Royal City makeover nears completion as hip developers, rapid transit transform heritage core

Tuesday, April 2nd, 2013


Hip new highrise condos by Vancouver’s trendiest developers. A sophisticated new waterfront park and refurbished quay. A retooled town centre labelled “cool” by the Georgia Straight – and a city so confident, it’s building 137,000 square feet of office space on spec.

New Westminster, where building permits spiked to more than $323 million last year, is much more than just a suburb in Metro Vancouver – it is a new urban destination combining century-old heritage with contemporary architecture.

Plus outright – but likely not misplaced – courage.

The Royal City, once the capital of British Columbia, remains proudly protective of its heritage. Columbia Street, the main thoroughfare, is flanked by buildings dating back to the 1800s, which today are attracting chic new shops, restaurants and homes.

“New Westminster is not like other suburb,” said Sharon DeClaire, who is among the Vancouver gen-Xers looking for a home in the Royal City. “It has great older buildings and a cool urban vibe. It’s more like a city than a suburb.”

In the five years leading up to 2011, New Westminster’s population increased by 12.7 per cent to 65,976, according to Census Canada. This is among the fastest growth rates in suburban Metro Vancouver – higher even than Burnaby or Richmond.


The arrival of SkyTrain – there are five stations in New Westminster – has helped to both attract newcomers and spur the current development boom that has seen at least $500 million invested in the downtown alone in the past decade.

Last year the city opened a new $33 million park on the Fraser River just east of the River Market at Westminster Quay, a waterfront retail village concept that has also been revived.

The market, which opened in 2010, has been recognized by the Real Estate Foundation of BC Land Awards for its food-centric and sustainable development. On the second floor, tenants include a shared-space office tenant and the Vancouver Circus School.

Office sector

New Westminster is also proceeding with the construction of Merchant Square, a 14-storey office tower that’s being built without any pre-leases signed. The tower is part of the city’s new civic centre, which will anchor the first four floors. The nine floors of office space cover 137,000 square feet.

Merchant Square is expected to complete by the end of this year. The city decided to proceed with the office component after a private developer pulled out. The city plans to eventually sell the office tower.

“There has been no preleasing to date but we are in the midst of several negotiations,” said Darrel Hurst, New Westminster’s leasing agent with Avison Young of Vancouver.

There is reason for the city to be confident in leasing the Class A tower, despite a 20 per cent office vacancy rate in New Westminster: Merchant Square is close to SkyTrain, which is a trump card in the office leasing market.

According to a survey by Jones Lang LaSalle, the office vacancy rate in the Royal City for property close to SkyTrain is just 7.4 per cent, with gross rents up to 32 per cent higher than in buildings further away from transit.

“The lone Class A building [near SkyTrain] is fully occupied, while the rest of New Westminster Class A space is 21 per cent vacant,” the 2012 survey found.

The city is not alone in betting on an office market uptrend.

Wesgroup Properties is completing the Brewery District with 230,000 square feet of office space next to the Sapperton SkyTrain station. Translink and transit police have already taken most of the space. Wesgroup has also had success selling strata office space in the Brewery District, mostly to the medical community.

Meanwhile, Uptown Property Group is finishing a mixed-used four-storey office and retail tower in uptown New Westminster with 20,000 square feet of offices that opens this April.

As well, Bentall Kennedy has proposed a giant mixed-use development next to the Baird Street SkyTrain station that would total about 400,000 square feet in office and retail space.

Downtown, the $350 million Plaza 88 project – a heady mix of retail and residential – is already complete. Developer Michael Degelder says the first two towers in Plaza 88’s residential complex sold out quickly, and the 40-storey third tower had only four of its 234 suites available as of press time. Prices are in the range of $500 per square foot.

Plaza 88 also boasts 200,000 square feet of retail, including Safeway, Shoppers Drug Mart and the first multi-screen move theatre in New Westminster. Degelder is currently in talks with the city on a planned fourth tower at Plaza 88.


Close by, on Columbia Street, Vancouver developer Robert Fung of Salient Group, well known for pioneering heritage condo-loft projects in Gastown, is selling Trapp+Holbrook – a condo project ascending from a namesake Royal City heritage building.

The new T+H will stand 20 storeys and feature panoramic views of the Fraser River. Prices for homes start at $219,900, and Fung says that 100 of the 196 condos are priced under $300,000.

“New Westminster has been overlooked for years,” Fung told the Western Investor. “This neighbourhood is now hot again.”

from Western Investor April 2013

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