COLUMN: Why Peter Newall loves Columbia Street
People must have thought Peter Newall was off his nut when he built condos on Columbia Street back in 2001.
The strip was riddled with urban decay, frequented by the homeless, beer parlour bozos and just recovering from a bad spell with a crew of Honduran drug dealers.
Yet when the City of New Westminster put out a call for companies interested in converting the old Canada Post building at the foot of Sixth Street into retail and office space, Peter put pencil to paper.
The time wasn’t right for office space in New West’s Downtown, he realized—it’s only now that the city itself is taking this risk—so he made a different pitch.
The result was C2C, a project that made Ballenas Property Management Ltd., the company he runs with his brother-in-law Paul McKey, pioneers on Columbia. The city got its new police headquarters, built to remain functional after a major earthquake.
And the rest of the building became Columbia’s first heritage conversion into condos, Peter says, and would be one of the only condo projects there for several years.
“I’ve always thought Columbia Street was a fantastic street, and I’ve always thought New West as a whole was a gem,” Peter says. “What I’m seeing (today) was what I always thought would happen, it just took longer.”
It’s fair to say Peter and his company came to the Royal City’s Downtown when few developers would.
And it’s not real estate puffery to say they’ve had a hand in the resurgence of Columbia Street, with credit also to City Hall, Mayor Wayne Wright’s boosting and a growing sentiment among buyers that dense urban living near SkyTrain stations is cool and makes sense.
And if there’s a Ballenas project that really helped kick Downtown into gear it was the Inter Urban at Begbie and Columbia, kitty-corner to Waves. Ballenas bought the old Windsor Hotel in 2006 with its notorious beer parlor and tore it down, eventually building a beautiful brick-and-glass tower and completing a careful heritage restoration of the BC Electric building next door.
It was an incredibly complicated project, because it also involved the Salvation Army and Plaza 88 developer Degelder across the street, with the Sally Ann relocating to the BC Electric building to allow Degelder to maximize its project.
The city helped broker the whole arrangement, and as many will recall the Windsor Hotel aspect landed the city in court, defending itself against the hotel’s former owner, Nirmal Walia.
All that aside, the entire project consolidated the entranceway to the Downtown, adding vitality and visual appeal—something that continues with the new civic centre project.
In coming to New West’s Downtown when it did, Ballenas trod ground few developers would walk. But for Peter, it was all familiar territory.
His background was construction, while most developers come from real estate.
His company worked as contractors for many years, but it was restoration work in Gastown in the ’90s that set the stage for what Ballenas would become. They were doing heritage conversions in the neighbourhood at a time when few were taking on this unique challenge, and by 1997, the company decided it was time to become both builders and developers.
The company only moved on to New West because Gastown at the time “appeared to be built out,” Peter says, something he now concedes obviously wasn’t the case.
But the company realized it had carved out a special niche. Being small, and not having the large bankroll that a large developer might have, Ballenas found itself tackling projects other companies wouldn’t, like heritage and challenging sites.
“We had to look at challenging sites and put in the sweat,” Peter says. “You develop an expertise, and that kind of keeps me in the game, and keeps others out.”
The other aspect that makes them rare is the fact they are a one-stop shop, developer and general contractor, dealing with every aspect from acquiring the land and getting all the necessary City Hall approvals right through to handing the keys to new homeowners.
It means they work one project at a time, each spanning several years.
Today the project is Northbank, at the eastern edge of Columbia Street next to the SkyBridge to Surrey. It’s yet another challenging site, on a hill, next to a park and situated above the SkyTrain tunnel to Sapperton.
For Peter and his company, one project at a time means putting all their eggs in one basket, which he concedes can mean sleepless nights.
“Many developers wouldn’t be bothered because it takes years and a lot of risk. It’s exhausting actually.”
A city council can kill a project at the rezoning stage. Or then, even after dealing with heritage or site issues, the unforeseeable can happen. After the C2C, Peter says, markets were hit by 9/11. When units at the Inter Urban were coming onstream, it was the 2008 crash.
But don’t unique, funky projects like the Inter Urban or C2C have a cool factor that makes them more immune to market fluctuations?
Peter doesn’t think that has much impact on buyers.
Even today, he says, people come to New West for value, full stop. Few prospective buyers mark this city as their first choice—they want East Van or Burnaby, for instance, but can’t afford it.
“Once they get here, they love it,” he says, “but what gets them here is the price.”
So why did Peter gravitate to Gastown in the ’90s and why does he keep coming back to Columbia Street today?
Blame it on Bob Dylan.
In 1974, Peter’d just graduated high school in Edmonton and heard Dylan was doing his first major tour in several years after a motorcycle accident and a period of seclusion. Peter’s sister was living in Toronto at the time, and sent an $8 concert ticket and an invitation to visit.
The concert was good, he says. But it was his sister’s neighbourhood of Queen’s Street East, then a gritty, inner city place, that got its claws in him. He stayed almost a year.
“I loved it. It was fantastic.”
Ever since, inner city places like Columbia Street have had a magnetic pull for him and he can’t imagine working anywhere else.
And even when Northbank’s done, he’s sure he’ll be back.
• Chris Bryan is editor of the NewsLeader.