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Happy 10th Anniversary: A look back at Westminster Pier Park

A devastating fire, a toxic blob and a zipline proposal are just some of the ways Pier Park has captured headlines in the past decade

From the moment the city announced it had purchased a brownfield site on the waterfront until this week’s 10th anniversary celebration, Westminster Pier Park has garnered its share of headlines.

In honour of the anniversary, we’re taking a look back on some of the major milestones (such as when senior levels of government agreed to put money toward the park) to some low points (the 2020 fire). In between there were elevator woes, a toxic blob, a zipline proposal, events galore (too many to cover here) and a whole lot more.

March 2009

The City of New Westminster announces it’s purchased the 3.2-hectare (nine-acre) Westminster Pier waterfront site at 224 Front St. for $8 million.

September 2009

New Westminster learns its application from the Building Canada Fund has been approved. The city will receive $8.3 million from the federal government and $8.3 million from the provincial government, and will have to contribute the same amount.

March 2010

The city receives preliminary plans for the park project and is told there are “financial realities” to how much of the site can be converted into a brand new park at this time – with consultants suggesting it’s wise to focus on “quality more than quantity.”

Consultants recommend against including moorage and direct access to the river at the park site because of concerns about safety, the speed of the river and the likelihood of inexperienced boaters encountering difficulties with the strong current. A marine engineer tells council water access would be dangerous at this site for many people, as there are “very high currents for a significant portion of time at this site.”

April 2010

Council approves a bylaw allowing the City of New Westminster to borrow up to $17 million for development of Westminster Pier Park. This includes the city’s share ($8.3 million) of the cost to develop the park, and well as funds to refinance the short-term borrowing the city used to purchase the waterfront property in 2009.

June 2010

Construction of the first phase of Westminster Pier Park, between Sixth and Fourth streets, gets underway. It begins with the removal of the asphalt surface on the site and the demolition of the deck – steps that need to be done before pile driving “thousands” of piles to into the water and ground to stabilize the site and create supports for the new concrete deck. As demolition takes place, work continues to finish the detailed design for the park.

With $24 million in funding from the city, the province and the federal government, the city realizes it’s unable to build new infrastructure and park amenities on the entire linear park site because that would cost $53.9 million.

June 2010

New Westminster gets some “breathing room” to satisfy federal requirement for the $16.6-million Building Canada Fund grant. Instead of March 31, 2011 deadline to complete the park in order to get the federal funding, the city now has until March 2012 to build the new waterfront park. The city hopes a more flexible construction schedule may help reduce costs.

September 2010

Testing is being done on a section of Pier Park where higher than anticipated contamination is detected.

November 2010

A report to council states that remediation of contaminated soils at Westminster Pier Park is complete but groundwater testing in the area around Fourth Street has identified a higher concentration of contaminants (chlorinated solvents) than what was previously known. The highest concentration of the contamination – nicknamed the “toxic blob” by some residents – is found a short distance north of the park boundary, in the railway corridor. The province’s Ministry of the Environment reports that “chlorinated solvents in the form of dense non-aqueous phase liquid” are eight metres below the surface and don’t appear to be progressing toward the Fraser River.

“It’s in liquid form, but the molecular structure is heavier than the water, so it does not sink,” then city engineer Jim Lowrie said of the contamination. “Most fuels will float in water – this is a denser product. It is still in liquid form.”

February 2011

Testing shows that the “toxic blob” is about 350 square metres in size and most of the contaminants are found at a depth of 40 to 50 feet, with the highest level of contamination located a short distance north of the park boundary in the railway corridor. The city decides to build a sub-surface barrier to contain the solvent area and to prevent it from future migration within the park.

April 2011

Months of pile driving wraps up after more than 3,000 wood and steel piles are driven into place. The majority are timber piles that are used to densify the soil, which is required so the site doesn’t slide into the river in the event of an earthquake; the steel piles will hold up the park deck. Now that the pile driving is complete, construction of the park can begin.

Information about arts, culture and heritage components of Pier Park are unveiled. The plan includes the placement of historic photo panels in a terraced area near the Lytton Square building and a memory band (with words referring to New West-related places, people, quotes, dates, events, etc.) running along the length of the park.

May 2011

A webcam is launched so residents can follow Westminster Pier Park construction online. Updated images are presented every 10 minutes during daylight hours.

September 2011

New Westminster’s new waterfront park is officially named Westminster Pier Park, a move the city says is in keeping with its policy of naming parks after a locational feature. People have been calling the site Westminster Pier for more than 20 years.

October 2011

Westminster Pier Park wins its first award when the Canadian Urban Institute awards it a Brownie Award in the sustainable remediation technologies and excellence category.

June 2012

Torrential rains don’t dampen the spirits of folks who attend the June 16 grand opening of Westminster Pier Park. Located on the shores of the Fraser River, the park includes a structure representing the historic Lytton Square building (once home to the farmers’ market), two playgrounds, a sports court, a “finger pier” that stretches out over the Fraser River, a festival lawn gathering area that can accommodate 1,000 people, a concession, washrooms and walking paths.

Then-mayor Wayne Wright called it a “day to remember” as the park allows the city to recapture a significant part of its waterfront for use by the public now and into the future. (Wright was a champion of the city’s plan to buy the brownfield site and create a park, with some vocal critics dubbing the park Wayne’s Wharf.)

“Today is a great day for our city, and one we’ll remember for a long time,” Wright said. “With the opening of Westminster Pier Park, we’ve realized a significant goal for New Westminster and reconnected with our historic waterfront.”

July 2012

A post-construction report states the total cost to build the park was $25,892,822, which was $740,080 over budget. The extra funds were attributed to the need to deal with contamination issues on the former industrial site.

With only one way to get in and out of Westminster Pier Park, city officials discuss ways to improve access to the new waterfront park, which is currently only accessible via the parking lot on the western side of the park (made possible through an agreement with Larco Investments, which owns the site between Westminster Pier Park and River Market). Coun. Chuck Puchmayr suggests the city explore the idea of creating a zipline from the Front Street Parkade into Westminster Pier Park, noting there were huge lineups for a zipline set up in Vancouver as part of the 2020 Winter Olympics.

August 2012

A resident enjoying a walk in the city’s newest park discovers an error in the spelling of one of the names in the memory band art feature. Instead of Beth Wood, the name of the city’s first female mayor is spelled Woods. The mistake is quickly corrected.

Council directs staff to issue a request for proposals for the design and construction of an overpass into the park at Fourth Street, which would include stairs and/or a ramp or an elevator connection into the park. Most council members support the idea of providing elevator access into the park but one councillors warns that elevators are riddled with maintenance issues.

October 2012

The city seeks input on what to do with the “timber wharf” portion of the park – an asphalt section at the eastern side of the site. This section remains on its original wood pilings and will be fully developed in the future, but the city is looking at interim uses that will enhance the park’s overall attractiveness and make this area a fun and inviting part of the park.

February 2013

Council directs staff to proceed with the detailed design and construction of the Fourth Street overpass, including stairs and an elevator connection to the park. Staff will also get information about the potential cost and liability of incorporating a zipline into the design – with the idea that people would zip into the park from the Front Street parkade.

May 2013

A leading zipline operator concludes that the height of the viewing platform isn't high enough to provide a safe, commercially viable and entertaining zipline ride into Pier Park. At the same time, the city learns that the Fourth Street overpass, originally expected to be complete by September, won’t be done until October. (The need for additional geotechnical investigation and foundation design to meet seismic requirements has delayed the anticipated completion date by a month.)

August 2013

Two beach volleyball courts are the first additions to the timber wharf section of the park.

September 2013

The city puts the brakes on plans to provide access into Pier Park via a second pedestrian overpass at Fourth Street. The decision comes as the city continues talks with Larco (owner of the property next to the park that’s currently the only place where folks can access to the park) about a “bold” new vison for that site.

October 2013

The International Downtown Association awards the City of New Westminster with its 2013 Downtown Pinnacle Award for the development of Westminster Pier Park. It wins in the Public Space category, which recognizes capital improvements that enhance the urban design, physical function or economic viability of the downtown and the community. Before the park even opened to the public in June 2012, it had won three awards.

January 2014

Council awards a $2.5-million contract for an overpass that will take visitors from the Front Street Parkade (at Fourth Street) into the park. It will include stairs and elevator access.

April 2014:

Council is on board with a plan to bring Blue Trees by Konstantin Dimopoulous to Columbia Street and Public Furniture/Urban Trees by Hugo Franca to New West as part of the city’s participation in the Vancouver Biennale – but some council members are not keen about plans to locate WOW Westminster by Joseph Resende at Westminster Pier Park. Some councillors say the piece is representative of the city’s industrial history, while others like it to a “train wreck” and note it’s creating “angst” in the community. The installation would consist of four shipping containers positioned in two V shapes on the northeastern end of the timber wharf section of the park. In a 5-2 vote, council supports spending $90,000 for the three Biennale projects.

August 2014

New West residents can dip their toes in the sand at the new “urban beach” on the timber wharf part of the park. Hammocks and beach umbrellas are still being made when the beach opens on April 15, but soon arrive.

May 2015

New hammocks arrive at the urban beach – these ones are custom-made from recycled fire hoses from the New Westminster Fire Department.

June 2015

The city is keeping an eye on love locks that have been placed on fencing along the waterfront in Pier Park. So far, they haven’t created any structural issues, as has been the case in other cities, including Paris.

July 2015

Water misters arrive at Westminster Pier Park to help cool folks down on hot summer days. The misters are located on the timber wharf, not far from the beach volleyball courts and urban beach.

October 2015

Delays continue to plague the opening of the elevator into Pier Park. While people have been able to access the park via stairs at Fourth Street since March, the elevator has faced delays with parts coming in on time, coordination issues between the parties involved in the project, changes made to the size and the design of the elevator, and approvals from B.C. Safety Authority.

November 2015

Canada’s largest outdoor public art installation – Wow Westminster – finds a home in Pier Park. The 140-foot long piece is by Brazilian artist Jose Resende.

May 2016:

New Westminster holds a ribbon cutting for the long-awaited opening of the Fourth Street elevator.

May to October 2016:

Bosa Developments buys the property at 660 Quayside Dr. – right next to Westminster Pier Park – from longtime owner Larco Investments. The sale triggers discussions about the master plan that’s currently in place for the site. In October, Bosa Developments applies for permits needed to build a mixed-used development that includes 53- and a 43-storey highrises and two acres of greenspace next to Westminster Pier Park. 

June 2017

Council approves Bosa Development’s plans for the Pier West development. Without the variances, Bosa is able to build three towers ranging from 25 to 45 storeys, but council  believes the new plan will provide more greenspace and will allow for an expansion to the west side of Westminster Pier Park.

Summer 2017

The city tests out idea of allowing the sale of wine and beer at several events at Westminster Pier Park in the summer of 2017. Based on the success of liquor services at the Arts Council of New Westminster’s Music by the River events, the city decides to permit ongoing licensed summer events at the park in partnership with the arts council and other community-based organizations.

December 2018

Issues continue to plague the Pier Park elevator, which is once again out of service and undergoing repairs. The city’s engineer says the elevator has been broken nine times in 2018, including three times since the beginning of November. Seven of the nine breakdowns are due to vandalism. Each incident requires a few hours to a couple of days to make the repairs needed to get the elevator back in service.

Spring 2019

The city, in partnership with Bosa Developments, begin construction of a fully accessible overpass at Sixth Street, which will includes stairs and an accessible ramp that allow pedestrians and cyclists to get to and from Westminster Pier Park. Bosa, which is building Pier West on the property next to the park, takes the lead on the overpass construction project.

Fall 2019

The city removes love locks from the chain-link fencing at Pier Park out of concerns the accumulation of metal locks could damage the city’s infrastructure. The placement of locks in city parks is contrary to the city’s parks bylaw.

April 2020

Westminster Pier Park becomes a hot spot for COVID-19 compliance concerns, with city officials responding to complaints about visitors’ compliance with public health orders related to physical distancing.

September 2020

Fire breaks out on the timber wharf section of Westminster Pier Park just after 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 13. The fire spreads from the surface to original wood pilings under the wharf – and burns for days. When it’s finally extinguished, the entire timber wharf section of the park is destroyed – including the Wow Westminster public art, the beach volleyball courts and the urban beach.

April 2021

The western section of Westminster Pier Park reopens – months after fire destroyed the eastern side of the park. Its planned reopening in February was stalled by the need to solidify plans for emergency vehicles to access the site.

June 2022

The City of New Westminster holds an event to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the city’s award-winning riverfront park.

Follow Theresa McManus on Twitter @TheresaMcManus