The New New Westminster

Waterfront revival.

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It’s being called the new West End and “Poor Man’s Kitsilano”. Just a half-hour SkyTrain ride from downtown Vancouver, New Westminster is an increasingly desirable place for young urbanites and families to live, work, and play. The city, the oldest in British Columbia and the province’s first capital, is undergoing a revitalization, and is redefining itself as a hip and historic hangout.

The public market at the quay, renamed River Market in 2008, has been redefined as a culinary destination. A heritage building is being transformed into modern condos, and its original façade is being preserved. A new multi-use civic centre is slated to open in 2013 and will be home to a performance theatre, a convention space, an art gallery, the municipality’s museum and the Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame. And at the centre of the city’s renaissance is Westminster Pier Park, a nine-acre waterfront gathering place that reflects the importance of the Fraser River and the history, culture and people of the Royal City (a moniker that comes from the monarchy’s role in establishing the city).

The waterfront is going back to the community,” says New Westminster Mayor Wayne Wright, who sought leadership of the city in 2002 in part to make his vision for a waterfront park a reality. Before becoming mayor, Wright was a business owner and president of the Downtown New Westminster Business Improvement Area (BIA). “What we [the BIA] always wanted to do was create the vibrancy that was downtown when it was the Golden Mile,” he says, using the nickname Columbia Street got in the mid-1940s when businesses were booming and the main drag attracted shoppers from around the Lower Mainland. “We couldn’t just build up industry—industry is gone. What we had to do was have somewhere for the people to congregate and then move into downtown to see the stores and restaurants. That place is Pier Park.”

One of Wright’s first orders of business as mayor was contacting the owner of the former industrial site upon which Pier Park is built to start discussions and negotiations to purchase the parcel of property. Thanks to $16.6-million in infrastructure funding through the Canada British Columbia Building Canada Fund, the land was purchased in spring 2009, and work began a year later. The first phase of the park, set to open this fall, features a pier, a riverfront promenade, a festival lawn that can accommodate 2,000, a pair of playgrounds and a public plaza.

Another New Westminster resident also had a vision for the waterfront. Bruce Hemstock is a principal with landscape architectural firm PWL Partnership, which has done a number of major urban waterfront developments, including Vancouver’s Southeast False Creek. Hemstock, best known for his work on the Vancouver Convention Centre’s green roof, has lived in the Royal City for nearly a decade, and when he heard about the city’s plans for the waterfront, he instantly wanted to be involved.

“Living in New Westminster and knowing that the downtown is a really great place, and as a landscape architect, knowing that if you’ve got an urban park on the waterfront you can really bring a lot of life to the downtown, the project really rang a bell for me,” says Hemstock, the partner in charge of the project. “I felt like here’s my opportunity to do something really positive for New Westminster.”

Hemstock says the park—built around the theme “The River, The Past, The People”—was designed to tell a story; the narrative begins at the 6th Street Pier at the western end of the park. “This area of the river was an industrial pier site,” he explains. “This is where the ships unloaded, and that is what New Westminster was founded upon.” Remnant piles from the old pier were left in the water and posts designed to look like them were built on land to create the Pile Forest. Follow the Memory Band, a foot-wide metal band laser-cut with words and dates that tell the story of New Westminster, through the park and you’ll arrive at Lytton Square, which is the heart of the development. The square’s focal point is a timber structure that has a shape similar to the original 1893 City Market building, which wasn’t far from the site.

Once you’ve strolled the boardwalk and admired the photo panels that display historic city images on the seat steps above the plaza, the best place to relax is on one of the hinge loungers along the 4th Street Pier. PWL is known for incorporating unique chairs into its projects, and Pier Park is no exception. The hinge loungers are modelled after the hand trucks that were used in the old warehouses on the pier, and they pivot to allow visitors to enjoy a view of the river or the park.

“It’s unique,” a pleased and proud Mayor Wright says of the park. “You can’t take away the river and the history that it brought, and we’re celebrating our past with the park. We’re also embracing the future. It’s really about community building above and beyond architectural design.”

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September 19, 2011