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A sneak peek at the new Westminster Pier Park

Mayor Wayne Wright gleefully points out a couple of sea lions playfully swimming in the Fraser River.

“It’s good luck,” he says. “It’s good luck.”

Wright and several senior city staff are taking the media on a tour of the city’s newest pride and joy, Westminster Pier Park, expected to open to the public in about a month.

It isn’t clear whether the mayor’s “good luck” statement is an attempt to convince the media, the public or himself that the $25-million project budget was money well spent.

“There’s something happening here [on the Fraser River] all the time when people come down here,” says Wright.

As visitors enter the park from the west end one of the first things they will see is a weathered steel strip that lines one edge of the boardwalk. It’s a memory band that runs the length of the park with names and events that have shaped New Westminster, from Woodlands to Salmonbellies to city neighbourhoods.

To the right of the entrance is a short pier, a grassy, undulating area with several timber piles jutting up. It’s an area for kids to play, but it’s left up to them to create the games and activity.

“It’s sort of the whimsical area,” says parks director Dean Gibson. “I remember going to Expo 86 and at the B.C. pavilion they had flag poles, which are still there, and kids were zigzagging in and out of them. There was lots of imaginative play.”

On the land side of the short pier is a small playground, one of two in the new park. And as visitors head east there is a wide boardwalk with several park benches with views of the Fraser.

Beyond the sturdy steel railings, the riverbank below is piled with large boulders, the rip-rap that prevents erosion, and up the bank is a large planting of shrubbery native to the area. Although B.C.’s snowpack has been building this spring, the city isn’t worried about the park being flooded because it was built above any floodplain levels.

A series of steps near the playground displays pictures from the city’s past featuring youth of different cultures. After the playground, the historical panels continue on into Lytton Square with all kinds of New Westminster memories.

In the river, a few clusters of crumbling piles have been left sticking up that rock back and forth every time a boat passes by.

“For people who don’t know the river well, they think it’s a placid lake. When the river starts swinging it shows that it’s a powerful thing,” says Gibson.

About halfway through the park, there’s a long, narrow pier that juts out into the river, at an angle to the main boardwalk. In the area are a dozen large lounge chairs for people to sun themselves, or work on their laptops using the city’s WiFi system. The loungers are unique in that their backs can be flipped to face north or south.

On the other side of the boardwalk is the park’s iconic feature: a large wooden structure that resembles the skeleton of an old warehouse. The area is called Lytton Square, a reference to the city market that once sat near this spot in New West’s early days.

Along with providing some protection from the rain, the structure will house washrooms and a concession, which the city is looking to lease.

“There have been a number of local folks that have been keeping their eye on this opportunity,” says Gibson.

Beyond Lytton Square is the festival lawn, which is expected to hold up to 1,000 people for entertainment acts. Gibson says it is hoped eventually it will become like Deer Lake Park outdoor bowl, but on a much smaller scale because New Westminster doesn’t have the event infrastructure in the park like Burnaby has at Deer Lake.

Beyond the lawn is a large flat asphalt space that remains undeveloped, pending future phases of the park’s construction. Gibson said the capacity of the festival lawn could double in the future when that area is completed.

“The fact it is wide open in my mind is not viewed as a bad thing,” says Gibson, pointing out that today the area could be used for beach volleyball and other athletic activities.

One area of asphalt has been cut out. That’s because it is where a machine shop previously resided. When they tore it down they discovered a hole in the floor where metal cuttings were deposited into the river, and it required a significant cleanup supervised by the environment ministry.

“It was a nasty collapsed area,” says Dugal Purdie, the project manager of the new park.

When heading back to the west end, visitors can take the high road above the concessions and washrooms where there are picnic tables, flower beds and a basketball/ball hockey court.

There’s also a narrow, long section of garden that will be developed into a botanical garden by the Boucher Institute of Naturopathic Medicine, which is based on Columbia Street. The garden will have herbs and other plants that can be used by the institute’s students.

At this point, Jim Lowrie, the city’s director of engineering, reveals that a $1.25-million pedestrian connection at the east end of the parkade will be built this year providing access to the park for Downtown, Queen’s Park and Victoria Hill residents.

“That’s going to be a key connection to opening up the park to the east side of the town,” says Lowrie. “It will make a significant difference than what it is today.”

Until that connection is constructed the only access will be through the Larco parking lot on the west side.

Although the park will open to the public in a few weeks, an official opening will likely happen in June, something that has been long anticipated after a few project delays.

“It feels exciting. I’m pleased and happy. It looks like it will be a useful place for the people of the city,” declares Wright. “It’s turned out better than I would have ever imagined.”

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