Lisa Spitale says the future development of the fire site will be an important barometer of Downtown
Lisa Spitale says the future development of the fire site will be an important barometer of Downtown's direction.

The gleaming glass and granite Anvil Centre and Merchant Square is soaring towards completion only a couple of blocks away.

The Trapp + Holbrook condo development rises behind a braced historical facade a few doors down.

But it's what will emerge from the rubble at the corner of Mackenzie and Columbia Streets that may determine the future success of New Westminster's tarnished Golden Mile.

The Oct. 10 fire that razed the E.L. Lewis building and the Hamley Block destroyed a good chunk of Columbia Street's historical character that had received renewed allure in recent years, attracting the attention of big-time developers like Robert Fung. They're betting on that heritage to attract new residents, retailers and businesses back to what once was the main retail  strip east of downtown Vancouver.

"People and the development industry look at Columbia Street as a bit of a barometer at how everything else is coming together downtown," said Lisa Spitale, the City of New Westminster's chief administrative officer.

That barometer was ticking steadily upwards when firefighters responded to reports of explosions at the E.L. Lewis building in the pre-dawn gloom. By the time the last embers cooled later that day it was a pile of bricks and debris. The Hamley Block next door was so heavily damaged by flame and water, it had to be immediately torn down. Another building along Front Street was also badly damaged and awaits demolition.

A number of businesses were displaced, including Norm's Barber Shop that had been a fixture in Downtown for 40 years, and Gary Lobell's shoe repair shop, where the leather dust had settled even longer.

Terry Brine, who co-owned the E.L. Lewis building with retired insurance man Bill Lewis, closed his shoe store, Copp's Shoes, at the beginning of the year after operating at the same spot since 1925. But the shop, with its distinctive angled entrance at the corner of Columbia and Mackenzie, script signage and high interior walls lined with dark wooden shelves, had become something of an icon of old New West and the glory days of the Golden Mile, when families travelled from all over the Lower Mainland and beyond to buy their shoes there.

It's that cultural significance rather than the buildings' architectural attributes that made them important to Downtown, said Eric Pattison, a New West architect known for his heritage projects.

"The cultural history, the intangible heritage values made it a big part of New West's identity, who we are and how we evolved," said Pattison.

In the immediate aftermath of the fire, Brine said he was committed to rebuilding something equally as iconic, that would pay homage to the street's history.

"You've got to incorporate what was there," said Brine, who's still working on settling with the building's insurers. "That's important for Columbia Street, to keep something of the past."

Spitale said that kind of commitment combined with the planned demolition of the western end of the Front Street parkade creates a golden opportunity to extend the revitalization of Columbia Street down the hill to Front.

"All of a sudden it just isn't about Columbia working, it's also about Front Street starting to work as well," said Spitale.

But for that to happen, "a lot of pieces" will have to come together said Spitale. "It's about the experience on the street. A robust vision has to work even when we have unexpected situations like this."

That vision includes creating opportunities for businesses like restaurants and shops that will draw visitors out of the Anvil Centre's meeting facilities and towering glass atrium to explore the neighbourhood.

"It's about the whole street knitting together and working as a whole, the way it used to," said Spitale.

"It's a blank slate," said Pattison. "It would be great on that prominent corner to have something notable to draw people in, whatever it takes to get people to use the building."

When the fire site is ready for reconstruction, Spitale said the city already has the development permit guidelines in place to ensure what rises from the ashes will conform to its goals for the street.

"I see opportunity for the city to work with the owners and look for ways to cooperate towards the bigger picture," said Spitale.

Once that process begins, Spitale knows a lot of eyes will be on that corner.

"The pressure to get it right for the two fire sites is tremendous," said Spitale. "We have high expectations in this community."


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