News

Looking Back/Looking Ahead: City’s renewal catches eye of the big media

Two giant construction cranes pierce the sky above Columbia Street at Eighth. Another will soon join them across the road. Hard-hatted construction workers scurry around, through and over the sites of the Anvil Centre and the Trapp + Holbrook condo development like busy ants.

There is life again in Downtown New Westminster.

But will these two high-profile projects, along with the Northbank condo tower at the east end of the Columbia Street strip, be the final pieces in the redevelopment puzzle that has stumped so many planners, schemers and entrepreneurs trying to reinvigorate the city’s historic heart?

For a straight strip of pavement, it’s been a long and winding road from Columbia Street’s glory days as the Golden Mile. Shoppers traveled from Vancouver and as far away as Chilliwack to spend their money at major retailers like Eaton’s, Kresge’s, Woolworth. In the evenings, the street was alive with young people attending its lively nightclub scene, or a movie at the resplendent Paramount theatre.

Malls tarnished the street’s glamour. The showcase retailers left for the swanky new climate-controlled digs, surrounded by acres of free parking. The nightclubs and theatres closed.

A sprawling parkade along Front Street—half built in the late ’50s, the rest in the early ’60s—couldn’t bring the people back. Nor could two stations for the new SkyTrain commuter rail service that easily connected New Westminster’s Downtown to more than a million potential customers. People used it to get out of town, rather than come to town.

Except for the drug dealers, who exploited the cheap transport and occupied Downtown’s shadows and alcoves.

Over the years there have been any number of hopes and schemes that were to have been the catalyst for redevelopment, the spit that would bring the polish back to the Golden Mile: The parkade; a posh billiards club; a Russian submarine parked along Westminster Quay, followed by a riverboat casino; Antique Alley on Front Street; a giant tin soldier; the refurbishment of the Raymond Burr Theatre; the relocation of the police department into the former post office; Hyack Square; and even recent moves to create angled parking and the licensing of hot dog carts.

Along with each of those ideas came optimistic business people and retailers, each of them buying into the Downtown’s “potential,” its unique blend of reasonable rents, history, interesting spaces, central location and easy access. Most came and went, the potential unrealized. The only ones that stuck and multiplied were the wedding shops.

The completion this past summer of the $25-million Westminster Pier Park, the realization of Mark Shieh’s concept for a reimagined River Market, the start of construction of the Anvil Centre and the creative marketing by Robert Fung and Bob Rennie of the new Trapp + Holbrook condo development have brought the buzz back.

This time, it’s louder than ever.

Some of the credit must go to Fung and Rennie, who built their sales pitch for Trapp + Holbrook around the history of the building and surrounding area. They also used social media to tap into a younger market, eager to be at the vanguard of the Next Big Thing before prices go beyond their reach, as has occurred in other gentrified areas like Yaletown and Gastown in Vancouver. For the most part, it’s worked. Big City media from Vancouver have taken notice, profiling New West with breathless prose of hope and optimism.

But challenges remain.

The Pier Park, for all the accolades thrown its way, is still isolated from the Downtown, separated by a busy truck route, railroad tracks, the parkade and a vast expanse of privately owned asphalt that make it a challenge for casual visitors to access. It has a festival lawn, but the city has yet to host a festival there.

 

Save for the occasional special event, Hyack Square has yet to become the Downtown gathering place the city envisioned.

The parkade’s future is a divisive issue. Antique Alley is a shadow of its former self, outnumbered now by empty storefronts.

The River Market has become a jewel for Downtown and Quayside residents but has yet to be discovered by many who live Uptown or elsewhere.

The innovative Shops at New West Station has brought some much-needed mainstream retail energy to the area but at the expense of a huge three-tower  concrete edifice that is more sentry to the Downtown than gateway. It’s also turned Carnarvon Street into a disaster zone with too much traffic and too many jaywalking pedestrians for its narrow lanes.

The Paramount’s showpiece marquee still advertises two-for-one table dances on Sundays, hardly the kind of entrainment demanded by sophisticated young urbanites and families. The anchor retailers at each end of Columbia are a thrift shop and Army & Navy, decidedly downmarket. There’s too many wedding shops that are of little interest to residents and visitors beyond one visit. The proliferation of discount dollar stores has become a standing joke in the social media.

And for the next two years, construction activity connected at the Anvil Centre and Trapp + Holbrook will create huge gaps in the streetscape along the Columbia Street strip, and will be difficult for cars and pedestrians to navigate.

Nobody who runs a business in Downtown New West does so to get rich.

Many don’t survive; Jason McGill’s Urban Gypsy is the latest casualty after five years, and venerable Copp’s Shoes is closing due to the retirement of owner Terry McBride. They’ll likely replaced by new shopkeepers, fueled by the Downtown’s potential and their own boundless optimism that they’re opening at just the right time to take advantage

With more people living Downtown, and the city and developers investing in its historical character, the odds are beginning to tip in their favour.

 

Mario Bartel has covered many of the efforts to revitalize New Westminster’s Downtown in his 21 years as the NewsLeader’s photographer/reporter. He now lives there.

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