Visions of a new downtown

For years we have lived in the shadow of construction cranes towering over Columbia St., and this promised revitalization has not yet come. Yet I think this long-overdue hope will soon be realized, as we approach a critical mass of major development projects and an accompanying demographic shift that really will have the power to transform New Westminster's downtown.

Downtown New West. Photo: Dennis Sylvester Hurd
Downtown New West. Photo: Dennis Sylvester Hurd

Revitalization. It’s almost a dirty word in New West. Time and time again, ‘revitalization’ is promised: on 12th St., in Sapperton, and most frequently and fervently, downtown. For years we have lived in the shadow of construction cranes towering over Columbia St., and this promised revitalization has not yet come. Yet I think this long-overdue hope will soon be realized, as we approach a critical mass of major development projects and an accompanying demographic shift that really will have the power to transform New Westminster’s downtown.

By the end of 2011, New Westminster’s tarnished Golden Mile will shine again with the addition of a new 10-screen cinema, civic centre, waterfront park and a much-improved public market at the Quay. The construction that hampered pedestrian access around New Westminster SkyTrain and the ground-level crossing to the Quay will be complete and the related condo towers will fill with young professionals just hitting their stride in their careers and preparing to start families.

Within the community too there’s a new energy providing the gestalt for change. NEXT New West, a monthly networking mixer for the city’s young professionals, began meeting at the end of 2009 and will continue to grow in size and ambition to knit these young families into the social fabric of our city. The Downtown Business Improvement Association is in the midst of rebranding, hoping to recast downtown New West as a magnet for local commerce – not just bridal shops.

Momentum is building, but there is still a ways to go.

The River Market sits gutted, ready for new life . On the office walls, sketches and plans promise a far edgier, hipper vision of New West. Risk is embedded in this promise of change. So much depends on the final tenant mix, currently TBD following a delicate dance of negotiations that will ultimately depend on the strength of belief in Downtown New West’s revitalization.

The River Market’s fancydancing to get residents to sign a pledge of support for an unnamed local organic grocer is one attempt to boost New West’s belief in itself. New West BIA’s rebranding and community outreach efforts are another.

At the Quayside Community Board AGM some weeks ago, New Westminster Downtown BIA Executive Director Virginia Bremner came to speak to Quayside residents about the hoped-for changes coming to Downtown. After outlining what the BIA is and what it is trying to accomplish, she turned the floor over to the audience with the question, “What would it take for you to shop downtown New Westminster more often?”

The answers to the question were predictable: more services for residents, fewer bridal boutiques (or inversely, more non-bridal shops & services), cleaner streets, safer streets, etc. More interesting to me was the challenge implicit in the question. New West residents wish for a more vibrant downtown. Yet, when we take our business to Burnaby, Coquitlam or Vancouver, we make it harder for the BIA, the River Market, etc. to bring in and retain the kind of retailers we long to see.

In the end, we have to back up our belief with action. When we put our energy into attending community events and supporting local retailers with our dollars, we are pledging real support for the change we want to see.

Briana Tomkinson

Briana Tomkinson is a Montreal-based writer and original founder of Tenth to the Fraser. She really likes to write letters by hand.

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3 comments

  1. One of the things that will get me shopping downtown is the sense that I can get everything I need in one stop – food, household items, maybe some gifts, a post office, etc. Right now I go uptown because one or two attractive shops along Columbia hidden amongst all the bridal boutiques isn't enough to get me down there.

  2. It's going to take a lot longer than we think it will, but downtown New West, with the riverfront right there, is in too nice a spot to languish forever. It's really having residents that make a place vibrant. The more people move to downtown Vancouver, the better it gets. As more people take up residence in downtown New West, the shops and services will come. Let's hope that government and developers have the courage to follow through.

  3. i am new(ish) to new westminster, and have fallen in love with my new city. the word that seems to come up time and time again regarding new wests downtown is “potential”. it’s gorgeous, and should be far more vibrant than it currently is. i believe the re-opening of the burr will help, as well as the new shopping plaza at the skytrain. we’ve got the beginnings of a wonderful downtown, we’ve just got to lead by example and shop as much as we can down there!

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