City Launches Bridge to the Future

New Westminster is getting a new highway.

But this one won’t pour even more vehicles off and on the ageing Pattullo Bridge.

This highway moves data.

And, it’s hoped, move British Columbia’s oldest city well into the future.

Tuesday, the City of New Westminster launched its new BridgeNet fibre optic network. When it’s completed in five years, the network of fibre optic cable encased in bright orange plastic conduits buried in the ground will bring gigabit internet to businesses, agencies, industries and residents from Queensborough to Sapperton.

The initiative is the backbone of New Westminster’s “intelligent city” strategy to “drive its economic growth over the next 20 years,” said Bill Harper, the co-chair of the task force that developed the program in consultation with business, industry and residents.

“You’re going to have to have an intelligent city if you’re going to survive in the modern world,” said Harper.

Photo by Mario Bartel Coun. Bill Harper, the co-chair of the City of New Westminster's Intelligent City Advisory Committee, examines a section of plastic conduit that will house high-speed fibre optic cable to be installed throughout the city over the next two years. The city will operate its new BridgeNet network as a utility, leasing capacity to private Innternet Service Providers which will then sell connections to business and residential customers.
Photo by Mario Bartel
Coun. Bill Harper, the co-chair of the City of New Westminster’s Intelligent City Advisory Committee, examines a section of plastic conduit that will house high-speed fibre optic cable to be installed throughout the city over the next two years. The city will operate its new BridgeNet network as a utility, leasing capacity to private Innternet Service Providers which will then sell connections to business and residential customers.

Gigabit internet capability over fibre optic cable means data can be downloaded at speeds up to 940 megabits per second; conventional internet speeds over existing copper cables range from 10-50 Mbps.

That means more than being able to watch Orange is the New Black on Netflix without pixelating or participating in a multi-player video game without buffering, said Harper. “It’s a process of getting to the next stage of economic  development.”

That development will bring new knowledge-based jobs to the city in health care, high tech, innovation and even the film industry.

Nicholas Boughen has been champing at the gigabit since he opened his CG Masters School of 3D Animation and VFX in the Shops at Westminster Station four years ago. Creating digital effects for film, television and games takes a lot of computer power; a single frame of an explosion can take 1,000 gigabytes of data. Moving that amount of data over existing copper cables to massive “rendering farms” where stacks of thousands of powerful computers transform digital ones and zeros into orange balls of flame and roiling smoke is impractical. So Boughen built his own rendering hobby garden of 80 computers in house. Still, rendering a student project can take days.

Having a high-speed connection to the remote rendering farms will “mean our training program becomes more capable,” said Boughen. And that’s attractive to VFX giants like Sony Pictures, Imageworks and Industrial Light & Magic, who he foresees could one day occupy the empty floors of the Anvil Centre’s office tower.

That’s not just fanciful thinking said Alvin Chok, BridgeNet’s Chief Information Officer. As young workers that drive the technology industries get priced out of the Vancouver housing market, they’re looking to more affordable cities like New West that also offer the big city amenities they value like access to transit and walkability. So are their employers.

“They want to stay connected to the world,” said Chok. “Their big motivators are rents and affordable real estate compared to Yaletown.”

The City will build and operate BridgeNet as a utility. It will install, maintain and own the network, leasing capacity to private Internet Service Providers that will then provide access to business and residential customers; to date four ISPs have signed on.

The network’s backbone will be completed in two phases; the first will connect Uptown, Downtown and Sapperton and next year’s second phase will extend  to the West End and Queensborough. The ISPs will then connect businesses and multi-family residential complexes to the backbone. The ISP’s at Tuesday’s launch event, like UrbanFibre, were advertising Gigabit internet connections for residential customers for $79 a month.

But it’s in the business sector the city hopes BridgeNet will really connect. High speed fibre will be an allure for upcoming developments at Sapperton Green, the Brewery District and Queensborough, as well as existing office space Downtown and Uptown, said Chok.

“We’ll have enough capacity so we can scale up,” said Chok. “We can accommodate future needs.”

Including the demands of a redeveloped and expanded Royal Columbian Hospital which will rely on high speed internet to move vast amounts of data like hi-res X-Rays, MRIs and even remote robotic operations.

“Jobs are being created in technology,” said Harper. “The innovation curve is huge; it’s going straight up.”

For more information about BridgeNet, including an interactive map of where and when it will be available, go to www.bridgenetnw.ca

Not So Bland Stuff

This post originally appeared in Issue Zero of our print magazine, April 2016.

The phrase “economic development” is often a signal of some boring, dry stuff to come, stuff best left to bean counters and statisticians. There is a relationship between economic development and the way a community evolves and transforms, however. The feeling in the city, the way neighbourhoods work, and the people who are here are all impacted by economic development and vice versa. That human factor is what makes it so important to look beyond the dollars and cents part of the equation. Continue reading “Not So Bland Stuff”

The first New West parklet goes to …. Sapperton!

Today on Twitter, Mayor Jonathan Cote announced the city’s first parklet will be built in Sapperton near Fratelli Bakery and the new Bloom Bloom Room flower shop.

If I didn’t know how long it takes to get things done at City Hall, I’d think the Mayor of New Westminster must be reading my blog.

The first of five parklets planned for the city over the next five years, the East Columbia parklet is expected to be finished this summer. The City’s goal is to create one new parklet per year over the next five years.

New West blogger Brad Cavanagh revealed he actually watches council meetings, beating me to the punch on his blog with a pretty great summary of what a parklet is, and what the City’s plans in this direction are:

For those who don’t know, a parklet is a mini park set up as an extension of a sidewalk. They’re not very large, typically fifteen to twenty meters long, and about three meters wide. They’re places for people, set up to allow people to meet, sit, and relax. Vancouver has five parklets, and they’ve been big hits almost everywhere they’ve been put in.

Yep, those are the very same kinds of public spaces I raved about after coming home from NYC: little enclaves of social civility and peace amid the hustle and bustle of sidewalks and streets.

Coming upon a parklet introduces a wee frisson of joy during a walk through a city. But it isn’t just a feel-good move. It’s actually a savvy economic development move. Cavanagh’s post shares links to studies in other cities that found adjacent businesses typically see between 9-20% more business following the installation of a parklet. Good news for Fratelli, Bloom Bloom Room, Sushi Heaven and the other businesses at that end of East Columbia!

But what about parking? As Sapperton resident Jen Arbo put it, the boon to businesses will far outweigh the loss of a couple of parking spots.

Councillor Patrick Johnstone also wrote about the parklet in a council meeting summary post on his blog:

Parklets are great ideas, and they can really improve the pedestrian and retail space in a commercial district. The City is piloting our first Parklet this summer in Sapperton, with plans to introduce another annually (at least) for the next couple of years. Staff has been given a modest budget, but a lot of flexibility to find partnership opportunities, design ideas, or creative innovations to make the Parklets fit local needs in our different neighbourhoods. I was really happy Council endorsed this program, and that staff is not only excited to implement it but have provided a really nice design for New West Parklet #1.

The initial reaction from both businesses and residents was pretty positive on Twitter:

But not everyone was pleased. The announcement irked at least one Quaysider, where gardening budgets have been cut back:

What can I say? New West loves its greenspace. Note to council: Don’t mess with our parks.

Network with local entrepreneurs at LAUNCH! New West

New West has a thriving culture of entrepreneurship, but I haven’t seen it celebrated and encouraged as much as I’d like.  Hopefully that’s about to change.

Small business is critical to New Westminster’s economy and culture. Of the 2864 business licenses issued to residents, 2452 have gone to small businesses, which means that approximately 85% of New West based businesses are small businesses. At both the municipal and provincial level, government is trying to do more to support local entrepreneurs launch, grow and thrive.

On Tuesday, March 26, Jen and I are hosting LAUNCH! New Westminster, a free, informal mixer for local business owners and ‘someday’ entrepreneurs to network with each other, learn more about City and Provincial initiatives to support small businesses, and share their thoughts and ideas on the subject.  The event is from 6-8pm in River Market‘s Food Hall. Light refreshments will be provided, and beer & wine will be available for purchase at a cash bar. While the event is free, registration is required as space is limited. Participants can register online using Eventbrite at http://businessinnewwest.eventbrite.ca.

The focus of the evening will be conversational, with lots of time for networking and dialogue. We’ll kick off with a brief Q&A with BC Minister of State for Small Business Naomi Yamamoto, as well as Acting Mayor Jaimie McEvoy, City of New Westminster Economic Development Manager Blair Fryer, and Councillor Bill Harper, who chairs the City’s Economic Development Committee. Jen and I will moderate the discussion (let us know in the comments or via Twitter if you’ve got any questions you want us to ask!). After that, it’s a party – go chat with friends, meet some new folks, or talk one-on-one with the Minister, Mayor or Councillor.

While the timing of the event is close to provincial election time, our goal isn’t to promote any particular candidate or party, but rather to open a dialogue that will hopefully continue well past the election. We’ll hear from the officials on what they are doing, but there will also be opportunities to ask questions and share ideas in open Q&A, and an ideas wall where people can write down their thoughts, suggestions and comments on small business issues.

From my perspective as an entrepreneur with a small business based in New West, I believe that attracting entrepreneurs and helping them to thrive and grow will benefit our community, culture and economy. It should be a cornerstone of the City’s economic development strategy. Hopefully this event will be a small step in the right direction. I hope to see you there!

‘Royal City’ swag lights coming back to Columbia Street

Several weeks ago the City of New Westminster hosted an Economic Forum. The forum was intended to highlight the changes that have been occurring in the city and promote future economic opportunities. The keynote speaker at this event was real estate marketer Bob Rennie. At the end of his speech Mr. Rennie suggested that New Westminster ditch the Royal City moniker for something more contemporary. Although I was out of town during this speech, I could almost feel the collective groan in the community following this comment. Personally I do not agree that New West should ditch the ‘Royal City’ nickname, as it is engrained in the collective consciousness of our town. Having said that, and probably more to the point of Mr. Rennie, the city should be prepared to look at how and when this traditional moniker is used.

That same week on a seemingly unrelated topic, the City made the decision to install swag lights along Columbia Street.

Historic Seasonal Lighting over Columbia Street in the Downtown (Image courtesy VPL: 41806)

In the 1950’s swag lights hung over Columbia Street and contributed to a sense of pride in the community. During this time Columbia Street was known as the Miracle Mile for retail activity and drew in shoppers from all over the region.  The decades that followed were not so kind to this street though, as New Westminster largely became known as a small, old-fashioned, inaccessible community. Just as prominent retailers began to leave the street, so did the traditional crown swag lights.

Today Columbia Street is starting to make a rebound; one only needs to walk along the street to see that something is happening down there. So it seems only fitting that the city has decided to permanently install replica crown swag lights along the street. To be honest, I am not a big fan. I recognize that this is mainly a taste issue and my opinions are very subjective. I have spoken to many people and heard a range of comments from “I think they are going to look great down there” to “the design of the lights looks dated and old-fashioned”.  I am also probably the last person anyone should be getting style advice from. Having said that, I love cities and I take great passion in exploring the secrets behind what makes a city a great place.

I have been fortunate to visit a lot of great cities during my life and I don’t believe that these types of beautification programs are a key ingredient. I don’t need street banners telling me that I am in the big apple to appreciate New York. Nor do I don’t need signage indicating that I have entered the hipster capital of the world when I walk through Portland. There is something genuine about these cities and there is something genuine about New Westminster as well. Our historic buildings, our beautiful streetscapes and the river all tell the story of our community.

I also think we have lost an opportunity to allow ourselves to be inspired by the swag lights from a past era, but then to take this idea and design contemporary lighting that speaks to what the city is today and where we want to go in the future. New Westminster will always be the Royal City; I am just not convinced we need to put up ’50s-era stylized crown lights along Columbia Street to maintain our special place in the heart of Queen Victoria.

The shops I wish we had in New West

If New West's fairy godmother offered to fast-track a few new shops, here's what I'd wish for ... (Photo: suttonhoo on Flickr)
If New West’s fairy godmother offered to fast-track a few new shops, here’s what I’d wish for … (Photo: suttonhoo on Flickr)

I have many favourite boutiques and restaurants in New West, and it seems to me there are more opening all the time. But if I had a fairy godmother who would fast-track a few new businesses for me, here is what I would wish for:

A truly great coffee shop
New West does not lack for coffee shops, but it does lack for great coffee. A JJ Bean would be awesome, or better yet, something like Raw Canvas in Yaletown, which combines great coffee with a great creative space (and turns into a wine bar / lounge at night!). I want it down on Columbia Street, which just seems like the right place for a cool cafe.

An indoor play space for kids (that is also comfortable for parents)
While restaurants and cafes with adjacent play areas are popular in other parts of the city (Kinder Cafe in Coquitlam, Rocky Mountain Flatbread on Main, Cafe Deux Soleils on Commercial), there isn’t anything in New West or nearby. There are also large indoor active play areas, Koko’s Activity Centre in Port Moody, Crash Crawly’s in Coquitlam and Jungle Jac’s in Pitt Meadows, but all of these are awful for parents – and far away to boot. I would love to see a fun place where kids can play on a rainy day and parents can sit in a comfortable chair and chat with each other over good quality coffee and snacks. Bonus points if the food is healthier / more interesting than just hot dogs and pizza. I had thought that the space where Dynamic Health and Fitness is now in Royal City Centre would have made a great large indoor play space, but River Market would be another good bet for a mid-sized space. A restaurant with a small play area could be done anytime by any of our existing restaurants. Yes, it’s fewer tables, but you wouldn’t believe the number of times I’ve overheard local parents (mostly moms) pining for such a space in New West.

A hip greasy spoon diner
Back when Will and I lived downtown (years ago!), we’d often head out to The Templeton for a hearty, hip breakfast on Granville St. This weekend when we were considering where to go in New West for breakfast, there was nowhere that quite fit the bill: independents like the Coming Home Cafe and The Hideout Cafe were likely to be closed (it was Remembrance Day) and we were left with various chain restaurants or the greasiest of greasy spoons (cheap, but no atmosphere and mediocre food). We ended up at The Boathouse for brunch, which was good in its own way, but we spent the meal daydreaming about what a great Columbia St. eatery would be like. Re-Up/Fathom sometimes has brunch on the weekends, and it is very good. Maybe the owners could be convinced to open a breakfast joint on Columbia next?

A brew pub
Last night Twitter erupted in disappointment when word got out that Brown’s Social House would be the pub tenant at the Brewery District in Sapperton. New West has a nascent craft beer community, including some intrepid home-brewers, and a local brew pub was on their wish list. I’m sure Brown’s will become a popular destination for a certain type of night out, but for now Hops remains the beer geek’s pub of choice in New West. But if there are any brew pub entrepreneurs out there reading this: Sapperton wants YOU.

A gift shop for men
We’ve got Brick and Mortar Living, Lofty Living, Cadeaux and Sonse Design (among others) where you can find a lovely little something for a woman, but men are much harder to shop for. I’d love to see someone open a Brick and Mortar-style boutique with little things for men to covet and women to gift. Ideally it would tap into the Art of Manliness movement – most men’s gift stores I’ve seen are full of unimaginative, uninspired garbage. In my opinion, this sort of store would do well on Columbia St., to tap into the wedding market and give brides something really nice to buy for their husbands, or grooms to select for their groomsmen.

An independent toy store
Yes, we had one of those (two if you count the oddly named & situated Kids Kloset), but since Pedagogy Toys closed, there’s been nowhere to go locally to buy gifts for kids. I love shopping at toy stores, and I would love to see someone give an independent toy store another go. I think a toy store would do well uptown. There are lots of parents and grandparents out and about during the day, heading to Moody Park and the Library, and I could see a lot of walk-by traffic from folks in the area to do banking, grocery shopping or other errands. A toy store in the vein of the Village Toy Shop in Port Moody would be perfect.

A neighbourhood coffee shop on 12th St
Poor, poor 12th St. It has struggled for so long and is in quite the slump right now. The hill really limits how far people will walk the street, especially without a chain of awesomeness to draw you up, one store at a time. Amber’s Choice is a nice cafe at the top of the hill, but if you’re around 6th Ave or below, it’s a long way to hike for a coffee and a muffin. John Ashdown’s old cafe, Village Coffee Lounge, was in a perfect spot for neighbourhood customers, and as a resident of the West End I certainly feel its absence. I’d love to see more tightly clustered retail on 12th St., particularly around the nexus of 12th St and 6th Ave, anchored by a great community cafe.

A large mixed-use development at 22nd St. SkyTrain
Here’s the biggest item on my wish list. I want to see 22nd St. SkyTrain station built up. Last year, three of the five or six houses immediately next to the SkyTrain were up for sale at the same time, and I was holding my breath hoping a developer would buy them – alas, not how that story turned out. Still, I think a smaller-scale Plaza 88 ‘Shops at New West Station’-type development would be great there. The proximity to downtown on the SkyTrain is awesome from that station, just 25 minutes to Waterfront and less than 20 to the edge of downtown. The price per square foot vs. travel time to downtown work would be ideal for many folks. Plus, it would provide some walkable and useful businesses for the existing local residents in the area – and potentially lift the fortunes of some of the 20th St businesses as well (which suffer from the same issues as 12th St).

There’s more of course. I’d love to see more wearable street fashion, not just bridal, and more of a visible arts presence. I miss having an art supply store on the street (years ago Full Spectrum Art Supply bowed to the bridal market and turned into Paper Poet, a wedding invitation & papercraft store), and I often wish for an independent bookstore of the type I enjoy in La Conner, WA (The Next Chapter, check it out if you are ever in the area. Fireplace, comfy chairs, decent coffee and an expertly curated selection of titles).

But that’s me. What would you like to see?