The MUCF open house

Thursday, the City held a public open house to garner feedback on the new Multi-Use Civic Facility, planned for the 700 block of Columbia Ave.

It was remarkably well attended, and there were lots of staff about to answer questions, but I liked that they were there to ask questions as well. I was approached more than a half dozen times with staff members asking what I think, or if I had input: you get the sense they really wanted to hear from us (note to TransLink: hire New Westminster Planning to facilitate your next open house, I’m sure their rates are reasonable). It was also a great idea to hold the open house at the Westminster Club, on the 7th floor overlooking the site where the MUCF will be built.

The project is somewhere beyond the visioning stage, but the design is clearly not quite done. The model was balsa wood, and was good for getting a sense of the mass and layout of the building, but not an idea of the real appearance. There were several design-type drawings, but no complete picture of what the building will look like (more on this below). However, I walked out of there impressed with the concept, and excited about what it means to downtown New Westminster.

There is much to like. With the completion of the commercial part of the Plaza 88 development, there are going to be big changes in this neighbourhood. Movie theatres and restaurants right on the Skytrain station are a potential game-changer. This will be the most accessible movie theatre for the Lougheed Mall, and SFU crowds, and will even be easier to get to than Guildford for a lot of people in the new Surrey Centre. The food, drink, and entertainment options on the street immediately adjacent that development are going to have a huge impact on the success of the Columbia Street renewal, drawing in pedestrians and shoppers. This building will be the keystone.

The restaurant space on the corner of 8th and Columbia is a smart move. No names of potential tenants are being mentioned (for obvious reasons), but a popular mid-scale local chain (think Earls, Cactus Club, etc.) would be an obvious fit. It is clear they want the restaurant to have street appeal: open window space and a large patio to bring the restaurant out onto the street. My only complaint is the plans have the deck on the 8th street side, where we really need it on Columbia if we want to connect to the rest of the businesses in the area, from Waves to the Heritage and all the way up to Brooklyn. Restaurants are about the only business (other than wedding shops apparently) that benefits from having more competition in he neighbourhood. The deck/patio will also lead to more engagement of Hyack Square, and we will have to wait to see what happens with the third corner at Columbia and 8th. I can’t help but feel the Sally Ann is going to increasingly be out of place on this new “entertainment core”.

Click to zoom in

The planned theatre space in the MUCF also looks great, a mid-sized and very convertible space. Small concert and performance space is lacking in the City, as our existing theatres downtown seem to be limited to single-use only (tickle and giggle, respectively). At 1/3 of the seating capacity, this will not threaten the (New! Improved! Eventually!) Massey Theatre, but the potential for smaller arts productions, for local music, and for screening space for indy films and docs is pretty exciting.

Bringing the City Archives, the City Museum, the Police Museum and the Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame together under one roof will also bee a boon. With the Fraser River Discovery Centre just across the tracks, we will have a one-stop-shopping “museum core”, with a gift shop and food options attached. Finally, when friends and relatives are visiting for a day, we can give them a spot to go to entertain themselves for several hours, without having to send them to Vancouver.

The transportation planning around the facility has not been finalized, but I can already see a few concerns. The re-vamping of 8th Street between Carnarvon and Columbia will have to be approached with caution. Presumably, there will be no bus stops on 8th once the loop at Plaza 88 is completed, but the previous crossing issue at 8th at the SkyTrain exit will remain. People will still want to cross mid-block from the station to the new MUCF. It is too bad an elevated walkway from the Skytrain to the east side of 8th is not included in the plans.

Worse, when one leaves the Skytrain Station and the Plaza 88 commercial/entertainment centre, you will be greeted with a view of the garage ramp on 8th. Why stick a garage entrance right in the middle of your façade? We want this area to be as pedestrian-friendly as possible, and a garage entrance crossing the sidewalk does not do this. This area needs a re-think, and I suspect the answer will be to stick the cars (and garage entrance) around back on Begbie.

The plans show the use of Begbie as the Greenway connector between Columbia and Carnarvon, which is a sub-optimal solution. The slope on 8th between Carnarvon and Columbia is less then 8%, which is a much more bike-friendly grade than the slope on Begbie (higher than 10%). The Central Valley Greenway should connect to Hyack Square and the New Westminster Skytrain directly, along Columbia to 8th. For these reasons, 8th should remain the connection between Columbia and Carnarvon for bikes, with cars accessing the underground parking along the much-less-trafficked Begbie side.

The idea of closing Alexander Street and using it only for loading is great, but let’s be sensitive to what it means to the people in the low-costs housing around there, who will now be shadowed by a new tower, will be facing a loading dock for their front yard, and will have reduced access to Columbia Street. Some creative urban design might be needed here to head off a potential crime problem.

Again, this is early design phase, so these potential issues can be addressed simply, but they have to start thinking about them soon before too much detailed design is completed.

Which brings me back to design. The preliminary drawings are definitely “place making”. They have that big “I’m Here” look to them. However, much of the chatter around the room was about “where is the heritage?” Simply put, this building needs to fit the surroundings. I love the Chicago-school Westminster Building and Trapp Block. I am not a big fan of the “modern-glass-tower humping a heritage façade” technique used at the InterUrban, but recognized that the requirements of the modern Condo market (balconies, floor-to-ceiling windows, etc) made this the best we could hope for. I will be interested to see how the Art-Deco Façade at Plaza 88 is preserved, and how it fits those hideous-looking pseudo-Soviet towers. Mostly, I love Art Deco (cognizant that it can go really bad really quickly), and would love to see that part of New Westminster’s heritage be accentuated, but that is very much a personal matter of taste.

Since there is going to be an office tower on top of this building, there is a lot more flexibility in design than there would be for a condo complex. As this is going to be the keystone building for the continued revitalisation of Columbia Street, it is imperative that the visual impact of this building represent New Westminster, both its iconic heritage, and where we want the City to be. It should be an interesting challenge for a talented Architect. The pictures I have seen so far, and the comments I heard around the room, suggest they are not there yet.

Oh, and I seriously hope “MUCF” is a working title, and we will find a better name for the building, but that is a minor detail, which we can debate in 2014.

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