Tackling New Westminster's waterfront connection

Quayside resident James Crosty says New West could do something similar to White Rock, where level crossings have made it possible for a thriving promenade to exist in harmony with rail traffic. - Black Press file
Quayside resident James Crosty says New West could do something similar to White Rock, where level crossings have made it possible for a thriving promenade to exist in harmony with rail traffic.
— image credit: Black Press file

This is the third in a three-part series on connecting Downtown New Westminster to the Fraser River waterfront. The first dealt with how they became disconnected and the challenges to making the reconnection. The second was the city’s vision on how to make it happen. In this edition, the NewsLeader talks to some of the people who have their own ideas on how it should be accomplished.

Water was always a big part of Lila Wood’s life growing up. Her father was a logger on the north coast and they moved several times, always residing close to the ocean.

“I love the water,” says Wood, president of the Downtown Residents Association.

These days she lives in sight of the Fraser River and its comings and goings. The problem is coming and going from Downtown to the waterfront isn’t so easy to do. As the NewsLeader outlined in earlier stories in this series, there are a number of historical and logistical challenges to overcome to allow people to get up close and comfortable with what gave the city birth more than 150 years ago.

Since New Westminster was closed to port traffic more than three decades ago there’s been a move to bring people to the waterfront despite the mammoth obstacles of the Front Street truck route and railway tracks.

“Ideally it would be to enclose them, get them right out of the way. Out of sight, out of mind,” says Wood. “I know the cost would be too much.”

As described last week, city hall’s vision is to build connections and even encapsulate Front Street and the tracks, a project it admits could take 50 years to complete.

Some stakeholders aren’t sure it’s the best way to go and have other ideas on how to make the connection.

Front needs certainty

Dan O’Hearn of Quay Pacific Property Management works out of an office in the middle of all the fuss on Front Street. He’s a little dismayed to hear the city sees making the connection will be a 50-year process.

“The Downtown merchants have often suggested doing improvements to the parkade and Front Street, however, the city never seems to be receptive,” says O’Hearn, a member of the Downtown Business Improvement Association. “The encapsulation always seemed to be imminent and occupying their thoughts. Now we’re told it’s still 50 years away.”

He says encapsulation has always caused uncertainty for Front Street. The merchants and landlords don’t know if they’ll have a viable business in the future.

“We need to get on with improving what we have today, namely, the parkade,” says O’Hearn. “We need improvements to the parkade along with Front Street lighting and noise mitigation. We need to keep Front Street viable and erase the uncertainty the city’s cloudy vision has created.”

To him, the original encapsulation drawings seem to make it impossible to see the river from Columbia Street or anywhere Downtown, making people feel even less connected to the water than they do now.

O’Hearn doesn’t mind keeping everything the way it already is, with a little tweaking, because lots of communities have railway tracks along the waterfront. He proposes a pedestrian overpass from the existing parkade to the new Westminster Pier Park. He also suggests building an underpass beneath Front Street and the tracks at either Sixth Street or Begbie. And he’d like to see the parkade renovated to last another 50 years.

Other ideas of Hearn’s include the city expropriating the Larco property between the Fraser River Discovery Centre and Westminster Pier Park and turning it into single-storey industrial/commercial buildings like Granville Island has. He’d also like to see a pocket cruise terminal or pedestrian ferry terminal.

Let the sunshine in

Just up the boardwalk is a community connected to the water, although getting to the rest of the city can be a bit of a pain for them.

James Crosty is president of the Quayside Residents Association, and he says the city and TransLink should give up on Front Street as a truck route, and find another way to move goods through the area.

He suggests taking down the old part of the parkade while retaining the newer east end to provide parking for merchants. If that was the case he’d be singing “Let the Sun Shine In” because then Front Street would be an ideal place for restaurants and cafés.

In addition, Crosty would like to see all the rail tracks be level crossings, allowing people to walk across to the riverfront freely. Crosty said there’s some picturesque examples of that working wonderfully at Ambleside in West Vancouver and in White Rock, where restaurants, cafés and retail outlets thrive across the open tracks and a roadway from the ocean.

“White Rock has a two-lane street and in the summer you can’t move, but it’s fabulous. There are convertibles and people all over the place,” says Crosty.

“Let’s open it up. Let’s accept the fact we’re not going to have a tunnel. Let’s imagine the courtyards you could have on Front Street. On a nice summer evening it would be breathtaking.”

Crosty worked on the committee that produced the Downtown Community Plan in 2009. He isn’t sold on encapsulation.

“It’s just way out there. That would be lovely, but I don’t believe we have the topography to make that work,” said Crosty.

“Let’s embrace what we have and look at the possibilities we have by working with the railways. That’s achievable in our lifetime, and not at a large expense.”

On a perch outside the second floor of the River Market, Matthew Laird of New Westminster Environmental Partners points at the traffic choke point where Front Street begins.

“Where is there room for four lanes?” he asks incredulously.

Laird maintains any connectivity solution that involves a North Fraser Perimeter Road or a four-lane truck route just can’t happen because there is no room behind The Keg or even further down Front Street as it merges with East Columbia.

“A tough decision has to be made on how traffic is going to fit into this vision, or if traffic is going to fit in this vision at all,” says Laird.

He believes one way to connect is to get rid of cars on Front Street and restrict the road to truck traffic only. As well, he advocates increased use of the railways and the river to transport goods, which would reduce Front Street truck traffic.

“Short sea shipping is viable, but nobody has the authority to implement it,” says Laird.

Making those moves would mean there would be no need for a four-lane road and with just two lanes, encapsulation would be easier to achieve.

“(The city has) a good vision, but they have to get off the fence on where they stand on the NFPR,” says Laird. “It’s a livability issue for our city. Do we want to be defined by a truck route and the worst air in the region (underneath the parkade), or do we want a city where you can send your kids off to play in a waterfront park?”

If there is encapsulation, Laird suggests raising the street level of Front Street up a storey.

“Then it wouldn’t be in darkness. Suddenly the street level would be day lit,” says Laird.

Although there is a wide range of ideas about how the river and the Downtown can be connected, there is consensus about one thing: it must happen.

“A river is something special,” says Wood, the water lover. “We won’t get another one. We should take care of it. Put something nice there and people will come.”

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