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COLUMN: New Westminster needs to go on a retail diet
Over the years, developers came forward with plans to redevelop an aged, dilapidated strip of shops on Eighth Avenue.
You may remember it: once home to Kiss a Frog, Holland Shopping Centre, Janome and Pink Monkey Balloons.
The stumbling block was the fact the zoning required new projects to keep retail space on the ground level, something developers say they can't make any money on.
Today, the old strip is finally being developed after some give-and-take, with the developer putting token retail on Colborne, a retail dead zone.
In last week’s column I talked about the protracted struggles of New West’s high streets, focusing on upper 12th Street and East Columbia.
One way to overcome these struggles, I think, is to consider a modest retail diet in our city.
The example above highlights how certain zoning requirements may actually be perpetuating a severely underperforming retail market in our city.
What we need is a diet on street-level retail. Not city-wide, and not willy-nilly. In many blocks, though, across New Westminster, the concept of shops on the main floor is not only economically unsustainable, but sucks the blood from areas that actually could succeed.
Consider the most successful retail area in New West—Uptown, at Sixth and Sixth. Yet if you stand at the corner and look, that “success,” as marginal as it may be, only extends about a block up and down Sixth. After that, things quickly fall apart.
In Downtown, Columbia Street is similar.
Last week I said the real solution was tied to more dense residential development—as in lots of four- and six-storey buildings all the way along these strips to put feet to the pavement and create a vibe.
In retrospect, that’s only partially correct.
The better move, today, is to bring our retail inventory in line with today’s reality.
We’ve got a 19th-century shopping grid and 21st-century habits. There’s a ton of charm to this. I’m not saying we have to sacrifice it.
But as shoppers we’re time poor, seek value and one-stop convenience, and that means most of our dollars go to big box retailers despite what any of us may wish to the contrary.
It’s a delicate balance, especially because New West needs businesses in order to be a successful city. But the city should match its retail supply with residents’ needs.
So what could this retail diet look like? Let’s look at 12th Street.
There, retail could be retained in a couple of clusters, one near Sixth Avenue, the other near 10th. The rest could be zoned to allow stacked townhomes, with front doors opening straight out to the sidewalk. These ‘eyes on the street’ would lend a feeling of comfort and safety. Visually, it would be a more attractive, pedestrian-oriented streetscape. And by bunching retail together, there would be more focus and likely, energy.
Now consider Sixth Street. One of the most attractive developments on lower Sixth is the townhome project directly across from City Hall. Why not allow more of this on much of the steep grade between Royal Avenue and Fourth Avenue?
People don’t like to shop on steep streets. Residential makes more sense.
Some “retail clustering” could be done on East Columbia too.
Look around New West and consider all the retail we have. It’s astounding. It’s time to rationalize. Re-configure things. I’m convinced it’s the best way to move forward, and get the kind of vibrant streets we say we want.
I suspect I’m not through with this topic. Stay tuned.
• Chris Bryan is editor of the NewsLeader.