New Westminster's urban revival

Downtown New Westminster is staging a remarkable comeback due to lots of political will, big investments, and youthful energy.

In many respects, Jonathan X. Cote—the “X” stands for Xerxes—is emblematic of the new New Westminster. Young, progressive, and well-educated, he was elected to city council seven years ago, at the tender age of 26.

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Cote, who topped the polls in the last two elections, is also a graduate student in the SFU urban-studies program and works part-time as an ICBC adjuster. Not only that, but he and his wife Alix are raising two young daughters, both under the age of five.

No wonder the busy councillor is looking a tiny bit harried as he sits down in a booth at the Heritage Grill, a funky Columbia Street restaurant, to discuss the revival of New West’s historic downtown.

“One of the main reasons we’re starting to see this upswing is actually the demographics,” Cote explains to the Georgia Straight. “Younger people and baby boomers are starting to appreciate the urban environment—and that urban feel is missing from most suburban communities in Metro Vancouver. This is actually becoming a value: being able to walk everywhere, being able to take public transit, being able to jump on a SkyTrain to go downtown.”

The 15.6-square-kilometre city boasts five rapid-transit stops, including the New Westminster and Columbia stations that bookend the downtown.

Cote acknowledges that the city, which was once the most important in British Columbia, went into a long decline that coincided with the rise of suburbia. But the presence of SkyTrain has finally spurred a rebound that’s apparent to anyone who walks through the downtown.

According to Mayor Wayne Wright, half a billion dollars have been invested in the area in recent years, and up to a billion around the entire municipality. This spring, the city will open a sparkling $33-million waterfront park covering 3.2 hectares just east of Westminster Quay. Civic officials hope it will attract more festivals and tourists to the area.

Tourism New Westminster's Tej Kainth shows off the new waterfront park.

To the west is the three-year-old Fraser River Discovery Centre, which plans an aboriginal-fishery exhibit this summer. Next to that is the appealing River Market, home to a new Wild Rice restaurant and a Donald’s Market.

Not far from there is the refurbished train station, which has been converted into a Keg Restaurant, surrounded by a pristine town square. And on the west side of Columbia, a 10-screen multiplex is scheduled to open next month in a mall attached to the New Westminster SkyTrain station.

Unlike every other rapid-transit stop in the suburbs, this one has a Safeway, which greets train passengers before they’ve even exited the station. It’s part of Degelder Group’s massive Plaza 88 project, which includes a mall and 655 condo units in three towers.

Meanwhile, on the northwest corner of Columbia and Begbie streets, the city plans to build a 85,000-square-foot civic centre with convention facilities, a 350-seat nonproscenium theatre, an art gallery, and 100,000 square feet of offices. It recently received a setback when the private partner, Uptown Property Group, withdrew after previously proposing to build the office component.

However, in an interview with the Straight in his office at New Westminster City Hall, Mayor Wright remains bullish about the future of the big hole beside the New Westminster SkyTrain station.

“What we’re going to do there is something that makes the city—on that transit line—the exact location for the smaller events to be held,” he says with a smile. “It will be the premier spot in the Lower Mainland.”

Mayor Wayne Wright has raised the profile of New West.

Up the street, the Salient Group, headed by Robert Fung, is constructing a 20-storey concrete high-rise in place of the dilapidated Trapp Block that was built at the start of the 20th century.

The new Trapp + Holbrook project will include the old structure’s impressive Edwardian façade along with relatively affordable prices—homes start at $219,000, and 100 residences in the building will cost below $300,000. And the recently refurbished, 85-year-old, two-storey Columbia Theatre is home to LaffLines Comedy Club, smack in the middle of a commercial strip known in its heyday as the “Golden Mile” and the “Miracle Mile”.

Michael Hwang, a partner in the Columbia Theatre, tells the Straight by phone that all the major banks have set up shop in the downtown core after a lengthy absence from the neighbourhood. He’s also thrilled by the presence of Fung, who played a major role in the revitalization of Gastown.

“The quality of his renovation will pull us up—and challenge everybody else to pull their standards up,” Hwang says.

Farther east, just past the Columbia SkyTrain station, Ballenas Project Management is developing the Northbank, a 21-storey concrete high-rise overlooking the Fraser River. Ballenas’s Peter Newall was an early believer in New Westminster, having built two other residential projects downtown.

His new building features units at well under $500 per square foot. “If you interviewed 100 people, none of them would say, ‘My first choice is New Westminster,’ ” Newall says in an interview in the Starbucks on Columbia Street. “It’s never that. It’s typically that guys on the East Side find they can’t afford the East Side anymore. They hear about New Westminster. If they ever come out here, they usually become converts. But you’ve got to get them here.”

Cote, a downtown New Westminster resident, sees the signs of progress as a result of a concerted effort by the mayor, council, and city staff to turn things around.

“It’s revitalization with a heart and soul,” the councillor declares. “What I mean by that is part of the puzzle is bringing in the new people and the new developments, but it’s ensuring that you’re still building a city that includes a lot more than just new residential towers and new condo projects. It’s about building the parks and the green spaces. It’s about taking care of the people who were living here before some of these changes.”

While he welcomes the new residents, Cote also wants to ensure that gentrification doesn’t create hardship for low-income people.

“That’s why the city has been working so hard on its affordable-housing strategy, and why I’m particularly interested in rental housing,” he emphasizes. “Because if you go up the hill here, you see a lot of the traditional, purpose-built, three-storey walkup rental buildings. That’s an incredible source of housing for low- or moderate-income earners. To me, it’s critically important that this housing remain.”

Coun. Jonathan X. Cote talks about the changes in the downtown area.

Between 2006 and 2011, New Westminster’s population rose 12.7 percent to 65,976, according to Statistics Canada—eclipsing growth rates of larger cities nearby, such as Burnaby, Richmond, and Coquitlam. In one of his academic papers, Cote points out that there was a 118-percent increase in homelessness in New Westminster between 2002 and 2008.

Since then, three social-housing projects have been completed as part of the city’s “housing-first” strategy, which he says is having a dramatic impact. In 2008, there were 72 people in the city who were categorized as “unsheltered” in the Metro Vancouver homeless count. By 2011, only 41 were deemed to be without shelter.

“Those numbers have gone down, whereas the number of transitional homes has gone dramatically up,” Cote states with pride.

Somehow, it seems appropriate that an interview about the rebirth of the downtown core is taking place in the Heritage Grill. The casual restaurant gives Columbia part of its urban feel, offering regular burlesque performances, drag shows, slam-poetry events, a dance floor, and philosopher’s-cafe events.

The owner, Paul Minhas, tells the Straight that several years ago he wanted to open an eatery on Commercial Drive, but couldn’t secure a location. So he bought an old Chinese restaurant in downtown New West in 2005—at a time when the area was in the doldrums—and renamed it the Heritage Grill.

Minhas notes that there have been tremendous changes along the street since he arrived in the neighbourhood.

“I just can’t believe my eyes in the sense of what I’ve been seeing in the last four years,” he says. “The city is doing incredible things.”

His general manager, John McLeod, says the restaurant is proud to support local artists by providing live music seven days a week.

“We have a dream here at the Heritage Grill,” McLeod tells the Straight. “We would like to see Columbia Street become the Commercial Drive of New Westminster.”

The Heritage Grill's John McLeod is bringing Commercial Drive to New West.

The Heritage Grill is far from being the only nightspot in the area. More recently, Drink Urban Lounge, Status Nightclub, HOPS, and a lounge attached to Stefanos restaurant have opened, adding vibrancy to the downtown.

When asked about the general tenor of the area, Minhas can’t contain his enthusiasm, calling it “absolutely progressive to an extreme”.

Comments (12) Add New Comment
Ruth Tellert
It's great to see the revivial of New Westminster but disappointed with the "wash" approach of certain businesses featured in this article and the lack of fact checking. The Heritage Grill does not do half of the activities they've listed, in fact Paul Minhas has worked very hard in the past while to distance himself from the Gay Community in New West by cancelling all G.I.N. (Gay In NewWest) activities without notice. While I'm happy that New West is undergoing a revivial in its downtown community there's still a long way to go.
Rating: +4
Peter Mare
I hope they can deal with the constant midnight/early morning noise from the train maintenance yard there! Who would want to live there with that noise?
Rating: +4
@Ruth Tellert.....Please don't be dissing the Heritage Grill and Paul Minhas in particular as he's offered a Venue for musicians to play and patrons to enjoy for well over 8 years.
To my knowledge in the past 4 or 5 years he's offered live music/entertainment there 7 nights a week.
In regards to distancing himself from the Gay Community I have no idea why or if this has happened but if it has it's his business and he decides what he wants to do with it.

Rating: +2
Jason McGill
Great Article showcasing one of the jewels of Metro Vancouver! There is no city in the lower mainland that has heritage buildings, an urban vibe, a downtown on the riverfront, parks, a sense of community, accessibility and all that wrapped into one. Sure there are still some hurdles to overcome but if you look at how far it's come in the past few years and the potential for the future, you can only be positive.
Rating: -7
I've recently moved into New West and it's night and day to what it was a few years ago...along Antique Alley a vendor told me they no longer fear the area in the evening and regularly see people out with their kids. If you walk around up on the Hill the heritage houses are wonderful and the only other place I've gotten that vibe is Kitsilano.I laugh at those complaining about Vancouver when New West is half as much and Downtown is 20 Minutes on Skytrain and not much more by Car when driving during off peak hours. I walk everywhere to buy the things we need and it's a great community.
Rating: +9
Jenny Cashin
Sorry your tour didn't include a stroll down vibrant Historic Antique Alley--a great way to spend a few hours--exploring the 5 Antique/Mid-Century furniture, lighting and houseware stores--all in one block!
Rating: +2
James D.
Close to everything in New West...Close to Vancouver...close to go to the States..close to head East on the Hwy..New cinemas...huge shopping complexes at Queensborough and Marine Drive...even Riverway Golf Course is 5 minutes away. It really is great these days and being transformed before our eyes.
Rating: +4
michael richardson
We could have chosen anywhere in the lower mainland to live and open our business, no regrets, new west continues to exceed our expectations
Rating: +2
Scott T.
I moved to New West two years ago, right in the . Just watching the transformation has been amazing. Back then, I had an overpriced IGA, a bus uptown, or a train ride to Metrotown if I wanted groceries at a reasonable price. Now, with the Safeway and Donald's, I have all sorts of options. The movie theater will be great and right across the street from me.

A couple of things I would love to see in the downtown core are a 24 hr convenience store, as nothing is available after about 11 PM. Also, some new sorts of restaurants, the type you would see in a place like Gastown with new menus and styles, rather than the standard Greek, Italian, Chinese, Thai, etc. fare that dominate the downtown core.

I just returned from a stay in Brooklyn and the Brooklyn-Manhattan and New West-Vancouver comparisons definitely have some similarities. But Brooklyn got where it was by relying on things you couldn't get in Manhattan, with lots of cheap, original food and housing. There was an uproar when they built a Subway sandwich place in Williamsburg (it was the only chain of anything I saw on Bedford Avenue). New West won't get there by building chain restaurants and such. In addition, Brooklyn is enormous. Because of that size, it is able to feature many diverse neighborhoods completely different from one another (DUMBO, Park Slope, Williamsburg, Bed-Stuy, etc.). New West will never be allowed that luxury with its small area.
Rating: +8
Some sort of Trolley or Steetcar running up and down 6th Street would be fantastic...probably won't happen but would be great for residents and tourists alike.
Rating: +3
joe black
I lived in New westminster, when i will move back i hope to find a place to call home in New westminter. Beautifull memories and the best people i ever met in my life. the gentlman with his daughter reading in coffee shop at 6 & 6 av/st. the grocery store facing 7/11. The nice staff at new west pet clinic . the one dollar shop. The walk to canada games & pool and all the beautifull house near the Park.
Simply i love everything New Westminster the people, the street, the shops , the homeless.
Rating: +6
The changes are great and lots development but it is being done at a cost to residents. New Westminster is 1-2 with Maple Ridge for the highest property taxes (if you've paid taxes in another city and then move to New West to pay taxes, then garbage fees ,then sewer fees, then water fees you already know) with few amenities. With taxes already at the top there is nothing (New West City Hall doesn’t want to look bad on the list by having a tax rate that is 5% more than any other city) left to do but go to the bank so they can keep spending. To do this New West will burden the next 2 generations of taxpayers with $100,000,000 in dept. This dept is not to build or replace any amenities (like a 40 year old pool that is failing or a library). It is to build an office tower.

To lure in developers The City is allowing buildings into the setbacks. Downtown Vancouver is recognized around the world as being livable for keeping development out of the setbacks. The setbacks are used for open areas and green space. Take a look at the Plaza 88 development. It is great to have shopping and movies next to a Skytrain but the visual impact of 6 story walls rising from the sidewalk on one side and a 4 stories parking garage on the other is an eye sore that you can see from Surrey. It even has huge red squares on it........a living wall would be more appropriate.

Residents have taken back the streets from the prostitutes and drug dealer....once again at what cost....4 huge long term shelters were established with 60 year leases, all within 4-5 blocks of each other. These shelters bring in people from all over Metro Van. The people that leave the shelter will move into the neighborhood. New West is one of 3 low rent areas in Metro Van (others are Downtown Eastside and Whalley, Surrey). A few of the people from each of the shelters will never get better and stay in the area. Over time this will create an ever increasing number of people on social assistance adding more to an area that is already highly stressed.

Over all the changes are a huge improvement but they could have been over a longer time period for far less money and in a way the would create less stress in the neighborhoods. It is not like New West will be going away in the next 20 years.

Rating: +6
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