New West “connects to the future” with WiFi network

The success of New Westminster’s WiFi pilot project has city council looking into expanding the service to more locations throughout the city.

The service was debuted at the public library, Queen’s Park Arena and Arenex and the Uptown business corridor in July 2010. Last spring, city hall and Century House were added when the coverage expanded. The trial wrapped up in August.

According to a report released today, the project, which was a collaborative effort by the city’s electrical utility and informational technology services division, attracted an average of 2,500 users per month.

The WiFi technology provided stable, reliable Internet access, and survey feedback from city employees and the public was generally positive.

“The performance speed and throughput of the 802.11n WiFi network has been excellent and one of the fastest public hotspots in the Lower Mainland,” said the report. “The availability of WiFi at our municipal facilities and arenas was very much welcomed by our patrons and other public users.”

Despite assurances from Health Canada and provincial health agencies, some people still expressed concerns over potential health risks of the network.

Survey respondents were also divided about how much the service should cost. While more than half said it should be free, all but three per cent said the cost should be kept under $20.

The pilot project also involved the testing of a wireless parking meter and WiFi-enabled phones for Canada Games Pool staff. Both were aimed at saving monthly telephone carrier charges were the initiative to become more widespread.

“The wireless applications tested seemed to work well and could potentially help improve municipal operational efficiencies in some areas,” said the report.

Council will continue to look at ways to expand the service in the coming months.

New Westminster votes to expand food scraps program

New Westminster residents are changing the way they dispose of their waste.

On Monday, city council approved a motion that would see the city’s existing food scraps program expand to apartments and townhouses by July 1, making New Westminster the first in the region to offer organic waste collection for both single- and multi-family units.

“New Westminster has definitely made a lot of progress with respect to recycling over the past number of years and really become a leader in Metro Vancouver,” said Coun. Jonathan Cote. “Although a lot of our programs that we’ve implemented so far have targeted single-family neighbourhoods, a large number of residents in New Westminster live in multi-family units and this is obviously the next big opportunity for New Westminster to pursue.”

Adoption of the multi-family food scraps program follows a six-month pilot project involving six buildings located throughout the city.

Brochures about recycling and composting were distributed to building residents and food scraps receptacles were placed alongside garbage bins.

According to a city report, “Every participating building … requested additional totes to facilitate increased recycling demands,” with a 25 per cent reduction in waste being diverted from the landfill during the pilot project. One building cut its waste in half.

Council also discussed the possibility of expanding the city’s waste collection services to multi-family units, which are currently serviced almost exclusively by private firms.

“It’s something we should maybe look at … whether or not there’s a cost benefit for the city to do it rather than contracting it out,” said Coun. Bill Harper. “We do service the entire residential component of the city but we don’t service [multi-family units].”

Coun. Chuck Puchmayr pointed out that expanding the city’s waste collection service to include apartments and townhomes could be both financially and environmentally sound.

“Having all these different firms picking up garbage, we may have two or three trucks a day going to different buildings when we could have one vehicle going to all of the buildings,” he said. “I’m wondering if there’s a way we can coordinate or provide a service that has a smaller carbon footprint by virtue of the trucks that are needed so the wear and tear on our road infrastructure [is minimized].”

Puchmayr also floated the idea of developing improved recycling and food waste programs for the commercial properties serviced by the city.

With 40 per cent or more of Metro Vancouver’s waste stream attributed to organic waste, New Westminster’s food scraps programs aim to significantly reduce the amount being taken to landfills.

Since the program debuted last year, waste diversion rates for single-family units have increased dramatically to 59 per cent, compared with 40 per cent in 2010 and 31 per cent in 2009. The amount left at the city’s recycling depot has dropped by nearly 1,000 metric tonnes.

The target set out under Metro Vancouver’s Zero Waste Challenge is to reach a minimum of 70 per cent waste diversion by 2015.

Queen’s Park gets its very own master plan

Queen’s Park will turn 125 next year, and city council thinks it’s high time some changes were made. So, because it’s terribly en vogue right now, they’re drawing up a master plan for it.

Much like the city’s Transportation Master Plan, the QPMP development process will span several months and involve lots and lots of steps, committee meetings and public consultation. The parks and rec department is calling the first public input session an “ideas event” and it’s set to take place this Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the QP arena lobby (and remote locations around the park — intriguing.)

Queen’s Park is kind of a funny place. As a kid, it seemed huge. The section east of the road was so wild and expansive and ripe for exploring. Now? Not so much. Finley and I can do two, sometimes three loops of the Millenium Trail/1st Street in a 40-minute run. I’m familiar with every tree, every picnic table, every tennis court, every squirrel. I know the pathways and roads, paved and unpaved, like the lines that crisscross my palm.

So, as someone who has played, walked, ran, tobogganed and become very, very well-acquainted with the park over the past 20 years, do I have any ideas for how the park could be improved? Why yes, yes I do. I’m glad you asked.

Let’s start with the buildings. For a so-called green space, Queen’s Park has a lot of concrete. The main gate at the foot of 3rd Avenue is probably the best/worst example: swathes of cracked asphalt parking lots, the arena and arenex (WordPress is telling me that this is not a word. To me, it simply means “gymnastics”) and the stadium. I’m not suggesting we get rid of these historic landmarks (with the arena’s new wooden floor, heaven’s no!) but I do think the area could be tidied up a bit, made to look a bit more presentable, given that it’s most people’s point of entry to the park. The parking area behind the arena is especially hideous.

I also think that the playground areas have gone downhill since my merry-go-round days. Queen’s Park used to have one of the best playgrounds going, with its high wooden platforms and super fast zip line, but all that has been traded in for the same cookie-cutter play structures you see everywhere else. Even the swing sets have shrunk (and not just because I got bigger). Safety is important, for sure, but so is risk. I happen to be writing an article all about this, so I won’t get into it here, but if I were in charge, I’d bring back the ladders and the merry-go-round and the firefighters pole and the fun.

And in a surprise move, I think I’d also vote to get rid of the petting zoo. I know, I know, baby bunnies. I love them too, but I honestly feel that the petting zoo is past its prime. It sits empty for 8 or 9 months of the year, and it kind of seems to be… rotting? In a park where so much space is taken up by unnecessary concrete and maintenance yards, green space is at a premium. We don’t need the potbellied pig barn. And the baby calf they get every year just seems really, really unfortunate. Let’s let it stay in Aldergrove this summer where it belongs.

Ultimately, I’m pretty happy to have a place like Queen’s Park a 3-minute walk from my house. It’s changed very, very little in the 20 years that I’ve lived here and if it were to remain the same for the next 20, I don’t think I’d have much of a problem with that. But as a gem in New Westminster’s royal crown (oh god…) I also think we have a responsibility to keep it polished and pristine. It’s pretty great as it is, but it could be even better.

Grade 5 book gets go-ahead

City council has granted the school board’s $3,000 request to print an additional two-year supply of the grade 5 resource book “My New Westminster: a Neighbourhood History.”

The book, originally funded as a 150th anniversary project and authored and illustrated by Literacy Visual Arts Coordinator (yes, we have one of those) Jill Doyle, explains the history of New Westminster and tells the story of each of the city’s neighbourhoods and schools.

At Monday night’s council meeting, students from Lord Tweedsmuir Community School brought smiles to the trustees’ faces with enthusiastic speeches they had prepared about the book.

“I think this book is great because it is not a textbook,” said Ben, a grade 5 student. “We can fit it into our desk easily and we can write in it. But most of all we get to keep it to look back on when we’re older.”

Classmate Fatuma said that having just moved to New Westminster last year, the book has helped her learn more about her new city.

“When reading this book I feel as if I am watching a movie,” she said. “The movie has adventures and is exciting. I learn something from every scene and I have a fun time learning.”

Their teacher Tanya Kaselj reiterated their praise, saying that she herself has learned a lot from teaching the book and she thinks all New Westminsterites could benefit from giving it a read.

The New Westminster Public Library does have several copies of the book available for those who are keen to learn about paddle wheelers and the gold rush but who don’t happen to be in grade 5.

Sittin’ on a fence post, talkin’ ’bout the living wage

New Westminster led the way in April 2010 when it became the first municipality in Canada to adopt a living wage policy. Set by the Candian Centre for Policy Alternatives at $16.74/hour, the wage reflected the minimum rate necessary for a family of four with working parents to cover the cost of food, clothing, shelter, child care, education and health.

Since then, the cost of living in Metro Vancouver has continued to inch skywards, and accordingly, the living wage has been bumped up to $18.81/hour.

This means that all firms contracted directly or indirectly by the City of New Westminster are required to pay their employees almost double the provincially mandated minimum wage of $9.50/hour. (Or, put another way, significantly more than I have ever made ever. Including the summer I was solely responsible for the health and happiness of eight 5-year-old girls and was paid something absurd like $3.50/hour… while my friends at the arena concession gorged themselves on free pop and pizza to the tune of $150/shift.)

And while the policy certainly has it’s supporters (who isn’t favour of putting dinner on the table and paying their utility bill on time?), it also has it’s critics (and, to the surprise of no one more than myself, I’m starting to think I might be one of them).

When the Record ran a story about the allegations of one New Westminster resident who said that the policy was being violated by a firm contracted to work on the future civic centre on Columbia Street, John Ashdown wrote a letter to the paper saying that the man had “only touched the tip of the inequalities of the city’s fair living wage policy.”

According to Ashdown, who is the president of the West End Business Association and ran for council in the November municipal election, fair wage legislation impedes the contracting out of services to private companies and increases unions’ ability to compete for contracts.

“It’s time for this council to justify the real cost/benefits of this policy now and into the future,” Ashdown wrote.

“Tell us the benefit of adding $40,000 for a union position to provide sandwiches for staff, which was previously contracted out. Tell us about the $60,000 cost to bring jail custodians up to fair living wages. Tell us now what we can expect at the civic centre or Pier Park? A tube steak vendor forced to pay $18 per hour instead of allowing free enterprise to survive and prosper?”

Despite his attention-grabbing closing line (“stop trying to turn New Westminster into a bedroom of socialists”) I, um, kind of think he has a point. A few points, actually.

But since I also can’t quite convince myself that something so seemingly glorious is actually a bad thing, I’ve done what I often do when I have to make a tough decision: I’ve drawn up a list of pros and cons. Behold, figure A.

I did take first-year economics in university (I got a C!) so clearly, I know what I’m talking about.

Truthfully, there are a lot of much more authoritative, educated supply-and-demand types out there who are a lot more qualified to make a case for or against the living wage than I. You should check them out. And then report back to me. I’ll be here, sitting on the fence, when you get back.

Note to the curious: The title of this post is a throwback to my camp counselling days, referring to the beloved campfire song Herman the Worm. The original lyrics are “sittin’ on a fence post/chewin’ my bubble gum”. You can watch a 4-year-old sing it here. He kind of botches the lyrics, but I’ll forgive him because he is four.

Development concerns surround subdivision in Queensborough

Below is a story I wrote from an agenda item at Monday’s (Feb. 20) council meeting. The item concerned a development variance permit requested for a subdivided lot in Queensborough to allow a smaller site frontage than what is permitted under the bylaw. Councillors passed the motion, but neighbouring property owners raised concerns about development that Coun. Chuck Puchmayr said are recurrent issues in the community.

Queensborough residents say their neighbourhood is becoming increasingly congested and unsafe due to new developments in the area.

At last night’s council meeting, neighbours of 311 Johnston Street voiced their concerns over the owner’s proposal to subdivide and develop the property, saying it could create parking problems, impede emergency access and even damage their homes.

“We already have various issues with parking due to illegal basement suites, legal basement suites, double occupants, and I believe the extra congestion with having a couple more houses in a one-property area … would only make it more difficult for emergency responders,” said Darren Kucheran, whose parents own an adjacent lot.

According to neighbour Lorne Elliottt, the same party that purchased 311 Johnston Street also bought two lots across the street last year and has since built “two castles” that aren’t up to code.

“The houses across the street that they just built are supposed to be set back 25 feet from the front under the bylaws,” he said. “Engineering has them recorded at 31 feet, but I took my tape measure, went over there and they measured 21 feet, not 31. And then [they] added a front porch.”

One of the two properties – listed as a 5-bedroom, 4-bathroom custom-built home with a 450-square-foot garage – is currently on the market for $689,000.

Down the street, Elliott said 13 new homes have gone up in recent years, and there’s as many as five suites in each house.

“They’re going to turn our street into a ghetto,” he said, pointing out that the size and proximity of the new homes presents a fire hazard.

“We get one fire, we’re going to lose the whole block.”

Presented with Elliott’s numbers, planning analyst David Guiney said, “I don’t know how to react … I just don’t have an answer for that.”

Land surveys show that the homes on both properties meet the city’s site area and frontage bylaws.

After the meeting, Coun. Chuck Puchmayr said that subdivision in New Westminster is a contentious issue – especially in Queensborough, where lots were originally zoned bigger than elsewhere in the city to accommodate septic fields.

According to Puchmayr, some of the people who bought those lots built “extremely large houses, very non-contextual, three stories and sometimes housing several units.”

Since then, the city has brought in bylaws and created incentives for developers to build homes that are more suited to the neighbourhood.

He refuted Elliott’s claims that the homes on Johnston Street violated code.

“That’s impossible. People have to hire a surveyor, the city has to approve the plans, the inspector has to come down. There’s a lot that goes into it, and for him to say that a few houses across the street basically violated the building code and built these houses 10 feet closer than they were permitted, that just can’t happen.”

Puchmayr also explained that under provincial floodplain regulations, new developments in Queensborough must be “preloaded,” or built at a higher elevation than existing homes.

“Suddenly you could have the house on your left and the house on your right and the house in front of you all developing at a new level above the floodplain and you’re still at the lower level down in a valley. It creates huge issues with drainage and water problems.”

For people like Kucheran, whose parents’ 1954 home is built at grade, this means an increased risk of flooding.

He said he’s also worried about the impact that the process of driving steel piles into the earth could have on their house.

“Our property is built on a concrete slab foundation directly beside the property and I believe pile driving construction will cause a lot of damage,” he said.

While Puchmayr said that pile driving companies are legally bound to pay for any damages to adjacent properties they cause, he admitted it’s a difficult issue.

“There are a lot of growing pains with development in Queensborough,” he said. “Especially when you have to preload and drive piles.”

New Westminster wins national sustainability award

A 3D rendering of what the park will look like, courtesy of a council slide presentation.

New Westminster has been recognized as a sustainable community with an award from the Federation of Canadian Municipalities for its redevelopment of Westminster Pier Park.

Coun. Lorrie Williams and engineering director Jim Lowrie accepted the award in Ottawa on Feb. 8 and presented it to Mayor Wayne Wright at tonight’s council meeting.

“Obviously, this goes to the staff, this goes to the people who did the job,” said Wright.

The award is one of 12 given to communities across Canada that “demonstrate excellence in environmental responsibility.” This year, 5 of the 12 awards were won by municipalities in B.C.

“B.C. is certainly leading the way in terms of greening our country,” said Williams.

Westminster Pier Park won the Sustainable Communities Award in the brownfield category, meaning that the land the park sits on was previously used for industrial purposes, and the vegetation that has been planted there will help to rehabilitate the soil.

According to FCM, “In just three years, Westminster Pier Park has been transformed from a contaminated brownfield into a sparkling waterfront jewel that will stimulate tourism and revitalize downtown New Westminster.”

The Westminster Pier Park project was launched in 2009 when the city purchased the site for $8 million. The cost of developing the park was $25 million, of which two-thirds was funded through the Build Canada Fund.

Wright said the park will open to the public sometime in March.

“We’ll be having an opening in about a month or so and everyone will see what a wonderful place it really is.”