COLUMN: Building better main streets

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When it was revealed last month that the old Copp’s Shoes location in Downtown would soon be home to a wedding shop—albeit a relocated one—many shook their heads.

It’s a great historic building, it was an iconic shop. It would have been great to see something there that added value to the Columbia Street strip. If only the landlord had held out, seen the bigger picture in the Downtown, and waited for something better.

As Jonathan Coté (aka the city councillor) points out in his SFU  Urban Studies paper, Reviving New Westminster’s Main Streets, a good mix of retail is one of the secrets of success.

And it’s no secret that most of our retail streets are flagging.

Oh, we’ve got some wonderful shops, and a few spots with retail energy, like the Sixth and Sixth area of Uptown.

But most of us wish our main streets were better, with a stronger mix of shops, more people on the sidewalks, and maybe just a little more beautiful.

Coté acknowledges that most of our spending dollars are going to the big-box retailers, as we seek convenience and value. But he says a growing group is eager for a more community-friendly atmosphere and energy that only successful main streets can provide.

His stats are interesting , comparing New West’s four main streets (12th, Columbia, East Columbia and Sixth) with Vancouver’s Robson and Denman streets.

By most measures, Sixth Street is this city’s most successful retail strip. It boasts only a slightly higher vacancy rate than Columbia (8.7% vs. 6.4%); the highest ‘Food/Drink Index,’ comparable to Robson and considered an indicator of a lively street; the lowest concentration of non-retail (12.6%); and the highest lease rates, between $12 and $60 a square foot, according to Coté.

And perhaps understandably, it’s this combination of factors that gives Sixth Street (between Fourth and Eighth avenues) the highest concentration of chain stores, at 25%. Chains, he points out, do extensive market research and know where shoppers are and what they want. The downside—too many makes a street bland.

To help our streets along, he makes a number of recommendations.

The list includes more market research, for a more detailed picture of how the demographics and projected growth in our city affects—and will affect—residents’ needs for goods and services. More marketing of the existing retail would also help, he says, and even helping merchants do a better job of decorating their windows (I’d like to see that conversation).

And he has a number of suggestions about targeting growth around the strips, keeping retail focused there (to avoid dilution), and working to beautify the streets through better sidewalks, and “more public squares, pocket parks, parallel parks and plazas…”

And the Business Improvement Association — currently serving just the Downtown — should expand to include all the city’s retail main streets.

The city’s currently got small business groups in Sapperton, 12th Street and Uptown but they are volunteer run and are limited in scope. These streets would benefit from the more resources a BIA could provide. Problem is, it’s doubtful landlords would vote to pay the levy.

The city’s economic development manager departed recently at the end of his contract. If the city hires someone new, their mandate should be to help build retail from the ground up.

Work with property owners, let them know what businesses are missing from a street when they’re seeking to lease out space.

Explain how this will help them in the long run. Appeal to their civic pride, appeal to their wallets. Whatever.

Some won’t listen. Many aren’t residents, many just care about making the mortgage payments and one day cash in.

But some will listen, and from those few bricks we can start building a better retail foundation.

• Chris Bryan is editor of the NewsLeader.


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