- New West Anchor
- What to do about downtown New West?
What to do about downtown New West?
New West mayoral candidates talk economic development, retail strategy, and downtown livability
Downtown New Westminster as seen from Queensborough in October 2022. / Dustin Godfrey, New West Anchor
Columbia Street was a flood of people one early August afternoon this year.
Vendors selling items like Hawaiian shaved ice and shady tents offered respite from the midsummer heat as throngs of people wandered from vendor to vendor, stage to stage.
It was about as lively a scene as one could expect to see on the downtown New Westminster street—but it was only for one day, the city’s inaugural Car Free Day.
On any other day, Columbia Street is far from desolate—but it’s perhaps equally far from the bustling downtown of Vancouver and likely doesn’t even match the crowds that frequent Main Street or Commercial Drive.
And that has city officials and mayoral candidates, wondering: what to do about downtown?
Just over a year ago, CBC described a “series of derelict buildings, boarded up windows and empty storefronts,” alongside the pubs, restaurants, and bridal shops in the neighbourhood.
That last item, the bridal shops, had a few mentions from city councillors and mayoral candidates in recent years, an urge to define the city’s downtown as “more than bridal shops.”
“When I think about the downtown, a common complaint from residents is the bridal shops, which very clearly people are shopping at because there’s a lot of them, and it’s obviously helpful,” said Coun. Nadine Nakagawa in an April 2022 council workshop.
Urban Systems consultant David Bell, who has been contracted by the city to help develop a retail strategy for the whole of New West, responded to that point by saying that the street can be a destination for certain types of shopping—such as formal wear.
“But it doesn’t need to be all that we are,” he told city council.
A phase 1 draft of the retail strategy, submitted to city council on April 25, noted that specialty clothing stores, such as bridal and formal wear, “account for nearly 35% of the total [commercial] floor area.”
But while Bell and fellow Urban Systems consultant Justin Barer haven’t finalized their report, they have hinted at what the future of New West’s commercial landscape may look like, including downtown's.
New West, Bell said, isn’t a regional retail hub anymore, as areas like Metrotown and Surrey City Centre grow and attract more regional traffic. But he pointed to areas that the city could focus on: micro-retail and specialty food and products.
“I think Gastronomia Italia replacing Starbucks Downtown is a good example of that,” Bell said, also pointing to gaps in thrift store culture and indie fashion, arts supplies stores, photography, and other hobbies.
There was one more area Bell said the city could focus on bolstering, particularly in downtown: arts, culture, and entertainment.
He noted the city could work to find more spaces for things like art studios, galleries, and venues for live events.
Blair Fryer, the manager of economic development at the city, said the strategy is “fundamental to the work that we’re doing through our economic development division.”
“The formula that used to work for retail 20 years ago, it’s different from the formula today,” Fryer said.
The city was expecting to begin work on its retail strategy in spring 2020, but when the pandemic hit, it put the brakes on the initiative.
Councillors, in the April 25 workshop, expressed gratitude that the issue was arising again in the spring of this year, as the world looks to get back to business but still with some slack from the pandemic.
And while Bell said the city’s downtown is becoming less of a regional destination for shopping, Fryer said the opening that’s being discussed is not just amplifying the arts and culture downtown for people living and working in New West, but to fill that role of drawing people from around the region.
And Fryer said the city is primed for just that, with a “critical mass building” of restaurants and arts facilities, as well as two SkyTrain stations.
“There’s all sorts of other amenities, such as Westminster Pier Park, there’s also Hyack Square, that kind of thing. So that all comes together into the thinking around enhancing downtown’s role as an arts, culture, and entertainment destination,” Fryer said.
Speaking to New West Anchor, the three mayoral candidates in this week’s election seemed to agree on a number of things that can be done about downtown, including filling vacant spaces.
Patrick Johnstone, mayoral candidate for Community First, said there are some vacant lots downtown that “have been empty lots for too long.”
“I think that we have some opportunities to bring some tools and use them judiciously to make sure that we activate those sites,” he said, specifically pointing to the site of Copp’s shoe store, which burned down nearly a decade ago.
“We had a temporary use permit for a while, and that operated, I think, really well as a public space. But in 10 years, it’s still sitting there with a fence around it.”
Johnstone said he believed the Downtown New West Business Improvement Association has done a “really excellent job of activating [downtown] and putting people into downtown and letting people celebrate that space,” particularly pointing to events like Car Free Day.
“It did make it a vibrant place. But between those events, we have more work to do to make sure that a lot of the gaps in downtown get filled so that it can be more active all the time,” Johnstone said.
One thing the city could do in particular, he said, was to make greater use of the Anvil Centre as a public space downtown.
“It’s been really good for the local arts community and has great potential. But we haven’t done a very good job of activating the front of Anvil Centre and making it connect really well with the street,” he said.
Specifically, he said, while the art gallery and theatre space are well-utilized, the first floor is generally seen as not very inviting, even describing it as “kind of a hotel lobby.”
At the same time as the city is working on its retail strategy, others in the city have been working on downtown livability initiatives
“Residents and businesses have corresponded with the city seeking assistance to address these challenges, including: additional waste cleanup and pickup; mental health outreach and support; addiction intervention; needle swaps and outreach support; and new emergency shelter and housing with wrap-around supports,” reads a report to city council from October last year.
A January 2022 update on the issue notes that the city has installed a portable toilet in Hyack Square, done outreach to businesses downtown, and launched an interdepartmental team working with people living on the streets, and added two homeless support outreach workers, as well as a second vulnerable persons liaison officer with the New West Police Department.
Ken Armstrong, the New West Progressives mayoral candidate, drew a line between both the livability initiatives and the economic revitalization piece, saying there can be a chicken-and-egg situation.
On the one hand, poor economic conditions can really negatively impact livability in the area—but having a more livable downtown can also draw more people and more businesses to the area, stimulating the economy.
“The would-be tenants [of a commercial space] would need to know that there’s a plan in place, and what steps are being taken, and they have a reason to believe that this is on its way to being turned around,” he said.
“That’s going to require a lot of hard work, right? But you’ve got to attack it from both sides.”
But while he said livability and economic development go “hand-in-glove,” more needs to be done about mental health, homelessness, and substance use downtown.
“The solutions of activating downtown isn’t going to solve the fact that there are people who have mental health and substance abuse problems,” he said of the retail strategy.
“The city … needs to lean on the right levels of government to make sure they’re doing their parts and do the things that we can do.”
Chuck Puchmayr, an independent mayoral candidate, said downtown seems to swing on a pendulum, noting that when he was first elected, the New West SkyTrain station was viewed as not being particularly safe.
“We did some creative stuff, some creative policing, and we were actually able to clean that area up,” he said.
“Then a little bit further down the line, we had a real spike in homelessness in the downtown area,” he added, noting that some banks had moved out, as staff felt uncomfortable in the area.
By getting funding for shelters in the community, he said the city was able to reduce street homelessness “drastically.”
He said we’re seeing similar issues in recent years, as the pandemic has disrupted the economy, affecting people’s personal finances, as well as wreaking havoc on public mental health.
“This is not [specifically] a New West issue; we’re seeing such a spike in homelessness, in mental health, chronic severe mental health issues. And we’re trying our hardest to work with senior levels of government to find solutions, but it just seems to be a daunting experience trying to get a [resolution] to this issue,” Puchmayr said.
Drawing from his experience on the board of the Lookout Society, which provides housing and other services for low-income and homeless individuals and families, Puchmayr said the city needs a “different type of housing.”
Specifically, he said, the city needs more transitional housing for people to get off the streets in a more permanent way than can be offered by shelters.
“Living in a shelter, trying to recover from addiction is very difficult. You need somewhere you can go that’s your own home that’s dignified, that’s secure, you’re not going to be evicted, and you can take your journey of recovery in a clean, safe space,” he said.
“We also need housing for people that work in our city—the baristas, the small shop employees. Nobody can afford to live anymore. We’re the 10th-highest rent in Canada, now, and yet we’re building rentals. We’re leaders in building rental properties.”
That, he said, is why there needs to be more social housing that isn’t just aimed at the most marginalized, but at those who work in lower-paying sectors like retail as a preventative measure to keep more people from falling into precarious situations.