GUEST COLUMN: Officer tower a critical part of New Westminster's resurgence
Following is a Guest Column from New Westminster Mayor Wayne Wright:
Someone recently showed me a Twitter comment accompanied by a photo of construction activity and jokingly suggesting that the official bird of New Westminster should be “the crane.” It struck me that the comment couldn’t ring more true. As construction cranes tower over New Westminster, we’re experiencing growth and development like never before.
The activity in our historic downtown is particularly obvious as finishing touches are made to the Plaza 88 development above New Westminster SkyTrain and the new multi-use civic facility and office tower takes shape across the street. Since city council made the decision in April 2012 to ensure new class A LEED gold office space at the corner of Eighth and Columbia would be realized as part of the multi-use civic facility project, a debate has continued as to whether the decision was a good one or not. No matter where one stands on the issue, it’s important to know the factors that went into the decision and how the project has progressed from concept to reality.
Back in 2008, an expanded series of Development Assistance Compensation (DAC) projects was announced for New Westminster thanks to increased funding negotiated by the city with the province, BC Lottery Corporation and Starlight Casino to the tune of $60 million. These included new parks and trails in Queensborough, expansion of Queensborough Community Centre, a new pedestrian crossing between Downtown and Queensborough, riverfront dock and facility improvements, and a new multi-use civic facility to spur economic activity and revitalize an area of New Westminster once known throughout the region as The Golden Mile.
Planning and community consultation for the new civic facility began immediately and, in 2010, a site at the entrance to the Downtown was secured. The location was key—across from SkyTrain, close to Douglas College and the law courts, kitty-corner to Hyack Square and a short walk to the riverfront boardwalk and Westminster Pier Park. As plans developed, council and staff began to consider the opportunity at hand. Here we had a four-storey civic centre that would contain conference facilities and be a showcase for arts and culture but what about the rest of the site and airspace above? How could we capitalize on that and leverage the project for added benefits in the form of a strengthened tax base, offsets to multi-use civic facility operating costs, new amenities, jobs and lasting economic stimulus in the downtown all while moving New Westminster’s business recruitment and retention strategy forward?
The answer came following a request for expressions of interest from the development community: a nine-storey office tower that would create both project and operating efficiencies and maximize space at the site while generating more than $650,000 a year in tax revenue along with 500 new jobs and 250 indirect ones in the Downtown once it was fully occupied. Negotiations with the developer began and over a 12-month period we accomplished a project memorandum of understanding. We were on the verge of completing a final development agreement when the developer withdrew in November 2011. Meanwhile, excavation and construction at the site had already begun due to tight DAC funding deadlines.
City council immediately instructed staff to take the opportunity back to the development community but by April of this year a decision had to be made: continue construction of the office tower with a view to realizing the many benefits and selling it to recoup the investment, or build only the civic facility portion now and forgo those benefits until an undetermined point in the future. On April 30, council voted and chose to move forward with the project.
The following day, briefings were held with local papers and ensuing media articles detailed why council made the decision we did, what benefits the office tower would bring to the community and the process required to secure funding for construction, namely a loan authorization bylaw that would enable the City to borrow funds from the Municipal Financing Authority over the next three years at low interest rates. Last month, on Aug. 27, city council adopted the bylaw.
Today, construction of the new multi-use civic facility and office tower project is almost at grade. To ensure the project stays within budget and scope, we’ve retained the best in the business: two of Canada’s premier architectural firms, HCMA and MCM, are designing the office tower and civic facility; award-winning civil infrastructure leader PCL is constructing the project; internationally acclaimed project management firm Pivotal is ensuring the project stays on time and budget; and North America’s largest commercial real estate firm Avison Young is in charge of introducing new companies to the Royal City through leasing of the office tower until it is sold.
While much has been accomplished to date, there is still much to be done. For those interested in learning more about the project, we’ve added background information to the city website (www.newwestcity.ca) under “Projects on the Go.” I encourage you to visit the website to learn more. Soon, a webcam will be launched overlooking the site to track progress and in the coming weeks we’ll continue to keep citizens informed with regular project updates in the local media.
In 2014, the doors to New Westminster’s new multi-use civic facility and office tower will open, bringing new people and businesses and continuing the progress made throughout the city over the past decade. In building our community together, we’ve made great strides forward, revitalizing our community at the centre of Metro Vancouver and putting New Westminster on a solid foundation for a bright future.
• Wayne Wright is the mayor of the City of New Westminster.