I am cognizant that things are preliminary and there are many details yet to work out, but my initial reaction to this is very positive.
The Larco Property has been, for a few years, the missing front tooth in the smile of New Westminster’s waterfront. For those not paying attention, this is the lot between the Fraser River Discover Centre (FRDC) and the New Westminster Pier Park – the big pay parking lot at the end of Begbie Street. The development of Larco has been an on-again-off-again affair, but the last time we saw approved plans for the site, it was, to borrow a phrase commonly used in ironic understatement by my old sedimentology Prof: “sub-optimal”.
The plan was for 5 tall, thick towers on a pedestal of parking, rather the same as Plaza88 but 66% larger. It was out of scale with the surroundings, and threatened to create a permanent barrier separating Downtown from the waterfront, and burying Front Street for all time. As a trade-off, the plan was to bury a few hundred metres of a new freeway – the now-defunct North Fraser Perimeter Road (NFPR) – under the pedestal. Little regard was given to how this “traffic solution” would impact areas east or west of the Larco Property, but I don’t want to drift off on that story here…
With the establishment of the Pier Park, the cancelling of the NFPR, and new ideas around accommodating parking in Downtown in a post-Parkade era, the plans for Larco no longer really fit the bill, so the City asked Larco (who, in the City’s defense, had not acted for a decade on the previous plans) to go back to the drawing board and try to re-imagine the site through the lens of these new factors. It is what Larco brought back that has me (tacitly, with all the regular devil-in-the-details caveats) feeling pretty positive about the prospects for that site.
|Sketch drawing, click to make bigger, or go the City site to look at the entire report.
The number and mass of the towers have been reduced. The new plans call for narrower towers with greater spacing, which should help preserve the view corridors down the important streets, and allow some sunlight to hit Columbia and Front streets. With some clever design, these towers might fit very nicely without feeling like a wall separating us from the river. The towers will vary in height (which further reduces the wall effect), but the tallest will be at least as high as the tallest at Plaza88). I’m not generally in favour of super-tall buildings on the waterfront, but if done well, not completely out of scale with the surrounding buildings, and lined up so not to block established view corridors, 3 towers will not overwhelm. Note that Larco is reducing the overall number of residences from over 1000 to around 800, which is something significant for a developer to give up, but will definitely allow the buildings to fit the site better.
The second big plus is that the development will allow expansion of the Pier Park to the west, and will feature a significant amount of public greenspace filling the gap between the FRDC and the Pier Park. This will no doubt come with access improvements to the east side of the park, but just by connecting the River Market/Quay to the Park more cohesively, the whole will exceed the sum of the parts. With longer-term plans to connect the Quay to Queensborough with a pedestrian bridge, and to connect the east end of the Park to Sapperton with a Greenway, we can now envision a future where New Westminster’s waterfront becomes a one of the greatest community amenities in the Lower Mainland- we will truly “Own the River” as the best place to spend some time on the banks of the muddy old Fraser.
The third (and perhaps most surprising) positive coming out of this plan is the disappearance of the parking structure. I don’t mean there will be no parking, I mean that Larco wants to build the “human space” at the same level as the bottom of the Pier Park, and stick the cars down under the pier. New construction techniques and tanking technology definitely allows this to be done safely, and with the entire breadth of the lot used for parking (and driveways and walkways above) there is enough room to build parking to the tower residents, and to have an extra public parking area to accommodate the FRDC, River Market and visitors to the Pier Park. The plan will not have several levels of above-ground parkade creating a garage tunnel effect we see on some other streets (I’m looking at you, Carnarvon!)
All of this had rightfully raised the same question among several people: what about the rails? Don’t we need to build overpasses? Won’t the whistles and bells and idling trains just cause more conflict? How will all these people rely on Begbie Street crossing?
These are serious concerns: both the need for level crossings vs. overpasses, and the issue of adjusting rail operations to deal with whistle cessation and reduced community impacts. Apparently, the City is working on them, and this is an area where serious work needs yet to be done. However, I will argue that complete separation may not be the best solution. (Unless the separation involves moving the rails, but I’m going to assume the Federal Government is not interested in spending any money moving goods by anything but truck, and this idea will never fly).
I don’t want multiple overpasses with elevated concrete flying over our streets. They are ugly, they are expensive to build and maintain, they act as obstacles to pedestrians, and (especially) people with disabilities. They loom over the human spaces below, create traffic barriers at times of emergency, and serve to actually separate us from the places they are meant to connect. Instead, we need to take a more rational approach to level crossings in New Westminster.
And we don’t need to re-invent the wheel here. We are not the only City in the world with industrial rail lines along a re-imagined post-industrial waterfront. We don’t even need to tax our imagination too hard to see how it would work, we can just look around the world (thanks to Google Street View):
The Old Port area of Montreal:
Or even dusty ol’ Peoria, Illinois:
I’m just saying, if it plays in Peoria, you can’t tell me we cannot do it in New Westminster. We (and by “we”, I mean the railways and the governments that regulate them) just need to grow up.
Like or hate what you see? Go the the City’s Open house on Wednesday and give them a piece of your mind!