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Lower 12th set to transform
Last October's devastating fire on Columbia Street displaced dozens of businesses.
It also left a rubbled gap in the middle of Downtown's historic strip.
But it may have created an opportunity for another part of the city to blossom.
Robyn Murrell had been considering a spot on Front Street as a permanent home for her mobile personal training business, Zhoosh Fitness.
The space on Front seemed perfect for her needs.
It was urban, with heritage character—a fitting backdrop for her "old-school style" workouts that involve punching heavy bags, hoisting tires, skipping ropes.
But October's fire, which also affected businesses along Front Street, gave her pause.
In April she's opening Zhoosh Fitness Garage in a service bay of an old car dealership and auto mechanics shop at 131 11th St.
The building, constructed in 1946, is owned by Mark Ahrabi-Asli. He'd been unsuccessful renting it out as one large unit since he first acquired it two years ago.
But when the city asked him about providing space to burned-out businesses looking for new digs Downtown, he liked the idea of dividing the massive garage into smaller units.
"Not many people want to rent 5,000 square feet," says Ahrabi-Asli.
One of those units was snapped up by Victoria Lambert for her Fat Paint specialty shop. Her first location was irreparably damaged by October's fire.
A photographer is opening a studio in another unit. And Ahrabi-Asli says he's in negotiations with tenants for the remaining spaces.
Since moving in late last year, Lambert says she's become a believer in the area's potential.
"This is fresh and new," says Lambert. "It's all about what we make of it."
Surrounded by condos and townhouses, the Lower 12th area is one of the last remnants of New West's industrial heritage.
Some of the old buildings, like the automotive garage, are primed for new uses. Empty lots await development.
It could be "something Granville Island like," or Portland's Pearl District, in the rough, says Lambert.
That's not out of the question, says Jackie Teed, New Westminster's manager of planning. She says the long-term vision for the Lower 12th area includes replacing industrial and light industrial businesses with residential and locally oriented commercial, including live-work spaces.
"It's a neighbourhood that we see a lot of potential that can be unique in its own way," says Teed. "It's got this blank slate. There is an opportunity to create a whole new neighbourhood there."
In fact, in 2004 the city created a comprehensive, award-winning plan for Lower 12th. But not much has happened since.
A recent report to council presented design guidelines to spruce up the streetscape of the area with new lighting, better sidewalks, public art, landscaping, setbacks of buildings to allow for café patios and outdoor sitting areas and mews.
But much of that won't happen until developers start buying into the area, says Teed.
"We have to look at what needs to be down there to move those concepts forward," says Teed.
That could start happening when Cavalry Church starts redeveloping its property to build a new church, says Teed.
The old Gas Works site is another bottleneck.
Built in 1886 to convert coal into gas to fuel street lighting on Columbia and Front streets, the site is heavily contaminated by things like benzene, toluene and cyanide. The brick building at the top of the site, which was designed in the Victorian Chicago Industrial style, has fallen into disrepair.
Teed says negotiations with the province, which owns the site, to clean it up have stalled. But. she says, it has the potential to be "the real heart of the neighbourhood," with space for artists and community meeting rooms.
Teed says the arrival of a younger demographic in the city is creating an appetite for unique neighbourhoods.
"We're seeing more creative approaches to where businesses locate," says Teed. "It's really exciting to see this happening in our city."
Murrell shares that excitement. She's commissioned a local graffiti artist to paint one of her gym's walls. She's assembled vintage industrial lamps, lockers and furniture for decor, including a lounge at the back. Long, colourful fabric ribbons that are used by an instructor that specializes in aerial yoga will be suspended from the high ceiling.
"It's going to be a fun, funky place for people," says Murrell.
"New West needs an area like this for the younger generation."