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.
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”.
The recent investment boom echoes the city’s early years, when it was the hub of the province. New Westminster was the original capital of the colony of British Columbia, after it was founded in 1859 by the Royal Engineers. At the time, it was the first city west of the Great Lakes, and Queen Victoria selected the name. This is why it’s still referred to as the Royal City.
A huge fire in 1898 wiped out much of the downtown, which prompted a major building boom that gives Columbia Street much of its existing character. This preceded an economic boom in Western Canada leading up to the First World War.
The Trapp Block was built after the blaze on the slope between Columbia and Front streets, anchored by a wholesale and retail hardware company founded by Thomas and Samuel Trapp. The first four storeys were completed in 1902, with additional floors and a terra cotta façade added over the next decade.
A description on the Canada’s Historic Places website states: “The extensive use of glazing on the front and rear façades maximized the use of natural light and increased the amount of product display space. The prominence and detailing of the terra cotta façade elements contribute to the visual dominance of the Trapp Block and help establish the historic character of the area.” The Holbrook Block immediately to the east was once a three-story masonry hotel.
Wild Rice's Andrew Wong sees parallels between New West and Vancouver.
This rich history is one of the things that drew Robert Fung to the city. In an interview at the Straight office, he says that he likes the “can-do attitude” of the city’s mayor.
“He’s one of the reasons you’re seeing so much activity in New Westminster,” Fung states. “It takes political will. It takes capital. It takes the market to be there at the right time. In terms of political will, he has put everything into it from the standpoint of the interests of New Westminster.…There is no quit in the guy.”
As an example, Fung cites the new waterfront park, which was made possible when the city obtained a $16.6-million federal stimulus grant. Fung says he also admires how younger businesspeople in the city are creating networks and holding meet-ups to build a sense of community and share ideas.
“They seem to get the notion that creative space attracts creative people,” he says. “Creative people create dynamic urban spaces.”
Re-Up BBQ's Michael Kaisaris likes New West because it's affordable and urban.
Some of this takes place at the River Market, which was developed by Mark Shieh, a cerebral 38-year-old former Disney “imagineer” and New York City resident who returned to Vancouver after 9/11. Over lunch with the Straight in the new Wild Rice restaurant, Shieh explains that he wanted to create a project that would have just as much impact as Granville Island had on Vancouver.
“I wasn’t looking to do a public market, per se, but this property was available for sale,” he says. “I loved the experience of Disney, but a lot of that is about creating something that is like a fantasy. But this is about a real place.”
He then mentions that he sees parallels between the relationship of Manhattan and Brooklyn and the impact of Vancouver’s rapid growth on New Westminster.
Both regions are linked by rapid transit. Both have a unique pride associated with each area. Manhattan, like Vancouver, has experienced rising real-estate prices, which has driven younger people to urban areas outside the core.
There’s one key difference, however. GQ magazine has described Brooklyn as the “coolest city on the planet”. That distinction has eluded the Royal City, whose downtown core is still dominated by a cluster of wedding-wear shops.
But Shieh is making inroads. He persuaded restaurateur Andrew Wong to open the Wild Rice in his market.
Wong explains to the Straight that he and his partners were looking to create a new restaurant near some water.
"New West is an engaging community filled with people who love to say hello when you walk down the sidewalk," he says. "It's very reminiscent of the areas I've lived in around Vancouver, which was Mount Pleasant and a little bit in Strathcona and Cambie—just little pockets of nice neighbourhoods."
Shieh says he's created the River Market around a concept that he calls “Food 360”. Everything is visible, including the chef cooking in the Wild Rice kitchen and the back areas of the nearby Donald’s Market. There’s a garden out front by the water, where volunteers grow herbs and blueberries that will be served to customers.
Shieh explains that his company is trying to create an “activity economy” at the River Market. “Value comes from what your customers can do with you,” he says.
One of his newest tenants is Re-Up BBQ, which has created a buzz in Vancouver with its street food. The 30-year-old cofounder, Michael Kaisaris, sits down for a few minutes to talk about why he and his wife recently bought a 100-year-old character home on a corner lot in the city.
He points out that it cost about three-fifths as much as a comparable house in East Vancouver.
“We really wanted the authentic urban experience,” Kaisaris says. “It has public transit. It has history and community—and all of those things are organic. They haven’t been forced on the city.”
At the next table, the local NDP MLA, Dawn Black, is having lunch.
NDP MLA Dawn Black likes the changes in New Westminster.
She tells the Straight that she’s excited by what’s happening downtown and loves dining at Wild Rice. “This area along Columbia Street was known as the Miracle Mile early in our history,” she says. “We may get back to that kind of economic development and potential in New Westminster as we go through this revitalization. And more and more people are moving here.”
On a walking tour of the area with the Straight, Downtown New Westminster Business Improvement Association executive director Kendra Johnston and Tourism New Westminster’s Tej Kainth point to the elegantly refurbished brick Burr Block, a Victorian Romanesque Revival structure that includes the boutique Met Hotel.
“The building survived the great fire of 1898, and is still flourishing today,” Johnston says.
Kendra Johnston describes the historic Burr Block on Columbia Street.
Kainth notes enthusiastically that it’s one of four hotels in the city, the largest being the Inn at the Quay. The two women, both in their 30s, also want to talk about DiverseCity, which is a daylong multicultural festival at Westminster Quay on May 19. Kainth, whose parents immigrated from Punjab, points out that the city has been home to people from diverse backgrounds for generations. Chinese pioneers, Japanese fishermen, Italians, and some of B.C.’s earliest immigrants from India all settled in the city, often in the Queensborough area, where its first Sikh temple was built in 1919.
New West will also host its third annual Pride festival from August 16 to 19, which includes a march up the hill from the downtown. “There’s a miniparade from 6th and Columbia up to City Hall called Heels n’ Hills,” Johnston says.
A few minutes later, she points to the Brooklyn Pub on the eastern edge of the downtown, noting that it will undergo major renovations this summer. There’s plenty of speculation that residential units will be built on top.
Fraser River Discovery Centre executive director Catherine Oullet-Martin talks about an aboriginal-fishery exhibit coming in June.
Then, they walk down to the local vegan store, called Karmavore, which has been attracting people from across the region to its downstairs location since it opened nearly three years ago.
A customer, Brenda Hotte, has come all the way from her home near Granville Island. She professes to be “blown away” by the neighbourhood. “I love it—the buildings and the history,” she says. “I think it has lots of potential.”
Next door at the Urban Gypsy, a four-and-a-half-year-old home-furnishing store featuring Hindu- and Buddhist-style furniture and statues, owner Jason McGill welcomes the economic development.
He admits that it’s been tough to operate a retail business in the past, but points out that the area is attracting more young couples.
“I think it’s on a cusp right now that it has been slowly going on,” McGill says. Later, he suggests that the area “is going to explode” in popularity.
Urban Gypsy owner Jason McGill shows off his store on Columbia Street.
New Westminster isn’t without its challenges. A railway line divides the downtown core from the waterfront, which will make access to the new park a little more difficult.
Cote also expresses concerns about the massive amount of traffic along major transportation arteries such as Front Street, Royal Avenue, McBride Boulevard, and 10th Avenue. A fair amount comes via the Pattullo Bridge, which TransLink hopes to replace with a new structure with greater capacity.
“The city has over 450,000 vehicles driving through the city each commuter day,” he says. “So that has a huge impact, a negative impact, on livability,” he says.
Cote wonders if the time has come to consider decommissioning the Pattullo Bridge, given the looming opening of a new Port Mann Bridge and the underutilization of the Golden Ears Bridge. The Alex Fraser Bridge also connects New Westminster with North Delta.
“I don’t know if you remember when the Pattullo Bridge caught fire a few years ago, and it was closed for a few weeks,” Cote comments. “It was night and day, the changes that took place in New Westminster from a neighbourhood perspective. You did not have near the traffic problems. It just gave you this glimmer of hope of what you could really see here.”
Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter at twitter.com/csmithstraight.