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Condominium towers overlook the New Westminster Quay market along the Fraser River. New development in the city of 66,000 has affordability in its favour, as homes here are often $200 less per square foot than in Vancouver. (Hadani Ditmars/Hadani Ditmars)
Condominium towers overlook the New Westminster Quay market along the Fraser River. New development in the city of 66,000 has affordability in its favour, as homes here are often $200 less per square foot than in Vancouver. (Hadani Ditmars/Hadani Ditmars)

The Lower Mainland has a new neighbourhood darling Add to ...

At the New Westminster Quay Market, a photographic silk-screened montage by artist Ed Pien depicts idyllic scenes from the banks of the adjacent Fraser River. Billowing elegantly over the top of an escalator, the work is called New Paradise.

While that may be an ambitious moniker for the city of 66,000 at the geographic centre of the Lower Mainland, it is certainly becoming the region’s new real estate darling.

Affordability is a huge factor, as homes here are often $200 less per square foot than in Vancouver, and $100 less per square foot than in Burnaby – where Metrotown development has accelerated residential real estate prices. And at only 15 square kilometres, with an intact, largely Edwardian downtown, it’s not only cheaper than many neighbouring suburbs, it’s also much more attractive.

“My friends were a little hesitant about visiting me when we bought a house here last month” confides 30-year-old Michael Kaisaris, of his hipster friends from his old hood – the Main and Broadway epicentre of Vancouver cool, “but now a lot of them are moving out here too. The other day I even saw a guy on a “Fixie” [a fixed-gear bike] on the riverwalk.”

But for Mr. Kaisaris and his wife, a sommelier at Gastown hotspot Jules expecting the couple’s first child, the decision to move to New Westminster seemed like a natural progression. “Where else could we buy an 1,800-square-foot heritage home with a garden for $450,000?”

And with his new Re-up BBQ restaurant opening at the recently refurbished River Market on the Quay, his commute is a mere 10-minute walk. Mr. Kaisaris and his wife are typical of a new breed of young buyers – many of them cultural creatives who are rediscovering the city’s charms. They’re also part of the 25- to 39-year-old demographic – 24 per cent of the city’s population – that’s helped make New Westminster the most rapidly densifying area in the GVRD. Some say the young entrepreneurial energy of the 153-year-old city – B.C.’s first urban centre – dates back to its status as the pre-Confederation capital of the colony of British Columbia.

“New Westminster was always a commercial hub,” says Lisa Spitale, director of development services at the city. And it was a distinctly Canadian one, with a business-minded population that hailed from the Great Lakes regions and the Maritimes. This was in contrast to the more British and bureaucratic tone of Victoria, that usurped the coveted capital status from the young town when Vancouver Island was incorporated into the colony.

But New Westminster’s heyday was in the post-Second World War era, when its downtown core – known as the “golden mile” – was a regional retail hub and manufacturing, railway, forest products and fishing industries flourished. It fell on hard times in the 1970s, when shopping malls in nearby suburbs and new freeways killed the historic downtown, and traditional industries slumped.

When a provincial government backed Expo 86 initiative helped develop the waterfront – still a working river – and saw a new SkyTrain station built and Douglas College opened, the city enjoyed a mini-renaissance. The nineties era of suburban expansion largely bypassed New Westminster, partly because it was much cheaper to build tract housing and strip malls on vacant farmland and industrial sites rather than in a pre-existing community. Thanks to this as well as the city’s preservation oriented policies, much of New Westminster’s heritage architecture was saved.

Developer Robert Fung recognized the city’s potential in the 2000s, purchasing two historic buildings on Columbia Street in 2005. “You can’t really call this place a suburb,” says Mr. Fung, “it has a real urban grain to it, and a strong sense of place.”

But his plans to redevelop the late 19th-century Trapp and Holbrook buildings were put on hold by the 2008 global economic slump, and he ended up leasing them to a local non-profit society that assists homeless women and children. Now, finally, the moment is right. The development, consisting of a new concrete 20-storey building above an existing heritage podium level, is slated for completion in 2014. Designed by the IBI Group, it features a revitalized façade from the Trapp building paired with sleek modern interiors by Cristina Oberti. Enthusiastic presales have already begun.

“Of the 800 people who signed up in the first few weeks,” says Mr. Fung, “most are young professionals in their 30s and 40s.” They are of course attracted to the relatively low price point – with roomy, 750-square-foot two bedrooms with high, loft inspired ceilings and water views, starting at $339,000 – but also to the convenience of local transit hubs. With five sky-train stations in New Westminster, the city is only a 22-minute ride away from downtown Vancouver.

For an increasingly carless generation of “Y’s,” this is a huge selling point. “My friends from Vancouver are only coming in to see me tonight because of the SkyTrain,” notes Mr. Kaisaris of his 30th birthday celebration at his new home, complete with artisanal beer kegs and local foodie friends who have opened shops and cafés along the old “golden mile. None of them own vehicles.”

Easy transit access has also made New Westminster popular with businesses like the Lowe’s Company – which recently located its first Home Improvement Warehouse in B.C. here – and a plethora of developers equally welcomed by the city’s “open for business” attitude.

With plans to attract 21,000 new downtown residents by 2031, as well as investors and conferences, the city has embarked on ambitious new development plans. The $25-million, 3.8 hectare Westminster Pier Park opened this summer, and with it more pedestrian access to the waterfront. A $35-million, multi-use civic facility that will include a convention centre, 350-seat theatre, restaurant and museum, will be completed in 2014. Phase one of Wesbrook Properties $600-million redevelopment of the Brewery District at the old Labatt’s site will feature a mix of office, retail, residential and health-care facilities.

And the Plaza 88 project, developed by Degelder Construction as a series of towers built on top of a SkyTrain station with adjacent retail, will soon include a fourth residential tower, bringing the total number of condos to more than 1,000 units.

But it’s the Salient Group’s new Trapp and Holbrook project that seems the best metaphor for a city whose historical roots are being tapped by a whole new generation.

Mr. Fung’s usual high standards and commitment to heritage conversions have meant that even though he will have to gut the two buildings – vacant since 1976 – the original terracotta façade will be taken down and painstakingly refurbished and reassembled. And as construction begins along the former “golden mile,” every effort will be made to preserve the area’s retail sensibility – with ground-floor space featuring large wood-framed picture windows that engage with the streetscape. While the site is currently flanked on one side by the Art-Deco Paramount – a former cinema specializing in Disney flicks transformed into a strip bar – and a plethora of bridal shops on the other, there are signs of a sea-change – or at the very least a fresh riverine breeze – afoot.

There are now vegan cafés, mid-century furniture shops and yoga studios in the area that co-exist peacefully with the Army and Navy, comedy clubs and mom-and-pop retailers. The comparisons to Mr. Fung’s historic Flack Block conversion in Gastown are evident. But New Westminster holds its own, insists Mr. Fung.

“There’s such a strong sense of community here,” he says,” it’s the glue that holds it all together. Without it, all this,” he gestures to the several blocks of Columbia Street that take in heritage buildings, new storefronts and young mums with strollers who walk past smiling old-timers, “would not be possible.”

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