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Living in limbo: Connaught Heights residents urge New West to take action

Connaught Heights residents await city's bold vision for 22nd Street SkyTrain station neighbourhood
The City of New Westminster has plans to create a "bold vision" for the area around the 22nd Street SkyTrain station.

Some Connaught Heights residents feel like they’re stuck in limbo while waiting for the city’s “bold vision” to be developed for the area around the 22nd Street SkyTrain station.

As part of a 2017 update to the official community plan, the city identified the area around that station as a place that could accommodate higher density development.

“People here are living in limbo,” area resident Miao Peijiang told council Monday. “Like, we don't know what's going to happen.”

In a February 2020, staff proposed developing a “bold vision” for the area around the station, one that could include initiatives such as car-free zone; a zero-emissions vehicles zone; a renewable energy zone; or other ideas as determined through an ideas competition. At that time, the city's plan was to retain a consulting team and to launch a design and ideas competition in 2020, evaluate the shortlisted ideas and endorse a vision in 2021, and begin implementing the vision in 2022.

Numerous Connaught Heights residents attended the March 13 council meeting, where Peijiang urged council to move forward with the development of a master plan for the area without delay. He said there are many benefits to the community, the city and the environment by proceeding with the plan.

Peijiang said the community will benefit by receiving much-needed traffic calming, improved walkability, additional housing, more commercial services, and parks and amenities. He said many of the homes in the area are aging and unsafe by modern standards, but people are reluctant to build new houses or renovate homes without knowing what’s planned for the neighbourhood.

Peijiang said the bold vision would also benefit the city by providing more property taxes, and development cost charges from developers that could help build parks and other amenities. Environmentally, he said the project would see modern, energy-efficient housing built near transit services.

Jackie Teed, acting director of climate action, planning and development, said staff are in the initial stages of launching the bold vision process, which would come develop a vision for the neighbourhood. She said staff had intended to start this work, and then the pandemic struck.

“We are currently working with council to identify what the strategic plan will be for the next four years, and then staff will be aligning our work plan to meet the intention of that strategic plan,” she said. “So, at that time, we'll be determining exactly which projects will be headed forward. Certainly, this is one that's high on our list.”

Teed said staff shortages have “significantly” impacted the department’s ability to work on the vision.

“We have two staff in our long-range planning team, and in the staff shortages that descended upon most municipalities following the pandemic, most of our planning team was redirected to development application review and has not been working on policy,” she explained. “So we have a very, very long list of outstanding policy, including the project under discussion tonight.”

Teed said the first component of that would be to develop the bold vision. Once that’s done, she said the city would need to: create a neighbourhood plan; prepare and bring forward an amendment to the official community plan; and identify community amenity contributions that development would have to pay and determine what projects those contributions would be for.

“So, there's a significant amount of work between now and ultimately any construction happening in that area,” she said.

Council keen to proceed with plan

Coun. Nadine Nakagawa believes there are many opportunities around SkyTrain stations to create complete communities that include residences, businesses and amenities.

“We don't get many opportunities like this. We do want to get it right,” she said. “And I know the community has been waiting for a long time.”

Coun. Daniel Fontaine said he will do whatever he can to accelerate the initiative as quickly as possible.

Coun. Paul Minhas said the bold vision was an issue that he and Fontaine heard a lot about when knocking on doors in Connaught Heights during last year’s civic election campaign. He believes it’s time for council to make this a priority.

“I do understand (delays) with COVID and staff shortages,” he said, “but I think we need to find some sort of an answer for the people of Connaught Heights.”

Fontaine questioned if the bold vision project is the number 1 project for planning staff.

Mayor Patrick Johnstone said that’s a decision that would be made by council through the strategic planning process that’s currently underway. He said the bold vision was a priority in the previous council’s strategic plan, but it got bumped because of the pandemic.

Johnstone said there are a few stations along the SkyTrain line, including 22nd Street, that haven’t seen a lot of change since SkyTrain was built.

“A lot of it had to do I think with a lack of impetus. … Unlike some other areas, there wasn't a single developer who owned all the land and was ready to push the item through,” he said. “And there wasn't a real drive by the community to make it happen.”

Johnstone said a master-planned neighbourhood is not something that happens quickly and is something that will include a significant amount of community consultation and technical analysis. He said construction is still taking place at the Brewery District 15 years after that process began.

“That plan took a couple of years to develop before construction really began,” he said. “This one might even be more complex because, frankly, the last time we had conversations on 22nd Street with the Connaught Heights neighbourhood about that plan, it wasn't a universal voice on what they wanted to see in that plan. There's going to be some different opinions in the community about what they want to see there, and we're going to have to take the time to work through that.”

Johnstone pledged to update residents about the city’s plans for the area around the 22nd Street SkyTrain station once the strategic plan is considered in April.

Fontaine questioned if the city is able to support increased densification and allow people to begin transforming that neighbourhood before the bold plan is developed, given that people have been waiting for clarity on the city’s vision for some time.

Teed said it’s the city’s expectation that densification doesn't happen in the area while the plan is being developed.

“We are trying to figure out what the plan is,” she said. “So certainly, we need to understand what the opportunity and the expectations are before we can contemplate any changes there.”

Teed added that any work that staff would have to do in response to interim measures would be done by the same two staff who would be tasked with advancing the bold vision project.

In 2021, council members serving on the city’s land use and planning committee said it was too early to consider an application for a liquor store on 20th Street because the 22nd Street master plan hadn’t been completed. In early 2022, the city received a pre-application review for 2342 to 2346 Marine Dr., where an applicant was proposing to build a 30-storey highrise, a proposal that staff recommended be integrated into the bold vision process.

The City of New Westminster’s draft five-year capital plan includes funding for the 22nd Street bold visioning process – $360,480 in 202 and $115,000 in 2024. “Using the ideas generated from an ideas competition a consultant will create a bold vision document that will include a roadmap for the implementation of an eco-neighbourhood in the area around the 22nd Street SkyTrain station,” state budget documents.

Signs posted on the lawns of some homes in the Connaught Heights neighbourhoods state: Neighbour Support 22nd Station Master Plan.  The signs include the contact information of a  Realtor.

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