. Through school PACs, activity programs and organizations like Little League and Scouts, parents get to know each other through their kids. After a few playdates, the parents make friends too.
  • Dogs. Almost as good as kids for helping their ‘parents’ make friends. Particularly in neighbourhoods like the Quay, where most dogs are walked along a single route (such as the Quay boardwalk), dogs can be a great boon to community. You get to know the other dog owners in your neighbourhood over time.

And, of course, you can’t forget the diverse efforts of individual community boosters. There are a ton of them in New West, managing clubs, creating events, volunteering to run festivals, blogging about different aspects of city life, and organizing events to bring people together, from pub crawls to art shows to house parties. New Westminster is lucky to have more than its share of people actively working to make our city a better place to live.

What do you think contributes to New Westminster’s strong sense of community?

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The next decade’s downtown New West: cool, urban, alive and vibrant

This is a guest post by Robert Fung, New West booster and president of The Salient Group, whose Trapp Block redevelopment is considered a key element to the revitalization of our downtown. Robert founded The Salient Group in 2000 after a decade of development work with Concord Pacific and then the Narland Group. Actively involved in the community, Robert is currently a member of the UBC Board of Governors as well as a director of the UBC Properties Trust. 

An image of the Salient Group's Trapp & Holbrook redevelopment in downtown New Westminster. Photo provided by the Salient Group.

An image of the Salient Group's Trapp & Holbrook redevelopment in downtown New Westminster. Photo provided by the Salient Group.

It’s an exciting time for Downtown New Westminster. Metro Vancouverites are starting to realize what New West residents have known all along: that the Royal City is a great place to live, and the downtown is a cool and urban place, alive with the promise of a vibrant future.

Local businesses are taking notice. Media is also paying attention, as demonstrated by the recent Georgia Straight feature about New West.

I was initially attracted to the history and urban character of downtown New Westminster and by the potential of the area. What I saw was a beautiful large building that had been vacant for decades — a terrible “lost opportunity” to the economy of the downtown. We saw a chance to help bolster an economic revitalization by investing in and redeveloping a section of the lower mainland’s most important commercial centres. And, at the same time, to provide great homes at affordable pricing in a city that has the most accessible transit connections in the Lower Mainland.

Aesthetically, I was also attracted to the handsome historic Columbia Street buildings. The Trapp Block façade is among the most beautiful in our region.
As I’ve mentioned in a recent Royal City Record interview, the resurgence of downtown New Westminster is not unlike that of Vancouver’s historic Gastown. There’s always a few “early adopters” who choose to work and live in re-emerging districts. These people appreciate character and differentiation. They want something special and affordable. They also know that in an emerging area there is a strong potential for their investment in home or business will grow. New Westminster is on track for a similar experience to Gastown.

After years of neglect and dormancy, a huge commitment by the City is attracting new investment to the downtown. In turn, hip new retailers and residents have woken up to the amazing potential of downtown New Westminster. The new River Market is a great example of this energy and change. It’s thrilling to see exciting businesses like Wild Rice, Re-Up BBQ (which recently took home the VanMag Award for Best Food Cart), and The Network Hub establish a lively presence in New West.

Cities evolve, and Downtown New Westminster is on a strong upswing and headed for a period of strong growth. For current residents, new businesses will bring goods and services, and generate employment opportunities.

It is my firm belief that new home developments do more than just provide condos. Investments from these developments bring new people, who in turn bring pride of ownership to the community. Commercial demand follows. New homes need and attract necessities such as shops and amenities. A positive snowball effect occurs when critical mass of activity encourages further economic growth.

People ask me what should change about New Westminster. New West is already a vibrant city, and it is not our intention to change it. Rather, we hope to assist in changing some peoples’ perceptions about New West. We think that the Trapp + Holbrook redevelopment will go a long way towards demonstrating why both the history and the future of downtown New West are among the most exciting in Metro Vancouver.

I truly believe that in 10 years, downtown New West will be one of the most popular destinations in Metro Vancouver for living and shopping. It’s an exciting time for this historic city by the river, and I thank many of you for warmly welcoming the Salient Group to the community.

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Worth Saving

City Councillor Jonathan Cote has been busy this past little while up at SFU learning about Urban Studies. He’s recently completed a report on rental housing, and it’s an interesting read. Although I have owned a home for about a decade now, I was a tenant for a long time, and the availability and pricing of rental housing in the 90s is what drew me to New West when I left Vancouver Island in the first place.

I asked Cote how he chose to write a term paper about saving purpose built rental housing.

“Finding inspiration for my term paper on housing was not a difficult task,” he said.

“All I needed to do was look out my living room window to see a purpose built rental building being torn down on Royal Avenue. I am not trying to single out the developer on this project; given the economic situation, the property owner made a very rational development decision. The existing rental building was aging and facing expensive maintenance issues and the market was ready for a condo project in this neighbourhood.”

I lived in the very apartment Cote refers to. In its place a six storey wood frame building has been approved for construction. This is significant for a few reasons – six storey wood frame buildings were previously not permitted within the BC Building Code, but the code was altered in 2009 to allow for it after studies demonstrated they were safe in earthquakes. Secondly, this is the first one to be approved for construction in New Westminster and I think it is a sign of things to come.

New Westminster is such a tight, dense, and compact city. This is great for walkability (except someone really needs to do something about the hills) and for getting around without a car. We have lots of transit access points with five Skytrain stations in the city. But we’re out of land, and if you can’t build out, the only place to build is up.

By comparison, I visited Calgary about five years ago, and my brother and I checked out a new housing subdivision on the very outskirts of town. I went back only few years later, and discovered the City of Calgary had crept another 100 kilometers from the centre of the city with another 20 new subdivisions with made up names and cookie cutter houses. What had been sold as “on the edge of it all” was now billed as “easy commute to downtown”.

I don’t recall how many units exactly were in the now-demolished Royal Avenue apartments. I want to say about 40-50 altogether. The new building is approved for 118 units, which no matter how poorly I’ve estimated, is at least double. But here’s the big difference – these units will be individually owned as a strata building, and although the strata bylaws will likely allow for owners to rent out some of the units, this still represents a loss of rental housing.

Councillor Cote says this is a concern. “As I began to research the challenges facing purpose built rental units it became very clear that market rental developments cannot compete with market condo projects. Given the important role rental housing plays in housing low and moderate income earners in our region, this should be cause for concern. Our rental stock is aging and the economics simply do not work for the development of new purpose built rental buildings.”

With the recent news that New Westminster has been selected as a community the provincial government with pilot a poverty reduction program, Cote’s report is timely.

“As I continued my research I realized that there was no easy solution and a variety of policy tools would need to be implemented to change the economics of rental housing.”

So what does Cote suggest?

“We need to create incentives for developers to consider rental housing as a sound investment, and parallel that with more restrictive land use policies. We need to create an entirely separate housing market for rental housing. Only by addressing this issue will the region be able to ensure that low and moderate income earners have a place in Metro Vancouver’s housing system.”

Cote plans to present his term paper to City Council and also other municipalities. You can read the full report here.

 

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City Noise: How Much is Too Much?

Translink has embarked upon a new series of consultations about the Pattullo Bridge. The City of New Westminster itself also recently made waves when it announced it was going to focus on completing its Master Transportation Plan before collaborating with Translink (for the record, I say “bravo” for that). The future of the Pattullo Bridge will have a significant impact on residents in New West, as it seems Translink is quite determined to widen the bridge to 6 lanes, bringing more traffic using our city as a thoroughfare to get to other places. Green New West and City Caucus have already blogged about the first consultation (and local Hector Bremner got a sneak peek at the plans) - but there are other consultations, including one tonight at Inn at the Quay. All New Westminster residents should make plans to attend at least one. If you can’t make it in person, a live webinar is scheduled for March 8th.

Downtown Parkade in New Westminster by Graham Ballantyne

Downtown Parkade in New Westminster by Graham Ballantyne

The reason I draw your attention to the Pattullo Bridge plans is because the increase in traffic noise is something that has been raised as a concern (and was when we talked about the UBE too), and it’s gotten me thinking about noises in the city.

I live on the ambulance feeder route to Royal Columbian Hospital and when we moved in we spent two or three sleepless nights, tossing and turning to the screeching and whining of the sirens. And then we adjusted. People come to our house now comment on the sirens, and we generally reply “What? Huh? Oh, right, the sirens,” because we have completely forgotten about them.

A friend of mine used to live by the airport in Richmond in a small community called Burkeville. I remember one New Year’s Eve we sat in her hot tub in her yard and toasted the midnight clock strike under a giant jet headed for destinations unknown. Planes rumbled over her house with cupboard rattling proximity and we hardly even noticed.

City noises permeate our life. Whether it’s your neighbour and their incessant leaf blowing or car vacuuming, or whether you live on a major transportation route, city noises are a part of what makes up the urban fabric. They are a trade-off, in essence, of having easy access to services we desire.

So many cities worldwide have a noise bylaw and they generally address things like barking dogs, construction, obnoxious neighbours, and other noises I see as irregular noises. Your neighbours are prevented from doing things that may generate unacceptable levels of noise – no construction before or after certain times, for example.

A city generates sounds – the whoosh of traffic, the hum of a factory, the sounds from a working river or railway. The become a part of the landscape of where we live. I took a trip once to visit my brother in Northern BC and the first two nights I was there I couldn’t sleep because it was simply too quiet. During this most recently held municipal election, I was chastised for not caring about my fellow residents because I admitted I don’t mind the sound of trains, and in fact, I kind of like them.

What do you think are acceptable city sounds?

 

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Bullish on New West, and wondering what’s next

It’s been with a keen interest from the perspectives of both a New West kid and that of a Realtor I’ve watched a positive renewal of many a New Westminster neighbourhood. Everyone operating within the city, visiting, or just driving through, has made note of much change. A while ago I had the opportunity to sit down with Mayor Wayne Wright and chat about this growth. Today I’ll share a few thoughts from my perspectives and conclusions from that meeting.

As a New West kid I grew to know downtown as a sketchy dilapidated pass through, home to bottle collectors, wedding boutiques, and inoperative docks that rotted in to the river. Still yet I always had great pride in my hometown and often imagined building transformative landmark buildings on the river front, in Sapperton, and elsewhere around town. While the Woodlands lands did not become new home to the Canucks I have still taken great pride in the significant investment made by private and public sectors all over town. From Sapperton, where we have a real deal grocery store, through downtown, where we see folks enjoying a meal or coffee up and down Columbia. We will soon have our own theatre, civic centre, and replacement for the rotten dock in the form of a waterfront park. All this investment in parks, streetscapes, infrastructure, sporting facilities, and more, adds to the liveability and will be a source of pride for future generations.

From the perspective of a Realtor I am very bullish on New West and make it quite well known to anyone who asks. I’ve felt that for many years prices in certain areas were depressed and lagged behind others due to the product available and stagnant public investment. Today private investment from a wide array of developers has funnelled in and boosted supply of new condos. Transforming old buildings or empty lots into homes to thousands of new New Westminsterites. These new homes have brought a changing demographic, greater population of consumers for local business, and a foundation for future growth. Most importantly our location in the lower mainland, right in the middle of it all, will always be desirable. We have little if any extra land available which would suggest land value will continue on an upward trend.

Given the opportunity to sit down with the mayor I wanted to learn more about the ongoing projects, development we’ve seen completed, and the future direction of the city. We jumped from topic to topic, from issue to event, and shared thoughts on whats next for New West. My first note was regarding the passion and sense of excitement the mayor exuded when discussing his vision. I was told the focus at the outset was to be on all areas that were not up to their potential. Certain tactics and events were necessary to move the vision forward. Including successfully moving “the boat” out and new Starlight Casino in to Queensborough. As my enthusiasm for the cities growth is high I was comforted by the mayor’s being even greater. I felt he was very prideful of the strides we have made during his time as mayor and it was clear that he very much wants to see it through successfully. I also liked to hear the suggestion that he would go down to the potential site of a project and clearly explain his vision for it to any stakeholders. Who better to pitch the cities merits I thought.

We have an election upcoming and many challenges to tackle yet. That is without doubt. Along with our central Lower Mainland location comes traffic congestion issues that need serious discussion. We also desperately need a new high school – like, yesterday. However, from both my perspectives as a proud New West kid, and local Realtor, I am very happy with the change and development we’ve seen over the past 8 years. I believe this great investment is well deserved and long awaited by proud New Westminsterites. I’d like to see New West continue down this track, drawing in new blood, garnering investment, and building upon our civic pride. I’d like to see our mayor, Wayne Wright, continue leading us in that direction.

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Westminster Pier Park: controversial, audacious and vital

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.

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Beyond bridal boutiques and payday loans: re-envisioning downtown

Copp's Shoes on Columbia St. Photo: Dennis Sylvester Hurd.

Copp's Shoes on Columbia St. Photo: Dennis Sylvester Hurd.

Downtown New Westminster has it going on.

Well, it could have it going on if it could once again capture the vitality of its once historic past. From an urban planning perspective you could not wish for a better template; you’ve got history, great public transit, a waterfront, shopping, density. So what happened, why did the city turn its back on the downtown?

New Westminster did what almost every North American city did in the post-war era; it decided to re-invent the wheel. How many cities had a perfectly good urban core and decided a shopping mall in the suburbs was the way to go? We don’t even have a suburb, yet that didn’t stop us from building a huge mall just 1 km up the hill. While probably bustling with stores when it first opened, it is hardly an example of a thriving mall as we’d like to see it. The mall is tired, lacks interesting merchants, and doesn’t have the convenient access of SkyTrain, which is a must these days. It did not help that the mall lost its last anchor tenant with the closure of Woodwards. Uptown is probably not quite the gem urban planners had envisioned, but let’s leave that for another post.

So what else contributed to the demise of the downtown? Like with many cities, the decline of public transit combined with the introduction of the personal automobile changed the way people live. With a car you could now live in one city, work in another, and go shopping in yet another. Before the TransCanada Highway was built to the north of the city, Columbia Street was essentially the commercial hub for all residents east of the Fraser River. People would come here from as far away as Chilliwack on the interurban railway. With the construction of the highway and the discontinuation of the interurban line, Columbia Street’s importance as a retail destination was delivered another blow. No longer did you have to pass through New Westminster on your way from A to B.

So how does it look for the future of New Westminster’s downtown? People are once again moving to New Westminster, realizing the potential of living in the geographic center of the Lower Mainland. And they are moving to the downtown to be close to transit and other amenities. Certainly they deserve more than a couple blocks of bridal boutiques and payday loan shops. The city must promote the downtown not only as a place to live, but as a place to shop, and a place to work. More people moving downtown will bring more diversity in terms of shopping and employment opportunities. The building of the Civic Centre and (slow) emergence of the River Market are good examples. Companies may look to New Westminster as a location to open up their head offices. We need all levels of employment to once again make the downtown vibrant.

New Westminster is not a large city. It can support both a vibrant downtown and a thriving uptown. At the moment however, it seems like the downtown has the momentum in its favour.

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Reminder: last UBE consultation session this Thursday

This is a guest post by Reena Meijer Drees. Reena blogs about car(e)-free living in New Westminster at http://carefreenewwest.blogspot.com/.

I’ve been dutifully attending TransLink’s consultation sessions for the UBE. We’ve seen 3 so far, and the last one will be held this Thursday evening at 7 pm at the Sapperton Pensioner’s Hall at 318 Keary St, just up from Columbia. Translink will be “reporting out”, summarizing what they’ve heard from the community over the weeks of discussion. I’d encourage all citizens to come out to see what TransLink is planning to bring to New Westminster. As for me, I must admit that my attendance at these sessions has left me feeling like I’ve been pushed into owning something I really don’t want.

There has been a good turnout for these events so far, with six fully populated “breakout” groups around tables, each with a facilitator (third-party, not TransLink) and at least one TransLink staffer to help out with technical details. I’d guess the total community attendance to be 70 or more every time, pretty good considering some sessions have conflicted with hockey games.

At these sessions I have met only a single person from outside of New West (I think from Coquitlam somewhere). He told me he drives through New West; he was there to voice his opinion that New West was the “sphincter of the Lower Mainland” and was hoping for some relief. I asked TransLink if they had held any open houses on the UBE in Coquitlam – apparently only one, and attendance was so poor (the 25 people who attended were all from New West) that they didn’t have any more. Coquitlam council supports the UBE and they have plans for further (car-oriented) development along United Blvd. It is hard to have a meaningful discussion with other stakeholders when they don’t show up.

The mood in the room has not been very happy. Almost uniformly, residents do not like the idea of the UBE. Many are concerned about noise, about increased congestion, about the idea of an overpass blocking views. Others don’t like the emphasis on road building, which seems so diametrically opposed to Translink’s stated goals of prioritizing pedestrians, bikes, and transit…especially given that we are now experiencing bus service cuts here in New West. And some residents see this as the thin edge of the wedge for the North Fraser Perimeter Road, a series of as-yet-unfunded projects which will see Front St turn into a 4-lane truck route, and a 6-lane Patullo bringing more regional traffic through our City. The fear is that the UBE will be done, and then nothing will follow for years as TransLink’s budgets continue to suffer, leaving us with more congestion that we started with. Time and again people stood up and voiced that they wanted to see the entire NFPR discussed and a big picture plan put on the table before discussing the UBE. This was not really done – the discussions were pretty quickly guided into specifics about where roads should go and what mitigation features we wanted.

TransLink asked for community ideas for the connection, and created long lists of what residents saw as the problems around the current intersection. From this they created a short list of possible configurations to explore. There were two suggestions from the community, called “option E” and “option C”. Option C consists of simply closing the level crossing at Braid and Brunette and eliminating the possibility of access to the Industrial land this way. Since the lights spend about 30% of their time letting the small amount of traffic coming out of the lands, remoiving access would improve traffic flow along Brunette. It would eliminate the backups that happen when turning traffic has to wait for a train. It would stop at least one train whistle. This option was rejected by TransLink with very few reasons given. Option E, the other suggestion from the residents, was to make the road from United connect with Brunette at a new intersection to be located near the overpass over HWY1. This would move the connection and its associated congestion out of New Westminster. Translink’s objection to this idea is that it creates too many intersections in a short distance. I would be surprised if this idea were still on the list.

The only idea that passes muster with TransLink is that of a large, 4-lane overpass over the “dip” in the Skytrain between Sapperton and Braid stations. The road would flow into Brunette without an intersection – no expropriation of property this time. There are lots of details availble and lots of mitigation discussed. But I can guarantee that the consensus in the Pensioner’s Hall is that this – “option B” – is unacceptable.

TransLink has stated throughout the sessions that “doing nothing” remains an option. We will see if they recommend this course of action, which I’d hazard is the top choice of most residents. Please attend if you can, so that if TransLink attempts to make us “own” the overpass idea – the only one left standing, by their own design – we can stand up and tell them that in fact, what the community really wants is to kill the UBE and give the money to the Evergreen Line. If you can’t attend, pass your thoughts on to New West City Coucil (email: postmaster@newwestcity.ca) They need to stand up and refuse to let this monstrosity be built.

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United Boulevard Extension: What’s next? (Part 2)

A four lane truck route, down Front Street from one end of downtown to the other. Is there enough width between the tracks and existing buildings to build such a road? Photo: Matthew Laird

A four lane truck route, down Front Street from one end of downtown to the other. Is there enough width between the tracks and existing buildings to build such a road? Photo: Matthew Laird

Today in part 2 of our series we ask the question: Can the North Fraser Perimeter Road, creating a four lane truck route through New Westminster even be built?

How will that work? Let’s examine the feasibility of the City’s mitigation wish list. A four lane truck route, down Front Street from one end of downtown to the other. Is there enough width between the tracks and existing buildings to build such a road?

There have been mentions of stacking the roads – how does that fit with Provincial dangerous goods regulations? There’s a reason why dangerous goods aren’t allowed in the Massey Tunnel or Cassiar Connector.

There’s been talk of pressuring the railways to remove one of their tracks – that still only frees up one more lane of traffic, we’re still not up to four if we want to maintain access to the retail fronts along Front Street.

What about behind The Interurban and Keg, there isn’t physically enough room to put four lanes between the existing building and the railway tracks. Are they going to shave a corner off this newly restored historic building for a truck route?

All of these are questions that have to be answered in order to make the City’s dream mitigation a reality, and despite years of talking about the NFPR and Front Street with ample opportunity to address these challenges they all remain unanswered. And now we’re asking Translink to suddenly plan and fund this route as one singular project, with adequate public consultation, before the March federal deadline? Really?

2011 is going to be an important year for transportation in New Westminster; the City is updating their Master Transportation Plan, the blueprint for transportation in the City. It’s up to all of us to push the City to get off the fence on these issues. If we truly want a four lane truck route down Front Street, show us the plans on how it will work. How will they make it all fit or which businesses and residents are they willing to sacrifice to shoehorn the road in there? Or should we look at alternative ideas and end the road building paradigm? The time for vague hand waving is over, we need a solid plan on how we want to see transportation in our city evolve over the next decades, the politicians have to get off the fence and make their opinions known.

Getting out of the car mentality is hard, for 50 years this is how we’ve designed and built our cities. We’ve allowed developments where eventual transit service which must follow will be difficult and expensive. As oil prices rise, the idea of cheap living in the burbs will quickly evaporate. With climate change and peak oil the days of motordom are numbered. Even if the fabled electric car becomes a reality we’ve already seen the private car paradigm doesn’t scale. On a recent trip to Seattle it occurred to me, throughout my entire life, over 3 decades, any time I’ve been to Seattle, I-5 has always been under expansion and yet it’s still gridlock during rush hour. The simple reality is no city, anywhere, has ever built themselves out of congestion. And if we think we have the magic plan to do so, we’d be very rich selling it to cities around the world.

But what are the alternatives when it comes to the NFPR? Parallel to the NFPR are three alternative transportation corridors. The Fraser River. The rail lines. And Skytrain. Could the travel demand that Translink projects for the NFPR be satisfied by shifting some of the current and future demand towards this existing infrastructure at a savings of over over $1 billion dollars to the taxpayer?

Studies say, yes. A report on Short Sea Shipping has stated there is a good opportunity to reduce emissions and traffic by sending goods by barge. With the completion of the Evergreen Line, we’ll have the equivalent capacity of a 10 lane freeway between Coquitlam and New Westminster. And the Langley-Lougheed rapid bus the province has promised upon completion of the Port Mann Bridge again has the opportunity to remove a significant number of vehicles from the road at a much more modest cost.

The stumbling block in creating an integrated goods and people movement system is there is no single body charged with creating it. Fraser River issues are a matter for the Port Authority, Translink has admitted it’s a good idea but has no mandate to get involved. Rail transportation is a Federal issue and the domain of private railways. The NFPR and Evergreen Line are a Translink issues. The Gateway project and Highway 1 are a Provincial issue. Zoning on where we put sprawling, low-density developments and business parks are a municipal matter. There is no coordination in creating a unified development and transportation plan, and hence we have the chaos and missed opportunities we see today. In this sea of competing interests and jurisdictions its important that we have a clear vision of what works for our City and what doesn’t. Its up to us to champion a workable transportation system for our City while respecting the need to move people and goods throughout the region.

But the obvious conclusion from all of this is if New Westminster council truly believes in protecting New Westminster’s liveability and IF we’re committed to building the NFPR as one unified project, keeping a standalone UBE on life-support for the sake of some Federal dollars which are pennies in the full project price tag makes no sense. Let it go and let’s start making a real plan for the future.

We have to have the hard conversation; can we make a 4 lane truck highway fit down Front Street? If the answer is no, as I suspect it will be, the city must stop dancing on the fence about conditional support for the NFPR only if unrealistic criteria are met. Development in our downtown and waterfront have been held hostage for far too long, we either need plans on how the NFPR will fit in to downtown New Westminster or to put our foot down and say no thank you, but you’re welcome to take one of the several other modes of transportation our City is fortunate enough to have on offer.

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United Boulevard Extension: what’s next? (Part 1)

Photo: Matthew Laird

Front Street. Photo: Pat Johnstone

We won; we stopped the flood gates of the United Boulevard Extension from opening and releasing the hordes of new commuter traffic on to already chocked New Westminster streets. Or did we?

New Westminster council has asked TransLink to continue consulting, designing, and to request an extension for the Federal money committed to the project. That sounds like a green light to me; despite a lot of public posturing by mayor and council that they wouldn’t support the project they haven’t actually said no to the UBE, they’re just tinkering with the details. A, B, C, or D are out, but something else might be acceptable.

But the lingering questions which have never been answered still remain. What about Front Street? What about the Queensborough Bridge which is already backed up during rush hour halfway down Stewardson Way? Where will all this new traffic the UBE enables actually go? How will TransLink ensure a route which is supposed to be for goods movement doesn’t get clogged and gridlocked with commuter traffic? The City and TransLink have danced around these issues but never actually directly addressed them. Sadly because of policy or in some cases geography they simply can’t, which should ring loud alarm bells for residents.

To their credit council has again asked that a UBE extension be tied in to Front Street mitigation, that the NFPR shouldn’t be done piecemeal with a decade or more gap between sections such as the UBE and Front Street. Fair enough. However the key in all this is what a full project with proper mitigation will look like. This is the detail the City has never defined, there’s only been vague hand waving about plinths, tunnels, “mitigation” and a few pretty drawings. In fact in the few details that have been released there’s been conflicting plans and flip flops with issues such as the future of Front Street as a retail corridor. A detailed plan on how such a project would be designed, how it would affect the existing Front Street, how it would fit in with newer City approved projects like The Interurban, have never been shown. The last estimate I’ve heard from a source inside City Hall about 5 years ago was over half a billion dollars to get everything on the City’s wish list, a number which is obviously far larger now.

Now that TransLink has been granted a 3 month extension on the Federal money, this raises the question, why didn’t TransLink produce a complete plan when they announced they were proceeding with the UBE project last fall? New Westminster council’s December 2010 motion on the UBE reaffirms their 2007 position that Front Street mitigation must be part of the UBE project. It was a key requirement when New Westminster agreed to engage in the UBE process more than 3 years ago. If they couldn’t produce such a plan after 3 years, why should we expect them to now produce a plan in just 3 months?

Which leaves two options. Staff (both in TransLink and City) will waste hundreds of hours developing a new UBE plan which will never be approved by the City because it simply isn’t possible to plan and fund a project costing well over half billion dollar by March. Or City Council will drop the demand for Front Street mitigation as part of the UBE, approve a new UBE design and the flood gates will be opened with nowhere for the traffic to go. Which is it going to be?

But let’s talk about the realities of the entire NFPR and its funding. What will it cost and how will it be funded? The project New Westminster is demanding, when all the pieces are put together (UBE, Front Street, Columbia/Front intersection, fixing the Queensborough again) will likely come in well over a billion dollars. If you include a new Pattullo Bridge, we’re talking potentially up to $2 billion. In any projects of such magnitude (and we’re told of strategic importance for goods movement in the eyes of higher levels government) both the Federal and Provincial government would most certainly be at the table.

In the scenario of a billion dollar project, which is what New Westminster council currently demanding, whether they realize it or not, as a condition of approving the UBE, a tiny $65 million contribution by the federal government is meaningless. If council is going to stick to its guns for an all-at-once project, why get worked up about $65m? We’re talking about a much bigger pot that needs to be filled to complete the whole project. Regardless, there is only one taxpayer, whether it’s from the Federal, Provincial or Translink, it’s still our money, and we still pay the bill. The quibble is over which set of politicians get to be the bad guys in having to find the money and which get to be the good guys in cutting the ribbon. They’re playing a game involving their egos and political careers using our money.

But lets say we could come up with funding in the ball park of $2 billion, what are the physical realities of building a 4 lane truck route through New Westminster? In the second part of this article we’ll examine the limitations of building a road through the heart of the oldest City in Western Canada.

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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.

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Tapping the History of New West Brew

Nels Nelson on Brunette Street at the Westminster Brewery in 1911 (IHP 8356)

Nels Nelson on Brunette Street at the Westminster Brewery in 1911 (IHP 8356)

This is a guest post from Ken Wilkinson of the Friends of New Westminster Museum & Archives Society.

The Brewery District is a new development being built in Sapperton on the corner of Brunette and Columbia Streets. Its name remembers beer brewed successfully there for 110 years. New Westminster beer has been on tap since 1862 for thirsty residents who have always enjoyed it.

As American gold miners flooded up the coast in the 1850s, the new Colony of British Columbia was created and Judge Matthew Baillie Begbie was called from England to help control the new settlers. Very unique laws never seen in Canadian colonies were introduced to heavily tax alcohol and only allow beer to be sold where food was served. Along with miners’ taxes, alcohol taxes created great revenue and quickly spread across Canada. After two breweries on Vancouver Island, New Westminster got the third license in 1862. The City Brewery started the corner of Carnarvon and Eighth Streets and thrived there for almost 40 years under several owners. The Jamieson brewery started at Brunette and Columbia in about 1890.

City Brewery beer flowed freely throughout New Westminster by 1880 when an alderman complained because for every 28 residents there was one place serving alcohol. Some of the famous early saloons included the “Eldorado”, the “Pioneer”, the “London Arms” and the first in Sapperton was the “Retreat”. Smart saloon keepers knew just how to treat the Police enforcing Judge Begbie’s strict laws. Officers would drink where there wasn’t a license and lay charges. Too often they were dismissed because officers “consumed the evidence” (Jack Peden, Labatt’s personnel manager in the Columbian Centennial Edition).

The most successful brewer in New Westminster was Nels Nelson, a Danish immigrant who first arrived and worked in Victoria breweries. In about 1882 Nelson moved to New Westminster and became brew master at the City Brewery. After it became the Westminster Brewery, he bought and expanded it in the 1890s. Nelson was one of the first in Canada to use glass bottles sometimes instead of beer kegs or barrels. During the great fire of 1898, Nels quickly brought out fire hoses and used brewery water to protect modern new machinery while the building burned around it.

People could enjoy beer for 5 cents a glass at places like Sapperton’s first Saloon, the Retreat (IHP 7776)

People could enjoy beer for 5 cents a glass at places like Sapperton’s first Saloon, the Retreat (IHP 7776)

The New Westminster Brewery was rebuilt at Brunette and Columbia on the site of the defunct Jamieson brewery for better access to trains bringing barley and hops, and Brunette River water. During Prohibition (1916-20 when alcohol was banned in Canada and the U.S.A.), Nelson was allowed a unique allowance to produce beer for export, but much was also sold in New Westminster illegally. Many people in the city prospered during prohibition and when it continued in the U.S. until 1933. From the 1890s until he sold the Brewery in 1928, Nels Nelson became a rich, powerful and active man in the city. He built one of the largest homes at 125 Queen’s Avenue in 1912 for his extended family and in retirement bought an orange grove in California for winter retreats.

The Coast Company bought the Westminster Brewery from Nelson, expanded and in 1941 it became Lucky Lager. It was a very popular western brand and expanded again into the largest and most modern brewery in B.C. with Labatt’s purchase in 1958. Labatt’s kept selling Lucky Lager Brew that challenged Molson’s eastern brands until the 1970s. As Brunette Street grew more into a highway and Sapperton began to make a shift from industry to a residential and commercial centre, the location of the large brewery became awkward for Labatt’s and it was closed for redevelopment in 2005.

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Urban Monsters

This is a guest post by Remo Pistor. Remo grew up in South Burnaby.  He moved to the West End of New West in 2003.  He’s passionate about the community he lives in and is interested in seeing New West have successful growth in areas such as small business and development while staying true to its heritage and character of its neighbourhoods.  Remo is an IT Manager for a small software development company, the tech guy behind his girlfriend’s fashion blog www.prairiegirlinthecity.com and all around tech wizard.  You can find Remo on twitter @remop

Edinburgh St. character homes. Photo: Remo Pistor.

Edinburgh St. character homes. Photo: Remo Pistor.

I bought a house in New West about 8 years ago, just as the housing prices were starting to rise and just before the market ballooned and went crazy.  I bought in the West End of New Westminster which I always describe to people as a mini Queens Park; a quaint, quiet neighbourhood with large lots and a lot of old character homes.  Even now you can find a nice house with a large yard for around $600,000.

In spite of City council being as progressive as a community of Amish, there are lots of positives to living in New West and I have really enjoyed living here.  You’re 30 minutes from everything, and you don’t need to cross a bridge or tunnel to get to Vancouver.  The neighbourhoods have lots of character, they’re quiet, and there are lots of parks and community areas.

I felt New West has always remained somewhat of a hidden gem, until lately.  Seems the word has gotten out to those interested in building new homes, and the word is that New West has reasonably priced lots (relative to other areas) and their building codes are far more lax than anywhere else.

Vancouver Special, coming up. Photo: Remo Pistor.

Vancouver Special, coming up. Photo: Remo Pistor.

Now I don’t want you to get me wrong; I’m not against new houses being built.  There are some absolutely beautiful homes being built, in keeping with the style of the neighbourhood. My problem is with the character destroyers or urban monsters that are being erected.  They have foundations wide and deep enough to support a small condo high-rise and even though you are legally allowed only one rental suite the basement has 2 entrances.  The giant wood cube structure built on top are built to their maximum allowable height with flat roofs and every window boxed out to avoid violating the maximum square footage bylaw.  They make no consideration for the character of the neighbourhood or their neighbours.

In my case, the house next to me, although it was built not long before I bought my house, it was built to maximize every last square inch.  On top of being a giant ugly box that destroys the character of the neighbourhood, it was built so close to the property line and so tall that even at the peak of summer it casts a shadow covering a quarter of my backyard.  In the winter my “lawn” has enough moss growing in it that I could keep the local craft stores supplied through to the next season.

What bugs me is that all the while that this destruction of our neighbourhoods is happening, the city does nothing to curb it (bad pun not intended).  Compounding the situation is an Official Community Plan that is disjointed and poorly put together.  In section 2.6 Heritage and Neighbourhood Character, New West identifies the importance of its heritage but really that’s it.  It states that residents and community need to be involved in the conservation of New West’s history and heritage buildings.  But, once again the city falls short in doing anything about the most important part, and that’s making sure there’s a policy that addresses new developments and construction staying true to the neighbourhood’s character.

In contrast, in Burnaby, they have a strong Official Community Plan that’s succinct and covers all aspects of the city.  In section 4.0 Residential, goal number three is: “To maintain and improve neighbourhood liveability and stability.”

It states in goal 3 that, “Residential neighbourhoods are important sub-units of the City. They serve as ‘building blocks’ creating a community through their diverse and distinctive characteristics.”  It goes on to state in the final point that, “Future plans for residential development, as they relate to residential neighborhoods, need to recognize the following… new development should respect the character of the neighborhood and protect those aspects that make each area unique.”

Why New Westminster is unable to take the same approach to protect the character of their neighbourhoods, which they so prominently display on their website, is beyond me.
At the end of the day, I don’t mind you building a large new house; I hope to be able to do the same one day, just have a little respect for your neighbours and your neighbourhood.
In the mean time, another house on my block has been knocked down and replaced with another Vancouver Special.

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New West wins award for Official Downtown Community Plan

The City of New Westminster has won a 2010 Downtown Merit Award from the Washington-based International Downtown Association on the strength of our Official Downtown Community Plan.

Columbia Street, then and now (1932 and 2008). Photo: Dennis Sylvester Hurd, via Flickr.

Columbia Street, then and now (1932 and 2008). Photo: Dennis Sylvester Hurd, via Flickr.

The ODCP is described by the City as, “a comprehensive strategy that outlines sustainable, high density growth in the city’s downtown core while respecting heritage assets, and provides for new amenities such as parks, cultural and recreational services, improved access to the Fraser River and promotes transit oriented employment.” The lead architect of the plan is Director of Development Services Lisa Spitale.

I reached Lisa via email to get her thoughts on the award:

TF: What is the significance of this award for New Westminster?

Lisa: This is an important award for the City as it is the first time that we have received a Merit Award from the International Downtown Association (IDA). The IDA is an organization specializing in Downtown issues – revitalization strategies, crime prevention, housing affordability, urban design, heritage conservation, parking, etc. As you know, New Westminster has been dealing with revitalization issues in the Downtown for well over two decades. The award confirms that, as a community, we’re on the right track.

TF: What do you think was the “winning factor” in the city’s submission?

Lisa: If I had to speculate I would say our plan probably challenged the industry’s preconception of what an OCP typically looks like, reads like, etc.

TF: What is special/unique about New Westminster’s Downtown Community Plan?

Lisa: I think it is unique in two areas:

  1. Many OCPs do not detail historical stories in the way we did in this plan. Why? We believe that you can not understand the community values of the Downtown without understanding its incredible history. And we wanted to make the Downtown stories as accessible as possible.
  2. Big Vision. This plan makes no apology for thinking big – we talk about encapsulation of Front street and connectivity of the waterfront recognizing they are long term goals. The Plan tries to get all of us (the community, the development industry, businesses, etc) on the same page, so that we can collectively envision the Downtown in the next 10, 30, 50 and even 70 years.

TF: Ten years from now, what do you think will be different about our downtown?

Lisa: Great question! I truly believe the Downtown will be quite different than it is today. More residents will be living all throughout the Downtown in townhouses and apartments; the elementary school will be well established and acting as a community hub; the arts will be thriving along Columbia street with our civic facility in full operation; people will be going to the movie theatres, watching a play or going to restaurants in the evening; and more people will be experiencing the waterfront with the new park at Westminster Pier and the return of “the people place” at the River Market.

TF: Will you be attending the October conference to accept the award?
Lisa: I can not attend; however, I hope my staff can attend and accept our award.

Note: this post was edited after it was originally published to remove some broken links and correct my misunderstanding of some details of the award. Specifically, I had written that New West beat out 73 competing submissions for the award, but later learned that I had misunderstood the press release (which stated only that there were a total of 73 submissions).  My apologies for any misunderstandings due to the error.

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