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New Westminster’s Centrepiece

A LEED Gold project, the new Anvil Centre is one of the most important developments in the city’s history

New Westminster’s first skyscraper, The Westminster Trust Building, was completed in 1913. The eight-storey structure was a distinctive example of Chicago School of Architecture style, with red brick and white terra cotta trim, and it marked the entry to the downtown core at the corner of Columbia and Begbie Streets.

Downtown New West rose to glory in the mid-century, when Columbia Street was the main retail and service centre for the surrounding cities and the Fraser Valley. Known as The Golden Mile, it hosted major department stores and long-established retailers.

The diversion of traffic to Highway #1 and the building of suburban malls are generally given as the reasons for Columbia Street’s demise in the 1970s. But several years into a downtown revitalization project, a new landmark now stands beside the Westminster Trust Building. The Anvil Centre is a new multi-use civic centre and office tower complex, which is set to open in September 2014.

“It’s the most important development in the city, maybe even in its history,” says Mayor Wayne Wright. “From a business point of view we knew we needed this. It’s the right size, the right place and it’s got the transportation network to support it. This will really be the heart of the city.”

The Anvil Centre includes two components. The first is the civic facility, which will have conference and meeting rooms, a theatre, multi-purpose rooms and art studios, a civic art gallery, the city’s Museum and Archives, the Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame, Tourism New Westminster’s visitor information desk and restaurant and retail space.

The second component is a nine-storey, 137,000-square-foot office building. The entire project is targeted for LEED Gold, and will be an iconic structure covering an entire city block at the gateway to New Westminster’s downtown.

In 2010, the city finalized a new Downtown Community Plan, which envisioned the area as the economic, cultural, historic and residential hub of New Westminster. A host of condominium developments and new retailers have fashioned the area into a popular home for young families and first-time buyers, looking for the ambiance of Yaletown without the price tag.

Although the response to the Anvil Centre has been extremely positive, with conference centre bookings a year ahead of schedule, the project had a bit of a rocky start. In 2008, the city received funding of about $60 million through a Development Assistance Compensation Agreement with the provincial government, BC Lottery Corporation and Gateway Casinos for providing a location for a casino in the Queensborough area. One of the earmarked purposes for the money was a civic centre in the downtown core—the city later decided to add an office tower.

The project hit a major hurdle in 2011 when a developer pulled out of a tentative partnership. City council decided in April 2012 that it would build the tower itself. The $41.5-million cost for the civic component was covered by the casino funds, but the city passed a bylaw to borrow up to $59 million to build the office tower. Council faced a public backlash, and a 2,100-signature petition was filed against the decision.

“The biggest challenge was getting people to understand what we were trying to do and how important the site was,” recalls Mayor Wright. “We saw it as the true centre of the city and one of the mainstays of the Lower Mainland.”
[pagebreak]In March 2014, commercial real estate agent Cushman & Wakefield sold the office tower for $36.5 million to a company owned by two well-known local business leaders: Joe Segal and Suki Sekhon. With total construction costs for the office tower shell at $30 million, the building is now complete and occupancy is expected to start in the fall of this year. The sale of the empty building was a tremendous vote of confidence. “We couldn’t ask for better partners,” Mayor Wright explains. “They were our No. 1 choice. They’ve got the vision to see what’s going on down here and they were a step ahead of everybody else.”

According to Sekhon, they were impressed by the downtown revitalization, the quality of the building and the surrounding transportation network including five SkyTrain stations and the new Patullo Bridge. “If you look at the Lower Mainland, this is centre ice,” says Sekhon. “It’s 20 minutes from almost anywhere in the Lower Mainland, the North Shore and the Fraser Valley. The combination of affordable condominiums and single-family homes, and the attractive rental rates available at the Anvil Centre makes this a win-win situation for both employees and employers. This building meets a growing need in the marketplace for people who want to work and live in a vibrant, sustainable community.”

Back when Columbia Street was known as The Golden Mile, Segal’s second Field’s store was located here. He later bought a department store there called Collister’s. During the two-year period of negotiation before the sale, Sekhon drove up and down Columbia Street, and the area, with Segal, who shared his enthusiastic memories of that period.

“At one time it was the envy of every other community in B.C.,” recalls Segal. “It had a mix of every kind of merchant and interest. The thing that was so superb was the loyalty on the part of the residents. New Westminster was their city. Columbia Street was their street.”

Now, he sees that energy returning. “When I went through the city, having been absent for 15 years, and I saw all the towers and the influx of residents all within a stone’s throw of Columbia Street, I saw that the street is evolving and it will once again become that wonderful relaxing street at the core of the community.”

Directly across the street from Anvil Centre is Shops at New West, a unique new commercial, retail and cinema development built around the New Westminster SkyTrain station, with three residential towers called Plaza 88. Across Columbia Street from the Anvil Centre is the revitalized River Market, and within walking distance is the Westminster Pier Park, an award-winning nine-acre waterfront amenity.

In the resurgence of development in the downtown area, an office tower was a vital component. “For several years we’ve talked about attracting more employment,” says Lisa Spitale, New Westminster’s city manager. “We realized that the site itself, along the SkyTrain line, could help fulfill a lot of our economic development strategies.”

The project is expected to generate about 500 direct jobs and 250 indirect jobs, as local businesses respond to the growing need for goods and services. “Those are significant numbers,” Spitale says. “The people working there are going downtown to coffee shops, restaurants, taking art classes, so there’s all kinds of spinoff effects.”

Mark Chambers, the leasing agent from Cushman & Wakefield, helped negotiate the sale of the office tower and is now finding tenants for the space. The confidence of well-known “brand-name” landlords, he says, really helped promote the Anvil Centre.

“I think it’s a complete game changer for the city of New Westminster,” says Chambers. “It’s a great tower in a market that really needs one. It’s a LEED Gold building, and it’s on transit. There’s not a lot of opportunities like this for a corporate user who wants to send a strong sustainability message.”

Along with its forward-thinking environmental design, the building also features large floor plates, great waterfront views and big decks.

The city will continue its downtown densification strategy, with up to 20,000 residents expected by 2031. A new elementary school will open in the fall of 2014, and a middle school is also under construction. An additional waterfront park and child care centres are also part of the plan for sustainable and responsible growth.

“New Westminster is clearly an area undergoing tremendous revitalization and resurgence,” says Blair Fryer, manager of communications and economic development at City of New Westminster. “I’ve been really proud of the attention and recognition that New Westminster has been getting with all these plans coming to fruition. As a resident of the city I’m impressed on a daily basis by what’s happening here.”