Eric Pattison has been away for a couple of weeks, so when he emerges from the east end of River Market onto the second storey landing looking towards Front Street, he’s taken aback.
It’s not what’s been added to New Westminster’s skyline that’s caught the architect’s breath; it’s what’s been taken away.
The demolition of the west end of the old waterfront parkade is all but complete. Once the rubble of concrete and rebar is all hauled away, construction crews will begin work on building a new pedestrian-friendly mews that includes a wider sidewalk, seating areas and trees to buffer the traffic noise from the busy Front Street truck route.
But it’s what happens after that that will determine whether the controversial deconstruction of half the old parking structure to breathe new life into the city’s historic waterfront is a success.
New Westminster has a new face.
Instead of the grey, horizontal concrete and steel behemoth that stretched from Begbie Street to Fourth Street, the view from the waterfront back towards the city is now a sawtooth skyline of old and new, buildings of varying height and colours.
Already as Pattison walks past the newly-exposed buildings, his architect’s eye picks out details that have been obscured by the parkade since it was erected in the 1950’s. The high windows and interior spaces of some of the older buildings are evocative of New York City; without the parkade blocking the way, most of those spaces are now flooded with natural light. At the second story of one of those buildings, an old hoisting winch juts from the brick above a boarded over loading doorway. Another has a sign for long-gone Gray’s Ladies Apparel painted on its stucco facing. The corner entrance to The Wine Factory is unique.
Even new construction like the parking podium for the Trapp + Holbrook tower is sensitive to the scale of its historic neighbours; the ground-floor commercial space, now occupied by a health centre, is protected by a long awning, the openings to the parking structure are sized like windows and the smooth concrete facade is painted a complementary brick red.
But there are only four businesses currently operating along the future mews; they include the health clinic, a coffee shop, a winemaking shop and an antique store.
The latter is one of the last remaining vestiges of Front Street’s era as “Antique Alley,” from the late 1980s through the 90s, when a cluster of shops selling everything from antique furniture to knickknacks and curios made the area a bit of a destination. But changing consumer tastes, shopping habits and the sheer inhospitality of the covered district that tended to lock in noise and pollution from passing traffic as it blocked the sunlight, has reduced the alley to one last holdout west of Sixth Street.
The strip is also pocked with three empty lots, including the gaping hole at McKenzie Street where the E.L. Lewis building stood until it was destroyed by a fire in 2013.
Pattison said the empty storefronts and lots provide a bit of a blank canvas for their owners to reinvent the street and extend New Westminster’s Downtown beyond Columbia Street.
“It has to be dynamic, flexible and always evolving,” said Pattison. “It doesn’t have to be perfect. It doesn’t have to be sanitized. It’s an organic process that’s driven by building owners.”
For that to happen, those owners might need a little push.
In the previous decade Pattison was involved in the rehabilitation and rejuvenation of a number of buildings and facades along Columbia Street that were aided by a city-sponsored financial incentive program. That program, which started in 2000, allocated up to $500,000 annually of gaming revenue towards projects to revitalize heritage buildings in the historic Downtown.
Pattison said a similar incentive program might be needed on Front Street.
“The key thing is money,” said Pattison. “Attracting them to spend money on their building by providing incentive grants and even pre-design services, streamlining the permitting process; it’s a team effort.”
Kendra Johnston, the executive director of the Downtown New West BIA, said a transformed Front Street will change people’s perception of the area, give it a “completely different aesthetic and appeal.”
To help that process along, the BIA is launching a facade improvement program for its members to help them pay for things like paint, signage or simply a good power wash, and talks are ongoing with the City to enhance the program even more.
“Some of those buildings have major challenges and need repairs,” said Johnston.
But Jackie Teed, the city’s manager of planning, is convinced once the mews is completed, landlords will be eager to improve their buildings to attract tenants.
“It’s kind of ‘if you build it, they will come,’” said Teed. “There’s a synergy between what the businesses are doing there and the revitalization.”
Johnston said the area’s revitalization will be guided by the results of a visioning process that was conducted last year to gauge the perception of Front Street among its business owners and visitors and determine improvements to make it “a vibrant, unique place of discovery, history, art and life.”
That could include artists’ studios and maker spaces, cafés and wine bars.
Blair Fryer, communications and economic development manager for the City of New West, said it hopes to extend the vitality of the new Front Street to the old part east of Sixth Street that will still be overshadowed by the remaining half of the parkade by improving its lighting and exploring ideas to animate the area.
Johnston said the Front Street mews could also be an ideal venue to host events as its closure would be less disruptive to traffic than blocking Columbia Street.
“It’s not a cookie-cutter street,” said Johnston.
Teed concurs. In fact, details in the sidewalk and street surfaces as well as low curbing will make the mews conducive to conversion into a open-air plaza for festival and events, she said.
Pattison said bringing light and life back to Front Street is key to the evolution of New West’s Downtown.
“It needs to be more than Columbia Street,” said Pattison. “It’s really important to bring in new business, new vitality, and not just let Columbia Street do the heavy lifting.”