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Vision Becomes Reality

New Westminster’s new look is turning heads

Have you been to New Westminster lately? If not, chances are you might not recognize this historic city in the midst of dramatic change. The compact city bordering the Fraser River is already the geographic centre of the Lower Mainland. And by capitalizing on its location, new residential, commercial and industrial developments, and the growing enthusiasm of the business community, New West is positioning itself as an economic and cultural centre, as well.

“I was born here in 1971,” says land and development planner Gary Pooni, who grew up in New Westminster’s Queensborough neighbourhood. “Some of my early memories of Columbia Street were of it as a busy hub and the centre of economic activity; but it went into serious decline in the late ’70s and the ’80s. I’ve seen the rise and the decline of the downtown, and now its rebirth—almost like a phoenix from the ashes.”

Indeed, the intense development and revitalization plans of the last decade are now coming to fruition, and the city has turned a corner, says Pooni. “New West has really come into its own—particularly over the last two or three years.”

In such a compact city, density is the key to growth; and new residential developments include high-rises and master-planned communities in almost all neighbourhoods of New West by some of B.C.’s highest-caché developers, including the new Viceroy by Bosa Properties, Aragon Development Corp.’s Port Royal waterfront community in Queensborough and Victoria Hill by Onni Group.

The Salient Group—known for building high-end condos in Vancouver’s historic Gastown that combine a modern esthetic with the neighbourhood’s local heritage—is bringing its design sensibilities to New Westminster’s Trapp block on Columbia Street, originally built in 1899. Redeveloping this historic block will both preserve and showcase the city’s colourful history (which, as the first city in Western Canada and the original capital of B.C., dates back to 1859). Mayor Wayne Wright considers attracting Salient to New West a real coup and a vote of confidence in New West’s future. “We’ve been waiting for this for four years. People like [Salient president] Robert Fung aren’t going to come into an area that isn’t ready for them.”

Bentall Kennedy has proposed a 38-acre mixed-use development near Braid SkyTrain station, which will be one of the largest developments of its kind in the Lower Mainland. Wesgroup Properties is redeveloping the old Labatts Brewery site into a new commercial centre—200,000 square feet of which is already dedicated to Translink’s relocated headquarters. And projects along New West’s famed waterfront will add condos, retail and commercial space, additional parking and the potential for a much-needed hotel.

Meanwhile, the city’s industrial side—in the Queensborough and Braid Street neighbourhoods—isn’t being overlooked. “We could develop those areas into condos, but we don’t want to. We’re keeping them to maintain a healthy employment and tax base for our community,” says Wright. To that end, Queensborough is now home to Target and Canadian Tire’s new 45,000-square-foot distribution centre, built by the Beedie Development Group.

Pooni is quick to point out that amenities are keeping pace with the growing population. In Queensborough, the local community centre completed a $7.7-million expansion last year, including a library, fitness centre, daycare and community space. And a proposed pedestrian bridge over the Fraser River linking the somewhat isolated Queensborough neighbourhood to downtown “will be a game changer for the city,” says Pooni.

Fraser Health Authority has commenced a $1-billion redevelopment and expansion of Royal Columbian Hospital. Translink has proposed replacing the Pattullo Bridge to improve traffic flow between New West and Surrey. And the city’s entire waterfront is getting a facelift—including the new Westminster Pier Park on a remediated former brownfield site—that will seamlessly connect the city from east to west.
“Even though it’s small and compact, and geographically diverse, wherever I look—from Queensborough to uptown to downtown to Sapperton—I see economic activity and investment in every quadrant of New Westminster,” says Pooni. “We have a great business climate, solid infrastructure and strong leadership—it’s the perfect storm for a strong civic economy,” says Pooni.

Small business owner Shelagh Anderson-Vitomir agrees, describing the local business community as extremely active and mutually supportive. “Every new business is welcomed with open arms,” she says.

Anderson-Vitomir opened Lofty Living, a home and lifestyle store, in downtown New West seven years ago. “We felt there was great potential. At that time, there was a lot of ‘want’ from residents to be able to shop local, and it was really obvious that our city was very much on board.”

Early on the uptake in investing in New West’s economic revival, Anderson-Vitomir is more convinced than ever that she made the right choice. “We have an active tourism association, we have an active BIA [business improvement area] and the City is on top of every opportunity to draw attention and business to local businesses,” she says. “The vision is straight across the board—from residents up to City Hall, everyone wants to see improvement; and in their different ways, everyone is contributing.”

One of the City’s most exciting contributions is the 84,000-square-foot Anvil Centre, offering a variety of much-needed business amenities, including the Lower Mainland’s newest mid-size conference centre. “No other venue in the Lower Mainland has a full-service conference centre, an art gallery, museums, community programming space, as well as a performing arts theatre all under one roof,” explains Heidi Hughes, Anvil Centre’s manager of sales and marketing.

At almost 10,000 square feet, Anvil Centre’s conference space can host up to 500 people for a banquet or nearly 700 for general seating. It is already generating interest from regional and provincial organizations that have never before been able to host their events in New West, and will help to keep many local organizations’ events in town, as there will finally be a venue large enough to accommodate them.

Its location in downtown New West is one of Anvil Centre’s greatest assets. “Being on this side of the bridge, but not downtown Vancouver, makes us a really great meeting point in the middle of the Lower Mainland for events that bring people in from other areas of Metro Vancouver and the Fraser Valley,” says Hughes. Plus, bookended by two SkyTrain stations, the centre is conveniently accessible by public transit.

Opening this September near the River Market and across from the Shops at New West Station, Anvil Centre will be a major anchor in downtown New Westminster. And although the conference centre services will cater primarily to out-of-town visitors, it’s local businesses that will benefit most in the long-run. Hughes points out that Anvil Centre will generate both immediate and future tertiary spend; event attendees will make use of local amenities such as restaurants, taxis and retail shops while they’re in town, and return home with a greater awareness of everything the city’s downtown core has to offer.

And exactly what New West has to offer is the perfect combination of community and metropolis, says Wright. “Our downtown has all the amenities a major city would have, but in a condensed area. Most cities don’t have a downtown and an uptown anymore, but in New West you can participate in a lifestyle you might think is lost.”

The city council’s vision of New Westminster as a complete and well-rounded city is nearing completion, and Wright urges businesses considering locating in New West to act quickly. “We’re growing fast and there will only be so much space,” says Wright. “Get in now and you’ll be at the forefront, growing along with us.”