Peter Newall discovered downtown New Westminster long before the recent boom
Some in the development community are buzzing about downtown New Westminster, but it’s nothing new to Peter Newall, the head of Ballenas Project Management.
In an interview with the Georgia Straight in a Starbucks on Columbia Street, the veteran builder recalls that the first project he ever did in the city was a car lot back in 1984.
After that, Newall’s company was hired as a general contractor on several heritage-building restorations in Gastown in the 1990s. That was part of the first wave of condominiums in the area.
“Subsequent to that, we set our sights on New Westminster because Gastown was kind of built out and New Westminster had a lot of charm,” he says.
His first residential project in the Royal City was something that had never been done before in North America: a mixed-use building combining the police department and residential units.
At the time, police officers were sharing New Westminster City Hall with bureaucrats and politicians, which made for a very crowded facility.
A few blocks away, the Federal Building and Post Office at 549 Columbia Street was a downtown landmark, thanks to its unadorned, modernist-style, granite- and andesite-clad exterior. The federal government had opened the building in the 1950s, but it was no longer needed. And the city wanted it used for a police-services building.
“They were looking for a developer to buy the building off the federal government and renovate it,” Newall explains.
The city hoped that the police department could occupy about half of the space, with the rest being leased by office and retail tenants. Newall, however, told municipal staff that there would be no market for office space and that the building was unsuitable for retail.
“So I said, ‘Here’s my alternate proposal: I’ll give you a police-services building in these areas…and we’ll do residential above,’ ” he says.
The city accepted his offer to build it as a turnkey project, which meant no money changed hands until the police department moved into the building.
“There are 45 residential units that are on the top three floors of the building,” Newall reveals. “The police service is below that. It’s never been done anywhere.”
According to Newall, apartments went on sale for only $89,000 in February 2002, just five months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He recalls them selling like “hotcakes” because at that time, there were very few condominiums on the market due to a slow economy.
He notes that city planners later travelled to conferences around the world to show off the project as a hallmark of creative planning.
Later, Ballenas Project Management created the Inter Urban, a 19-storey high-rise on the southwest corner of Columbia and Begbie streets near the New Westminster SkyTrain station. Newall says the height was achieved with the help of a density bonus that the city awarded in return for providing a new home for the Salvation Army.
“Other than the city of Vancouver, New Westminster has got more heart and soul and history than all the other municipalities put together,” he claims. “It’s got great neighbourhoods. It’s a good place for people to live.”
However, he acknowledges that it’s not always an easy sell because there’s a perception that Columbia is a “scruffy street”. But he insists that this has changed since the police moved their headquarters there.
Newall likes developing buildings close to SkyTrain stations, and his latest New Westminster project, the 21-storey Northbank, is no exception. It’s a short walk from the Columbia rapid-transit stop.
He points out that it costs more than $30,000 per parking spot in most projects, which is why he always asks municipal councils to let him build fewer spaces in ones near SkyTrain stations. He suggests this would make homeownership more affordable.
“We always ask for relaxations,” Newall says. “We always get half of what we want. I think the rules are archaic and they’re completely at odds with everything else we’re trying to do in society.”