10 Things to Love About New Westminster

Just over a decade ago my wife and I decided to leave Vancouver and move out to New Westminster. We found a well-priced heritage home built in 1911 that needed a bit of TLC…and the rest is history.

I readily admit to having a number of misgivings about giving up my Vancouver postal code in exchange for a Royal City address. Back then there were countless stories on the 6 o’clock news about drug deals near the SkyTrain stations and a community in decay.

If you visited British Columbia’s former capital today, it’s clear that something is changing. Not long ago the downtown core was once a wasteland of brides-to-be frequenting one of the many bridal salons along Columbia Street catering to their every need. While many of those shops remain, they have been joined by new coffee shops, restaurants, art galleries and other interesting enterprises.

It really must be a new era when the MSM begin describing New Westminster’s plethora of heritage buildings in the downtown core as the next Yaletown. If the craziness I witnessed at a show suite for the new Northbank development is any indication, they may be right. Dozens of people crowded in today to get a chance to purchase a condo in one of the newest towers offering stunning water and mountain views.

In addition to Northbank, several other new highrise developments are popping up all over the city and they’re being gobbled up by homeowners looking for a bigger bank for their buck. As you can imagine, a $350K condo budget will get you a lot more along the Fraser River than it will in downtown Vancouver.

There are so many reasons to really love the “new” New Westminster. Here are my top 10:

10. Trains: If you like trains, you’ll love New Westminster. That’s because we not only have five SkyTrain stations (the most of any city on a per capita basis), we also have a lot of old-fashion diesel trains as well. In the summer, if you have your window open you can hear the trains clanging along the waterfront on most nights. While the noise might bother some folks, I’m not one of them. The sound of a train whistle reminds me of my youth living near a rail line in southern Manitoba. Oh, the good old days.

9. River Market: It used to be known as the New Westminster Quay. However, over the last several years this tired building has been transformed into a retail space that I believe will one-day rival Granville Island and the Lonsdale Quay as “cool” destination to visit.With the addition of the Wild Rice restaurant and Donald’s Market, the River Market is now quickly attracting a whole new generation of customers from around Metro Vancouver. Did I mention it also has a circus training facility? It also doesn’t hurt that the market is situated next to one of the nicest river boardwalks found anywhere.

8. Historic Buildings: If you are a heritage buff, you will love New Westminster. As the oldest incorporated City west of Ontario, the Royal City is filled will hundreds of heritage homes and office buildings. I live in the Queen’s Park neighbourhood and a stroll along some of the local streets will truly take you back to a different era. Check out our slide show to see what I mean.

7. Small town feeling: It’s almost impossible to do any errands or attend sporting activities on the weekend without bumping into someone you know. With a population of just over 50,000 residents, New Westminster truly is a small town set in a larger urban centre.

6. Queen’s Park: On those rare hot summer days in this region, a visit to Queen’s Park is a must. The tall majestic cedar trees found throughout this urban oasis act as Mother Nature’s carbon free cooling system. In addition, there is a great free petting zoo for the kids and a number of excellent sport and outdoor recreational facilities found throughout the park.

5. Fraser River: The Fraser River remains the heart of the community, despite the fact we are no longer a tiny fishing village. A walk along the boardwalk is simply breathtaking on most days. If you enjoy watching a working river, you won’t be disappointed. That’s because it won’t be long before you see a number of tug boats working their magic in the fast moving waters. I should also mention that you can visit the recently renovated Fraser River Discovery Centre while you’re down there. Not only is it a great place to visit, but it’s free!

4. Transit: By far, New Westminster has some of the best transit service found anywhere in Metro Vancouver. As previously mentioned, we have five SkyTrain stations and very frequent bus service.

3. Housing Affordability: If you want to buy a nice condo or single family starter home in New Westminster, you still can. For some reason prices here remain much below what you will find in other cities north of the Fraser River. And the best thing is you don’t have to cross a bridge to get into Vancouver!

2. Walkable: Many of New Westminster’s older neighbourhoods are very walkable. The Uptown and Downtown commercial districts are filled with every kind of service and shop you might need and they are only a few minutes walk from thousands of local residents. The city has also densified significantly over the last couple of decades. As a result, this has aided the renewal process for many of the key retail areas.

1. Compact City: The fact New Westminster is only 15.3 square kilometers has helped to ensure that all of the key public amenities are very close by. Those include the Canada Games Pool, Massey Theatre, Moody Park and Queen’s Park arena to name but a few. The compact nature of the city means you don’t need to rely on your car as much as you would in other cities spread out over a larger geographical area.

So there you have it! My top 10 reasons to love New Westminster. If you haven’t paid the city a visit recently, you should.

Pattullo Bridge Closure Would Be Welcomed In New Westminster

In January 2009 a fire beneath the rusty Pattullo Bridge forced it to temporarily shut down. Soon there were predictions that the closure would trigger traffic gridlock and chaos on the streets. As it turned out, those grim warnings were unfounded. 

What the closure did do was give the citizens of New Westminster a brief glimpse of what life would be like without a Fraser River crossing. As a local resident myself, I can describe those eight days as nothing short of glorious.

That’s because the estimated 450,000 vehicles travelling through the Royal City on a daily basis was dramatically reduced. Residential side streets regularly used by commuters to shorten their journeys were suddenly almost car free.

Fast forward to 2012 and TransLink is in the middle of consulting local residents and businesses regarding the future of the Pattullo Bridge. At 75 years old, this piece of infrastructure clearly requires some serious attention.

But what should we do next? Transit officials want you to believe the only option available is to build a much larger six-lane bridge. And, given the state of our public finances, you can anticipate a hefty toll will be used to finance it.

According to TransLink, a new tolled Pattullo Bridge will support the increase of daily commuter traffic from 60,300 trips in 2012 to 94,000 by 2040. Meanwhile, the total number of big rigs making the crossing will jump from 3,500 to 7,500 during this same period.

After I recently attended a so-called public consultation on this project, I was left with a bitter taste in my mouth. Rather than putting forward all of the options on the table, TransLink chose to limit the scope of discussion. In fact, they even published online a resource document titled “options considered but not pursued.”

What isn’t being pursued is the option of moving the bridge out of New Westminster altogether. Nor is there any discussion of converting it to a more community-oriented two-lane road serving local needs. As for the radical idea of replacing the current four-lane Pattullo with another four-lane span – well, you can forget it.

With a new tolled ten-lane Port Mann bridge about to open up later this year, one thing is for sure. The issue of tolls, traffic and transportation will heat up even more in the months to come. As for whether you’ll see street hockey being played on McBride Boulevard anytime soon, I wouldn’t count on it.

Hopes & plans for 2012: A closer look at the civic scene in New West

By Mike Klassen

Daniel takes a look at the year ahead in politics for New Westminster

As with last year, the New Westminster News Leader asked my colleague Daniel Fontaine to answer a few questions on the future of Royal City politics in 2011. The column is landing on the doorsteps of New Westminster residents this week and we’ve decided to also share it with you.

Q: Were there any surprises for you regarding politics in New Westminster in 2011?

Probably the biggest surprise was how successful the New Westminster District Labour Council slate of candidates was in the recent civic election. They won a massive majority and now Betty McIntosh is the lone independent candidate on council. We saw the return of former NDP MLA Chuck Puchmyr to the chamber while voters said goodbye to independent councillor Bob Osterman after many years of public service.

Q: What do you think is the most pressing issue in New Westminster politics right now and why?

The key issues of transportation and housing affordability will remain hot topics in the coming year. The future of the Pattullo Bridge could become a major issue if TransLink decides to move forward with its plans for a six-lane expansion. Despite the fact New Westminster remains relatively affordable, housing prices continue to rise making it harder for young families to call the Royal City home. It will be up to the current council to tackle these challenges in the coming years.

Q: What would be the best thing that could happen regarding in New West politics in 2012?

The new Municipal Auditor General decides to examine why residential property taxes are so high in New Westminster compared to other cities. In response, city politicians decide to curb and/or reduce unnecessary expenditures over the next three years.

Q: The worst thing?

With only one independent voice left on council, the needs of average tax payers are placed secondary after those of special interest groups.

Q: What are your hopes for the community in the New Year that have the best chances of actually happening?

• I am hoping that we make significant progress in the construction of a new secondary school to be built on time and within the allocated budget.

• I would also like to see strong community engagement process when it comes to working with TransLink regarding their plans to replace the Pattullo Bridge.

• It would be nice to see the River Market and Quay come back to life with new shops and services in conjunction with the opening of a new Downtown waterfront park.

• I’m also hopeful the cinemas and shops opening up at the New Westminster SkyTrain station will help to transform this location into a vibrant new “place to be”.

Q: Give us your wildest and craziest prediction?

Another 100 millionaires will call New Westminster home. That’s because increasing property values will translate into another 100 homes being bumped into the $1 million-plus assessment bracket.