New Westminster's urban revival
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”.