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New West councillor hosts Connaught Heights densification dialogue

Panel discussion and forum to discuss pros and cons of densification in this New Westminster neighbourhood
Tired of wating: Some homes in the Connaught Heights neighbourhood are sporting signs calling for action on the vision for the area around the SkyTrain station. Julie MacLellan/The Record

A New Westminster city councillor is hosting a townhall meeting to discuss densification in the Connaught Heights neighbourhood.

Coun. Daniel Fontaine said he decided to organize the meeting, as he’s council’s liaison to the Connaught Heights Residents’ Association.

“I decided to host this event as a way for the residents of Connaught Heights to speak directly to their political representative on council in advance of the master plan process,” he said. “The focus of the panel discussion and forum are the pros and cons of densification and how it could eventually impact Connaught Heights and adjacent neighbourhoods.”

Anyone living or working in New West is invited to attend the forum, which is taking place on Tuesday, April 25 from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Queensborough Community Centre.

The forum wants to bring local residents together to discuss how densification could transform Connaught Heights – a low-density, single-family neighbourhood that’s home the 22nd Street SkyTrain station – into a low-carbon, vibrant neighbourhood that could become home to more diverse housing options.

“I’m hoping the forum will help shine a spotlight on community and neighbourhood concerns, interest, goals and objectives related to the redevelopment of the Connaught Heights neighbourhood,” he said in an email to the Record. “At the end of the day, the goal is to support and inform the work city staff and council will eventually undertake as we look to transform this neighbourhood in the years to come.”

The forum will include presentations from two guest panellists, a moderated discussion and a Q&A session.

The two panellists are: Michael Mortensen, a registered urban planner, director of Liveable City Planning Ltd. and an adjunct professor at the UBC Sauder School of Business; and Bryn Davidson, co-founder of Lanefab, an integrated design/build team crafting custom high performance homes in the Vancouver BC region and beyond.

In a press release, Fontaine stated the forum is not part of the city’s formal master plan process.

In a 2017 update to the official community plan, the city identified the area around the 22nd Street SkyTrain station as a place that could accommodate higher density development.

In February 2020, staff proposed that the city develop 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 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.

The bold vision process is proposed to include four mains steps: an ideas competition that will gather creative ideas from community members and leading global experts in climate resilience and community planning; an evaluation and shortlisting of ideas (including expert analysis and community input); the drafting of a bold vision that turns the top ideas into a cohesive and implementable plan for the neighbourhood; and adoption of the bold vision by council.

Tired of waiting

In March, a delegation of Connaught Heights residents attended a council meeting, where they urged the city to proceed with the development of a master plan for their neighbourhood – without delay.

“People here are living in limbo,” said resident Miao Peijiang, who spoke on behalf of the neighbourhood. “Like, we don’t know what’s going to happen.”

At that meeting, some council members expressed support for moving forward with this process as soon as possible. Staff said the pandemic and staffing shortages delayed work on the “bold vision” being proposed for the neighbourhood – and noted that “a significant amount of work” would need to happen before construction begins in the area.

“When I saw the number of people who came to city hall recently asking for increased densification in their neighbourhood, it struck me as rather unique. Normally most neighbourhoods are fighting and opposing densification, but in this case it would appear there is a significant interest to move forward with it,” Fontaine said. “This townhall forum will test whether there is a broad interest in moving forward with densification, or if there are those who reside within the local community who have genuine concerns regarding what significant densification might translate into.”

Realtor Eric Vallee said he’s been working since January 2022 to get all 31 property owners south of Seventh Avenue and north of Marine Way to work together and to get the city to move forward on the neighbourhood’s master plan. In an email to the Record, he said he’s talked to more than 150 developers about the intention of all 31 owners selling their properties together to a developer, but developers are waiting to see what the city plans for the area around the 22nd Street station.

According to Vallee, residents are “disappointed and tired” of the delays. Numerous residents have placed Vallee’s signs reading “neighbour support the 22nd station master plan” on their lawns.

“I receive many calls for residents living in the area that they want see some positive change in the area,” he said.

Vallee has forwarded a petition and letters from individual residents to Mayor Patrick Johnstone and to BC Housing Minister Ravi Khalon.

A city priority?

The Record checked in Mayor Patrick Johnstone to get an update on the 22nd Street bold vision process.

Johnstone said city council is currently working on its strategic plan (which outlines council’s priorities for its term of office), and that plan is expected to be completed in May. Once that’s done, he said council will be able to talk about “next steps” for the Connaught Heights planning process.

“It’s something that the city is already working on, and it’s a matter of fitting it into staff’s work plans. … We’re trying to do some other work around bigger policy ideas, and this is one of them,” he said. “So the question is: how is council going to decide to prioritize this around some of those other policy directions we want to go. We are always in New Westminster a small town who wants to wants to do a lot of things, so priority-setting is always a challenge for us. But this is the time to be making those priorities.”

Johnstone said he won’t be attending the meeting because he doesn’t want to blur the lines between the city’s official engagement process and a community forum being promoted by a real estate company that may have a pecuniary interest.

“Whenever a community gets together to talk about the future of a neighbourhood, that’s a good thing,” he said. “But whenever we go to Connaught Heights, there’s diversity of opinions?”

That was the case, said Johnstone, when the City of New Westminster put together the official community plan in 2017 and when it talked about a proposed affordable housing project in that neighbourhood in 2019.

“And, I suggest that the master plan is also going to be an interesting conversation with the community because I don’t think everyone is aligned in the neighbourhood around what they see as the vision for that neighbourhood,” he said. “So we need to be mindful about public engagement to make sure that we’re hearing from the community at large.”

Johnstone said Connaught Heights residents haven’t been unified in the past about what they’d like to see in the neighbourhood, and that’s not unusual.

“No neighbourhood in New Westminster is completely unified on what they want to see. That’s why we do public engagement,” he said. “And that’s why we have to be mindful about public engagement, to make sure that we’re that we are hearing from the community at large and not just to people who are looking to sell and speculate.”

When it comes to city-led consultation, Johnstone said the city is mindful of the need to accurately record and report back on what happens at engagement events, and is clear with residents about how their feedback will be used.

“So, when the master planning process gets started, the city will have a deliberate consultation in the neighbourhood,” he said.