Making the connection: New Westminster cut off from Fraser River for about 150 years

Opening up access to New Westminster
Opening up access to New Westminster's waterfront presents a number of challenges, including railroad tracks and the busy Front Street thoroughfare which will become part of the North Fraser Perimeter Road.

In the first of a three-part series on connecting New Westminster’s Downtown to the Fraser River, the NewsLeader looks at the historical evolution of the separation of the two and the challenges required to bring them together.

Without the Fraser River, there would be no Downtown New Westminster.

But the two have had a strained relationship for the best part of 150 years.

Recently, there has been a lot of talk about how to get them to embrace, and get much closer.

It’s a daunting challenge.

Several issues need to be resolved to make such a union happen—so they can live happily forever after.

After all, the separation started early, almost from the first day European settlers arrived in today’s Royal City.

From pastoral to industrial

When Rev. Edward White held the city’s first church service in 1859, it was on the riverbank just steps away from today’s Army and Navy department store. It was a nice, pastoral setting with the breeze whistling through the trees. That period of tranquility, though, was brief.

The Fraser River was an ideal transportation corridor, and New Westminster was the perfect spot for sailing ships, paddle wheelers, tugboats and freighters to dock. Industry set up shop on the waterfront and soon it was dotted with everything from warehouses to coal foundries to cold storage facilities.

“There was lots of stuff,” says historian Archie Miller. “When you start your town you need to supply your community with goods in the easiest way, and in this case it was to use boats.”

It was such an efficient dock system, when the railways came through the territory it made sense to run along the river, too.

And with the automobile replacing the horse early in the 20th century, it seemed appropriate for the paved roads to run alongside the docks, industry and railroads.

The result, of course, was one more barrier separating Downtown and city residents from the water.

“Now you’re really choking off the rest of the land,” says Miller.

City forefathers even helped industry construct the noose. Early pictures of New Westminster show Front Street as the river’s edge. But as industry thrived and transportation boomed, they began filling in the river so the mega-projects of the day could be built.

“In 1913, the first harbour commission was formed and one of the first things they do is drive piles right up the waterfront,” says Miller. “The docks go further and further out.”

The 65-year-old Miller remembers having only a few access points to the river when he was a kid. He and his buddies would sneak down near the Pattullo Bridge, or poke their noses out at the King Neptune at the foot of Eighth Street where the Buckerfield’s Feed building sat. But that was about it.

“Basically the public was not encouraged or invited,” says Miller.

A new role for waterfront

That began to change around 1979 when it was determined New Westminster would no longer be a port facility and the docks were moved to Annacis Island and elsewhere on the Fraser River.

That ignited a desire to connect the waterfront to its residents. (It’s arguably incorrect to say ‘reconnect’ because the relationship was never really there in the first place.)

It’s been done in cities all over the world. And locally, it’s been accomplished with varying degrees of success in Vancouver, North Vancouver, Steveston, Victoria and Nanaimo.

“You’ve got to appreciate the history of the waterfront. Up until 30 years ago this city turned its back on the waterfront,” says City of New Westminster planner Lisa Spitale. “The city even helped put [the railroads] down.”

The Quayside neighbourhood and public market built in the 1980s were a start. More recently, the city has been creating Westminster Pier Park—slated for completion by November—upstream from the market. Access to the river remains a challenge, however.

Today there are two vehicle overpasses, a pedestrian overpass and an at-grade train crossing to connect people to the river, but most would say that it’s still awkward.

“It’s beautiful along there, but at the same time who hasn’t been stuck behind a train there, and it always seems to happen when you’re late for a meeting,” says Spitale.

The core obstacles—the railways and truck route—remain. Nor are they going away anytime soon.

And the challenges these obstacles pose are massive and complex, particularly because they require dealing with numerous levels of government and their agencies.

For example, the railways are a federal responsibility and regulations require any connection that goes across the tracks to be at least 30 feet high—more than three storeys. Common sense is to have crossings at-grade, but that’s impractical for safety reasons.

“Then you’ve got to look at being creative, but when you start looking at being creative that translates to being expensive,” says Spitale.

The truck route along Front Street falls under TransLink, which is a provincial entity.

“Then it’s a different dynamic if you want to make it barrier free,” says Spitale.

Many obstacles to overcome

Future plans by the province call for building of the North Fraser Perimeter Road along that corridor. Accommodating that while connecting Downtown to the waterfront at the same time is a huge challenge. Also, the proposed rebuilding of the Pattullo Bridge—if it ever happens—could also have an enormous impact on the area.

“Those are very, very expensive projects,” says Spitale.

The goal of course is to not help people comfortably drive their car down to the river to visit, but to make it easy for people to do so on foot, too.

That means stairs could be an option, but they present barriers as well because wheelchairs, strollers and bicycles have to be accommodated.

And just when one might feel like the obstacles are overwhelming, there’s another piece to the puzzle.

Larco Developments has already received zoning for five highrises on what is today a parking lot between the Fraser River Discovery Centre and Westminster Pier Park. (See 2009 column by Chris Bryan on this here)

On the surface, the soaring towers proposed for the waterfront look like just one more fortress preventing residents from enjoying the river, one of the city’s greatest assets.

And one hasn’t even mentioned what to do with the massive parkade that casts a shadow over Front Street.

The challenges seem endless.

“Unfortunately it becomes and, and and, and and, and and ...” says Spitale of all the issues that need to be resolved to make connectivity happen.

However, that doesn’t mean the city is giving up.

Getting the Downtown and the river together—as they are meant to be—will likely be a long courtship that will require lots of hard work. The benefit could be the forging of a beautiful relationship.

Next week: A look at the city’s vision for connecting Downtown to the waterfront.


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