To save or not to save the parkade
More than a half century ago Downtown New Westminster merchants believed a parkade would be their salvation.
Today, they are fighting to save the structure, or at least half of it, from the wrecking ball.
“If they tear it out, where do people park in the Downtown?” asks Bill Shannon, owner of Scholar’s Quay Antiques, whose shop is in the shadows of the Sixth Street onramp to the parkade.
It’s a concern shared by many merchants.
Origin in the ’50s
The parkade’s origins date back to Oct. 25, 1954 when the Downtown merchants met with the city to create off-street parking facilities similar to that being done in Vancouver, according to research done by historians Archie and Dale Miller.
The merchants were fearful hordes of consumers would head to a new phenomena—shopping malls—instead. The estimated cost was $500,000 and it was to be financed by a special tax on property owners in the area.
They eventually decided to build it over Front Street and it was opened Feb. 25, 1959. It was billed as the first over-the-street parking ramp in North America. An addition on the east end was completed in 1966.
This past September, the city announced a proposal for an overpass that would allow vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians access to the waterfront without having to cross train tracks and a truck route. But to make it happen the city said it would have to demolish the older west end of the parkade.
The possible loss of parking spots has the Downtown Business Improvement Association up in arms.
The city says a survey showed less than 44 per cent of the parkade’s 765 spaces are used. The demolition would eliminate only about a third of them.
But Shannon, the BIA’s secretary, points out all the new residential developments in the area, either recently built or in progress, along with the new civic centre and Westminster Pier Park. All this will only increase demand for parking, he says.
“We don’t have the parking opportunities down here, especially with the growth going on downtown,” says Shannon. “If they take down the parkade, then (the city should) provide a plan that provides adequate replacement parking. If you are a retailer, or a developer for a downtown area and dependent to some degree on parking, and they’re going to tear it down without adequate parking, who’s going to buy, who’s going to take a downtown lease?”
Realtor Adam Goss has a different view of the parkade.
It’s a view that comes when the New West native is standing on an upper floor of the Westminster building on Columbia Street and he looks down on the structure and sees row upon row of empty parking stalls.
“I’m not a big fan of the parkade,” says Goss. “I think the merchants are tying themselves too much to the stalls. It’s something that’s passed its day.”
Patrick Johnstone, past president of New Westminster Environmental Partners, doesn’t get the BIA’s thinking.
“The parkade is a failed attempt to keep a 1950s business model (mom driving the family car down Main Street to stop at the green grocer and the butcher while dad was at work) alive, as shopping centres and malls in the suburbs took over. This model is not coming back. Malls with ample free parking exist,” wrote Johnstone in his blog. “So who are these customers the BIA are trying to attract? What do they have that the mall and the big box doesn’t have? What will bring people down to New Westminster’s Downtown in the 21st Century? Surely, it isn’t the parkade.”
One more barrier
To Coun. Jonathan Cote, a huge, empty parkade just adds one more barrier to connect the city to its waterfront. Taking away half of it to build an overpass makes sense to him.
“The opportunities that provide to reconnect Columbia Street with the waterfront and reopen Front Street are very good,” says Cote.
However, there’s still much work, including consultation with the public and the merchants, to be done before any bulldozers come charging in to take down any part of the aging, baby-blue concrete structure.
Cote says the businesses are entitled to have parking and the city has to ensure in the long term there is sufficient parking, but “the full parkade is not the long-term solution to the parking problems in the city.”
Cote notes the structure is starting to age, and will require investment to keep it going. He would rather use that money to make sure there’s a future for the part of the parkade that would remain.
“[An overpass] will completely change the environment down there,” says Cote, pointing out Front Street is full of noisy truck and train traffic along with pollution. “It would be a huge improvement. Walking under the parkade is one of the more unfriendly shopping environments there is.”
‘Super trendy area’
Cote and Goss say tearing down the parkade would open up Front Street and that would be good for business. Instead of hiding storefronts with historical architectural features, they could be showcased.
“I’ve always been of the mind that Front Street could be a super trendy area,” says Goss.
But Bill Shannon is worried those customers won’t even show up if there’s no place to park once the many Downtown projects currently underway are completed.
“As the Downtown grows there’s going to be a need for parking,” he says.
Shannon’s also not buying the argument the overpass is needed to connect the city to the river. He points out that can already be easily done with at-grade crossings at Begbie and Sixth streets, and going over the top won’t eliminate the train whistles and truck traffic either.
“The parkade is necessary for accessibility. How do you get to Westminster Pier Park if there is no parking. Do they all come by bus or SkyTrain?”