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Breathing life into New Westminster's main streets

Jonathan Coté says New Westminster
Jonathan Coté says New Westminster's retail streets need a mix of vibrant independent businesses to fill vacant spaces. He analyzed the city's main streets for a paper in his urban studies program at Simon Fraser University.
— image credit: MARIO BARTEL/NEWSLEADER

Lots of places to eat and drink, few storefronts that aren’t retail oriented, and at least some representation of chain outlets are all signs of successful main streets, according to a university term paper written by a New Westminster councillor.

Along with sitting on council, Jonathan Coté is also an urban studies student at Simon Fraser University, and has written the paper “Reviving New Westminster’s Main Streets,” which looks at what makes a main street work and what New West’s streets need in order to improve.

“It’s something I’ve been interested in for quite a while,” said Coté.

“New Westminster has a tremendous advantage in that we have traditional main streets already in existence. For most municipalities in the Lower Mainland these don’t exist except in Vancouver. We have the bones in place. The challenge is how do we bring these to life and make sure these are neighbourhoods our residents want to shop in.”

Coté found the highest vacancy rates were on Twelfth Street (11.6 per cent) and East Columbia in Sapperton (11.4), while Columbia in the Downtown area was just 6.4 per cent and Sixth Street was 8.7. The latter two compared favourably to a pair of Vancouver’s most dynamic retail streets, Robson (6.9) and Denman (5.4).

While Coté said high vacancy rates can indicate a failing retail district, it only becomes a serious concern when it gets around 20 per cent.

He found Sixth Street has a healthy number of food and drink outlets at 27.1 per cent while Columbia (17.9), East Columbia (16.3) and Twelfth (14.3) could benefit from having more activity. Coté felt Robson (23.7) and Denman (47.2) show how a high percentage of coffee shops, restaurants and bars are important to the vibrancy of an urban main street.

He said most New Westminster residents would likely rate Sixth Street as the most active, and that’s largely because it has so many places to consume caffeine, scarf down waffles and imbibe beer. But he also realizes the hospitality industry is one of the riskiest to invest in.

“It’s not something that can be forced on an area, it has to be something that the street can support,” said Coté. “It’s not just as simple as saying if only a restaurant opened up at 12th Street and Sixth Avenue everything would be all right. If the economic conditions for that type of business to be successful in that street are right, then the businesses will survive and you will have the spinoff to the neighbouring businesses.”

The most shocking thing he discovered while walking the streets was the amount of non-retail businesses, such as medical or professional offices, occupying ground floor space. New Westminster’s main streets ranged from having 12.6 per cent non-retail on Sixth Street to 23 per cent on Columbia—substantially more than Robson (two per cent) and Denman (5.4).

“I hadn’t recognized that as being as significant before,” said Coté, who is particularly concerned about Columbia. “Add that with the vacant space and the wedding shops and it’s a disjointed network … I don’t know how [all the wedding shops] came to be. That’s one of the difficult things about Columbia.”

The healthier streets also had their fair share of franchise stores, with Robson at 41.2 per cent and Sixth Street at 25.2. While admitting he’s not a fan of chains, Coté said a limited presence of them on streets can be a sign of poor economic viability, while conversely, a high number can indicate a lack of street character.

“I was generally conflicted on that,” said Coté. “It was worth taking note of, though. I’m not sure of where on the scale [a street would] want to be, but if it’s too low some of the fundamentals were missing from the retail area. Whether we like it or not the chain retailers bring people in.”

Coté is also questioning the worth of community festivals run by local merchant organizations. While praising what they do for New Westminster’s neighbourhoods, sometimes drawing in thousands of visitors, he isn’t sure how much benefit the businesses actually receive, especially considering how much time and money they put into organizing the events. He suggested the local business associations analyze whether their resources would bring a better economic return if they were spent on marketing or other initiatives.

His recommendations also included suggestions the city could help out by concentrating residential, employment and retail growth along the main street networks as well as making sure they have good public spaces and improved access.

 

Statistical indexes collected by Jonathan Coté on New Westminster urban main streets and two in Vancouver:

 

12th St.    Columbia    E. Columbia        Sixth St.    Robson    Denman

 

Vacancy (%)    11.6    6.4    11.4    8.7    6.9    5.4

 

Food/drink (%)    14.3    17.9    16.3    27.1    23.7    47.2

 

Non-retail (%)    16    23    14.7    12.6    2    5.4

 

Chain (%)    4.4    11.5    9.8    25.2    41.2    16.4

 

Lease rates ($)    7-18    10-25    8-20    12-60    180-220    40-70

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