COLUMN: Don’t spoil New Westminster's new civic centre with too much sweat

Do we need a new community centre Downtown?

Heather Murray and her partner Trevor Maddern think, at very least, that the new civic centre should have more fitness facilities built in.

The young couple moved into the city’s Interurban building a year ago, and I suspect their reaction was similar to many newcomers.

They saw the city’s obvious assets—the river, the SkyTrain stations and the central location—but they soon looked around and found gaping holes.

Surrounded by new construction and a Downtown slated to double in population over the next 20 years, they might have assumed a good community centre was nearby—or at least in the works.

And perhaps they thought—as some no doubt have—that’s what this new “Downtown Civic Centre” was going to be: A gymnasium, a weight room, and space for fitness classes, daycare, squash courts... That kind of thing.

But it’s not. So Heather and Trevor recently launched a petition on Facebook calling for rec space in the civic centre.

While the city now says there will be rooms to accommodate fitness classes—up to three of the studios could have sprung-wood floors—the new civic centre’s main features will be convention space, a theatre, an art gallery, and a new museum and archives.

Great stuff. Yet it won’t provide what will in coming years become an urgent need in the Downtown: a full-service recreation centre.

But for now, I don’t think it’s good to shove too much recreation into the civic centre.

Why? It could dilute the atmosphere of what the city’s trying to achieve.

Arts, culture, business—and a sweaty guy in shorts walking through the art gallery? No thanks.

Meantime, what’s the plan for recreation Downtown? Is a traditional community centre needed?

Parks, culture and recreation director Dean Gibson says for years, the city has struggled with the bigger question of how to serve residents best: Should services be centralized, or dispersed in neighbourhoods? Today, on the “New West mainland” the tiny, dull Centennial Community Centre serves everyone. In a city so small, to an extent this one-stop shop works well. Our library works this way, too, as does our high school.

It’s only the physical barrier of the Fraser River that has forced the city to offer duplication in Queensborough—first with the recreation centre, and soon in the city’s first library “branch” and a satellite office for the police.

For now, the city believes the main community centre on Sixth Avenue can continue to serve the entire mainland. (This year, it will hammer out plans for Centennial—demo and rebuild, renovate, or spread the services around? Odds are good it will remain attached to the Canada Games Pool.)

In Downtown, there will be some recreation options. As mentioned, the new civic centre will allow for “group fitness that has portable equipment,” Gibson says, including yoga, dance and tai chi. The city’s also contributing cash to the new middle school at John Robson for a gym big enough to serve the neighbourhood in off-hours. And, as Gibson points out, private facilities play a role in providing recreation opportunities too.

But will that be enough for a Downtown positioning itself as a thriving city centre where people will be clamouring to live, work and play?

Vancouver, a city with 600,000 people, has 24 recreation centres and 22 of those include gyms and fitness facilities. In this growing town, I believe, we’ll need a new one in the medium term.

Money, as always, is the challenge.

In North Van they have the John Braithwaite Community Centre. It’s got a gym, weight room, youth centre and fitness rooms, and was built through a partnership with a developer in return for added density. With luck, New Westminster can do something similar.

A new recreation centre may not be in the city’s current plans. But soon, it should be.

Chris Bryan, a New Westminster resident, is editor of the New Westminster NewsLeader.

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