Lessons to Keep New West’s Waterfront Alive

Once lined with sawmills and canneries, the New Westminster seawall is now a pedestrian walkway

Working port or Gastown 2.0? SFU professor looks for New Westminster’s future in its past

Its own port history offers valuable business advice for New Westminster, whose planners struggle to keep its waterfront diverse under an onslaught of condominium developments, according to a SFU professor on a four-year research project meant to help the Queen City return to its former splendor.
SFU geographer Peter Hall is wrapping up the initial mapping stage of the project, tracing New Westminster’s historical transition B.C.’s commercial hub as the command post of the region’s shipping and industrial activities, through a period of decline and dereliction as container ships grew enormous and the shipping action moved downriver to the much larger Deltaport, to today’s juggle to revitalize the area with residential density while keeping the working waterfront alive.
“Our collective understanding of the waterfront is so fragmented and so contested,” said Hall. “Business is not a homogeneous group. We have a goods movement industry in the Lower Mainland, we have real estate development, we have all sorts of commercial users, tourism, recreation. All of these uses want to have access to waterfront land.”

It sounds like a mess of competing interests, but the historical lesson for a productive waterfront is not to divide these into separate pockets, but rather embrace the mix as a healthy ecosystem, said Hall. “What gets lost in the public understanding is that all industrial waterfront had commercial activities in the past. Some of those warehouses used to sell things out of the back. People had connections to the waterfront that weren’t simply moving cargo.”

It’s a familiar challenge to Mark Allison, senior planner at the City of New Westminster, who has been working to diversify the local economy while addressing residential complaints. The latest experiment by staff is to silence train whistles and find alternate routes for those clamorous port-bound 18-wheelers downtown residents aren’t thrilled about–while reinforcing the message that the city, with its rail yards and riverside industry, will never be a sleepy bedroom community.

“We have a major pulp and paper mill that’s still in operation, we have barge and towing operations down on the river as well as the Braid industrial area, we have the Inn at the Quay, we have a major market,” Allison said. “The big challenge is to create interfaces between these industrial and commercial uses and the residents.”
Hall’s work aims to lubricate a more informed dialogue. His findings will eventually be made public through the New Westminster Museum and Archives.