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New Heights

The revitalization of New Westminster is leading to a promising future for the city with countless opportunities for businesses, developers and residents

Economic forums are usually popular events in any city. But there’s a palpable excitement for the upcoming Invest New West Economic Forum 2014, which will take place in New Westminster’s Anvil Centre on October 2.

That’s because this distinctly urban and proudly historic destination on the north bank of the Fraser River is enjoying a revitalization that is unlike anything it has experienced in recent memory, where its best elements have been retained and substantial groundwork has been laid for a vibrant future—with every step guided by the principles of smart growth.

As Mayor Wayne Wright states it, “It’s no secret: New Westminster is on the rise and quickly becoming the place to locate in Metro Vancouver, with all the elements for gaining a competitive edge.”

Nobody appreciates this more than B.C.’s top developers, including Dale and Colin Bosa, president and CEO of BlueSky Properties and Bosa Properties Inc. respectively. They are keynote speakers at the Invest New West Economic Forum and have steered many of Metro Vancouver’s most prominent real estate projects to the city, including the Viceroy and Quantum residential developments.

But what’s the big deal about New Westminster that is commanding so much attention? Why are people moving and relocating businesses here? Surely other cities—many other cities, in fact—are bigger in size and therefore more amenable to growth?

Yes and no. The seven square miles that comprise New Westminster is precisely its ‘secret weapon.’ The compactness has given the city its tactile appeal and fostered a fierce sense of community spirit amongst its residents. Moreover, due to the limited geography, New West’s progressive, can-do city council realized early on that any development, regardless of the purpose, would have to be meticulously planned (they began taking a long-range approach to development when SkyTrain was first introduced to the city back in the 1980s).

Instead of building out, new projects would be built up. Historic edifices that gave the city its character would be retained; transportation to, from and within the city would be developed to its maximum efficiency and special attention would be focused on green space and other lifestyle amenities.

These are the principles that go into creating so-called “livable” cities. New Westminster abides by them out of necessity, and every new project is nurtured by municipal initiatives such as the Livable City Strategy, which was borne out of a comprehensive stakeholder involvement program that engaged a wide range of businesses, organizations and community members in planning for a city that is vibrant, sustainable and contains well-balanced neighbourhoods.

So even though it may seem that as many construction cranes as buildings have dominated New Westminster’s skyline for the past few years, the explosive activity has in fact been carefully considered and coordinated.

As a result, New Westminster has become the place for new families, urban professionals and everyone in between. Add to this brew a cost of living that is more on par with suburban regions than downtown meccas, and you have New West’s success in a nutshell.

Every element of the “new” New West (as many residents fondly refer to their surroundings) attracts commerce in one form or another, whether it’s shoppers out for some fun or head office managers taking advantage of the city’s proximity to other regions in Metro Vancouver (aided by no less than five SkyTrain stations, easy access to YVR, Highway 99, Highway 1, and the Alex Fraser, Pattullo and Port Mann bridges).

Some of the newer elements include the Anvil Centre and Anvil Centre Office Tower, located in the heart of New West’s historic downtown core. Intended to be both a commerce facility and a public gathering place (thanks again to forward-thinking city planners, who endorsed a proposal to create a nine-storey, 137,000 square foot LEED Gold office tower atop the base building), Anvil Centre is host to a conference centre as well as community-based arts programs and performances.
The New Westminster Museum and Archives, New Media Gallery and Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame all call Anvil Centre their home. “Anvil Centre’s unique business facilities and cultural programs will bring people into the downtown daily, which in turn will create spinoff economic benefits and contribute to a vibrant downtown core,” says Blair Fryer, New West’s manager of communications and economic development. The office tower of Anvil Centre was purchased by Kingswood Capital’s Joe Segal and CRS Group of Companies president & CEO Suki Sekhon; the conference centre is owned and operated by the city.

Other developments that have reshaped New Westminster include Shops at New West, a dynamic retail/entertainment/residential complex through which the SkyTrain travels; and the award-winning Westminster Pier Park, a $25-million 3.8-hectare riverfront recreation area and promenade. This sprawling public amenity was designed to open up the waterfront to pedestrian traffic and features a festival lawn, courts for basketball and volleyball, children’s play areas, a concession facility and cycling and pedestrian pathways. The creation of three adjacent residential towers will result in the park being expanded by another two acres in the near future.

Farther east is Wesgroup Properties’ $600-million redevelopment of the Brewery District at the old Labatt brewery site. The nine-acre development consists of office and retail space, residences and health facilities; its desirability is such that Save-On-Foods and TD Canada Trust have become anchor tenants, and Translink relocated its head offices to the site, signing a 20-year lease (Translink alone brings 900 to 1,000 employees into the area).

Elsewhere, the Uptown and Queensborough districts continue to thrive (the former is home to Queen’s Park West, a Class A four-level office building owned by Uptown Property Group, and the latter is the location of Port Royal by Aragon Properties). New Westminster’s biggest employer, Royal Columbian Hospital, is undergoing expansion plans; and Bentall Kennedy’s development of the Sapperton Green site will add another mixed-use destination to the city.

Meanwhile, a host of high-rise condominiums are either being constructed or in the final planning stages: the transformation of the historic Trapp+Holbrook block on Columbia Street is yet another stunning amalgamation of old and new downtown (in this case, a new high rise has become the core of a restored brownstone edifice); and Northbank by Ballenas will provide residents with stunning views of the Fraser River and quick access to the waterfront.

Subterranean development is also brisk: as part of its Intelligent City plan, New Westminster recently approved an investigation into the prospect of assuming some of the control telecom companies have over Internet, television and phone prices. The idea is to develop its own fibre optic network (much of it below ground) and lease that capacity to the telcos; this in turn will allow companies to lease fibre at a lower cost from the municipality.

The “new” New West emerging from all this activity is precisely what planners and community groups have envisioned for years, and with this infrastructure the city’s current 11,000-strong population in the downtown core will grow comfortably to 15,400 by 2021; the city overall will expand from its current population of just under 66,000 to over 97,000 by 2031.

Not surprisingly, there’s still room for more makeovers in the future, thanks to the dedication of City Council and staff in consultation with the community. As will be demonstrated repeatedly at the 2014 Invest New West Economic Forum, New Westminster is a rare example of a place where the future is viewed with healthy optimism—an optimism resulting from the hard-won achievements of the past.