Today, we’re buzzing with Peter Newall, President of Ballenas Project Management.

As folks in the BC development industry know, New Westminster has evolved significantly over the last decade and few are as qualified as Peter Newall to talk about that evolution. Starting with the police building in 2001, Ballenas has played a significant role in helping revitalize the area.

Their latest development is Northbank, Ballenas‘ third project on New West’s historic Columbia Street.

Enjoy the interview!

BuzzBuzzHome: What drew you to the development industry?

Peter Newall: What drew us to the development industry is that we were initially, and always have been, in the construction industry, and over time, we ended up doing a lot of construction work as general contractors. Somewhere along the line, we thought we could do at least as good a job. So, we decided to move into that.

BBH: You’ve been in New West since 1984. What do you love most about the city?

PN: We started in New West in 1984, but there was quite a long hiatus after that where we worked in a lot of other places. We ended up back in New West in 1999/2000. We were here as a result of a request for proposals to redevelop the police services building. That’s what got us back here, and we’ve been here ever since.

BBH: How do you think New West has changed in the last 30 years?

PN: Well, I would say, from 1984-1999 it hardly changed at all. And, I’m talking specifically about downtown New Westminster — where we spend all of our time. From 1999 on, there hasn’t been residential construction done. And, with a couple of exceptions, we were the first ones to do any kind of work here. That was a catalyst. Moving the police services building from City Hall to downtown was a good thing. It was a major step toward cleaning up the downtown area that had not a very good image at that time.

It’s just sort of progressed from there. More developments, new restaurants, things like that.

BBH: What do you think draws people to New West?

PN: There’s a whole bunch of things. One of the phrases that always comes to mind to me is that “New West has a lot of heart and soul to it”, and it does. I compare it to any of the other municipalities in the Lower Mainland. It’s got history, old buildings, great neighbourhoods. And the city does a good job of fostering the development of neighbourhoods. To the extent that have signs and names for each neighbourhood and everybody that lives here has an intense pride in the city of New Westminster but also their own neighbourhood.

People like it; people are proud of it, and generally if they come here they never leave.

BBH: In 2001, you took on the unique challenge of the police building. Can you talk about the role that building played in shaping New West as we know it today?

PN: Well, it was a resurgent moment in a couple ways. First of all, the building had become vacant, taking up a whole city block. Which is not a good thing. What we ended up doing is renovating the building and putting the police services in, on the first two floors, and that in and of itself was a major thing, a major change. It was a much better facility for the police themselves. And, it put the police right downtown. So, they’re right there. Whether it’s just walking across the street to go to Starbucks or whatever, their presence was there. It was a calming kind of thing and was good for the neighbourhood

The second phase of that project for us was the condominiums on top. It had never been done anywhere before. So, it was unique in that regard. The important thing was at that time, the condo market was in a lull. All the major Vancouver developers were out in San Diego. No one was doing anything in the Lower Mainland. We started that.

I had no idea whether anyone would buy a condo above a police building. I had my fingers crossed in that regard, but they did. It was timed right. People started to buy condos again and they bought them in New West, and many of those people live there to this day. There’s not very much turn over. There are 45 units. Every one of them is different. The people who live there are intensely proud of the building and they don’t move out all that often.

BBH: You’ve said before you think it’s really important to build developments close to transit, could you expand on that a bit?

PN: It’s just part of our background. We’ve always worked in the inner city. So, that’s what we know. That’s what we do. And, we focus on it. I don’t ever go out in the middle of nowhere to try and find a site. We work in inner city sites. I’m interested in all things urban. And, what’s very important these days is good transit. Since we happen to have a SkyTrain system that works. I look around and try to find sites that are very close to it. All the sites we have are very close to it, both here in New West and elsewhere.

BBH: The mayor of New West says it “takes a special kind of builder to commit to Northbank‘s site”. Can you talk about some of the steps you’ve taken to turn a challenging site into a vibrant and exciting project?

PN: The factor that makes the site challenging is SkyTrain. In two ways. One of them is there’s a SkyTrain bridge that crosses in front of the site. And, the other and more significant impact, is there’s a tunnel that goes under the site. So, you have to design your building carefully to be able to go over top of a tunnel. So, that in itself is a big challenge. That is enough to scare off all kinds of bigger developers, who just don’t need to, or can’t be bothered to take on that kind of difficult sites.

Those are the kinds of sites we seek out in a way. I think it’s a beautiful site. It’ll be a fantastic place to live. If you can overcome the hurdle of living with the tunnel, then you’ve got a real gem.

BBH: What sets Northbank apart from its competitors?

PN: The design of the building and the location. The location is right beside a park, so you can walk out your door and go for a walk in the park. You have that access which is great, and the Central Valley Greenway is just over in front. So, there’s a bus stop right at the front door. There’s no other project that has all of those.

The design itself. We have a tower that is 21 storeys. There are six units per floor. Lots of buildings have quite a bit more than that. You don’t have a whole lot of neighbours on every floor. And of those six units, every one of them has a river view. They look up the river, down the river, or straight across the river. And, they all have decks

They’re really well laid out. We spent over a year working on designing the layout of our units. They work very well, and they’re designed specifically for end users and first time buyers that actually want to live there.

BBH: The development industry runs on coffee, how do you take your coffee?

PN: I take it black.

BBH: What’s your ideal vacation destination?

PN: Eastern Europe.

BBH: Where?

PN: Probably Slovenia, gazing out toward Italy. Get everything Italy has to offer for half price.

Thanks for buzzing with us Peter!

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