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Architect proposes creative way to save New Westminster parkade

Nicolas D. Robitaille visits the nearly empty top deck of the parkade on Monday. He has proposed a concept to re-purpose, rather than remove, the aging structure. - Grant Granger/NewsLeader
Nicolas D. Robitaille visits the nearly empty top deck of the parkade on Monday. He has proposed a concept to re-purpose, rather than remove, the aging structure.
— image credit: Grant Granger/NewsLeader

Nicolas D. Robitaille couldn’t help but see the Front Street parkade from the SkyTrain bridge as he commuted back and forth from Vancouver to Surrey for his graphic design job.

He needed a subject for his graduation project to get his masters of architecture from the University of British Columbia, and the parkade jumped right out at him as he rode the rails.

“That parkade is so massive that’s the first thing you see,” said Robitaille.

So one day about 18 months ago he got out and explored. Columbia Street’s topography and energy was cool, he thought. Ditto for the River Market and the waterfront—they combined to create an experience unique to New West. But that wasn’t the case for Front Street and the parkade in between.

“Spatially it’s dark, dusty, it has this backstreet feel to it,” said Robitaille, while visiting the area on Monday.

“The contrast between it and Columbia which is wide, bright and green.”

Maybe, he thought, rather than taking it down—as many in the city have called for—the parkade could be made more attractive and useful.

IMAGE: View from the river of the structure. The deck could house a restaurant, hostel and viewing areas, Robitaille says.

“The view from [the parkade] is incredible, the light is incredible. Columbia is so popular and you go a few metres south and no one is there.”

So he got to work and came up with some ideas, which helped him earn his degree. Now he’s hoping to help New West by taking the parkade discussion to a different level.

With a study showing only 38 per cent usage of the parkade and more parking becoming available once the Anvil Centre and office complex is completed, the city aims to one day demolish the older west half of the parkade. Among many residents, the parkade is loathed. But local retailers have voiced concern that this should only happen when there is a good supply of parking alternatives in the Downtown for those who choose to visit by car.

Since the parkade is structurally sound, Robitaille thought why not explore new ways of using it.

First of all, he suggests the parkade’s uncovered top floor, with its “amazing” views of the Fraser River, could be turned into a garden park with playgrounds or possibly even an ice rink in the winter. Holes could also be cut from its surface to brighten the level below, which would be retained for parking.

A frustration for the city and residents for a long time has been the fact the Fraser River has been disconnected from Columbia Street (and the rest of the city) by the rail line and Front Street.

Robitaille has proposed a massive iconic structure, a wide pedestrian public plaza/bridge connecting Columbia Street near Sixth Street to the waterfront—over the parkade and railway tracks. It would be home to a restaurant, hostel and viewing deck. At the end, supporting the structure would be another iconic, conical building with its foundations sunk into the river. Robitaille says it would ideally house large-scale industrial art.

“Something bold, something visible,” he said. “New Westminster has an industrial past, especially on the Fraser River, so that’s why it would focus on oversized and industrial art.”

IMAGE: Access to the structure, as it might appear from Columbia Street, looming above the CIBC building.

The building and bridge would be a drawing card because it would be visible from the SkyTrain, the Pattullo Bridge and Surrey.

“Cities have to create an identity,” said Robitaille, a native of Sherbrooke, Que., who is looking for work now that he’s graduated. “New Westminster is not the biggest city around. It has to live with the presence of Vancouver. How does it market itself when it lives next to a big monster like Vancouver?”

Robitaille was to meet with Coun. Jonathan Coté, an urban studies student at Simon Fraser University, to discuss his designs this week.

“I’m not saying this is a finished idea, I’m just trying to create a discussion,” he said.

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