Beyond bridal boutiques and payday loans: re-envisioning downtown

Downtown New Westminster has it going on. Well, it could have it going on if it could once again capture the vitality of its once historic past. From an urban planning perspective you could not wish for a better template; you've got history, great public transit, a waterfront, shopping, density. So what happened, why did the city turn its back on the downtown?

Copp's Shoes on Columbia St. Photo: Dennis Sylvester Hurd.
Copp's Shoes on Columbia St. Photo: Dennis Sylvester Hurd.

Downtown New Westminster has it going on.

Well, it could have it going on if it could once again capture the vitality of its once historic past. From an urban planning perspective you could not wish for a better template; you’ve got history, great public transit, a waterfront, shopping, density. So what happened, why did the city turn its back on the downtown?

New Westminster did what almost every North American city did in the post-war era; it decided to re-invent the wheel. How many cities had a perfectly good urban core and decided a shopping mall in the suburbs was the way to go? We don’t even have a suburb, yet that didn’t stop us from building a huge mall just 1 km up the hill. While probably bustling with stores when it first opened, it is hardly an example of a thriving mall as we’d like to see it. The mall is tired, lacks interesting merchants, and doesn’t have the convenient access of SkyTrain, which is a must these days. It did not help that the mall lost its last anchor tenant with the closure of Woodwards. Uptown is probably not quite the gem urban planners had envisioned, but let’s leave that for another post.

So what else contributed to the demise of the downtown? Like with many cities, the decline of public transit combined with the introduction of the personal automobile changed the way people live. With a car you could now live in one city, work in another, and go shopping in yet another. Before the TransCanada Highway was built to the north of the city, Columbia Street was essentially the commercial hub for all residents east of the Fraser River. People would come here from as far away as Chilliwack on the interurban railway. With the construction of the highway and the discontinuation of the interurban line, Columbia Street’s importance as a retail destination was delivered another blow. No longer did you have to pass through New Westminster on your way from A to B.

So how does it look for the future of New Westminster’s downtown? People are once again moving to New Westminster, realizing the potential of living in the geographic center of the Lower Mainland. And they are moving to the downtown to be close to transit and other amenities. Certainly they deserve more than a couple blocks of bridal boutiques and payday loan shops. The city must promote the downtown not only as a place to live, but as a place to shop, and a place to work. More people moving downtown will bring more diversity in terms of shopping and employment opportunities. The building of the Civic Centre and (slow) emergence of the River Market are good examples. Companies may look to New Westminster as a location to open up their head offices. We need all levels of employment to once again make the downtown vibrant.

New Westminster is not a large city. It can support both a vibrant downtown and a thriving uptown. At the moment however, it seems like the downtown has the momentum in its favour.

Matt Lorenzi

Matt Lorenzi is a really valued member of the Tenth to the Fraser community. Interested in joining our pool of writers? Please see these submission guidelines.

21 comments

  1. I completely agree. I can't wait for the day Columbia street is thriving place to be again. I think all the construction happening around New West station will draw more people to the area with the theaters that opening. As New West residents we need start by shopping and using the facilities in the area.

  2. New West has it going on. With the revitalization of Columbia street, New West is off to a good start. Also areas like Sapperton, 12th, and Glenbrook North (tearing down that ugly strip mall) are starting to get going as well. Even uptown where the mall is and is looking a bit sad is a vibrant area in itself. I think this a very exciting time to be a New West resident, no matter what area of the city you're living in.

  3. The momentum is there, and with the Plaza 88 entertainment/shopping plaza and the MUCF, it will be the most transit-intensive development area outside of Granville Mall. The next steps are to connect to the waterfront and the park better than a crappy pedestrian overpass, and to give people a reason to wander east along Columbia before and after movies.

    After 50 years of having "potential", New Westminster is starting to realise it. This is one reason we cannot blindly accept a 4-lane truck route cutting through the middle of it…

  4. Pat – would not a four lane truck route help keep the goods flowing? Think of all the people the 4 lane route would bring. All the cars and trucks that could park in a new parkade and the drivers could have lunch in the park or shop for on Columbia street I am a little concerned about what to do with all thoses noisy trains, what do you think? Does anyone know if the city's new jewel (the Peir Park) will open on schedual? Exciting times indeed.

  5. With two Skytrain stations just blocks apart, why would we encourage people to take their cars downtown? Trucks are another matter altogether…they need to get from A to B, which often takes them right through the heart of the city.

  6. Come on people are u kidding! Stop hiding in one or two stores and take a walk Columbia and Front streets!
    Here is a true story: Two couples arrived at a hotel in the Columbia Street area (name withheld). The receptionist looks at the reservation and one of the four says, " we can't stay here". The surprised hotel employee asks why. The man proceeds to inform the employee, "have you walked out there on Columbia Street? The buildings are in disrepair the area feels seedy and frankly we don't feel safe!" The employee informs the visitors, "New Westminster is revitalizing, up and coming and I am sorry you feel this way". To that the first time visitor says, "yes we read that about New Westminster but to be blunt – your city is delusional and in denial. The streets are in terrible disrepair, it is hard to get around, there are scary people wandering about and the buildings in the downtown are really in bad condition. This is not what we had expected based on the information we read, but thank you very much anyway".

    So people stop selling this city (I might add we are doing a fabulous job of that) as repaired when in fact it has a long long long way to go. If I hear that Columbia Street is getting another facelift I think I will scream. Our Mayor has been using Columbia Street as a re-election tool every term and this will be his fourth time doing it again. Please it is time to go, it is time for the whole works council and Mayor to be replaced. We need a fresh approach with the acceptance of what we have to work with not some old promise to "revitalize" the downtown again. Since the city hangs it collective hat on a few developments (Plaza 88 to name one) they think putting a finger in the hole of a leaking dam will solve everything. I am very worried that the pier park and civic center will become Wright Elephants. Really I am not alone on this, people are just afraid to talk about it out loud (that is why I will not use my name and thank you for allowing me to express myself this way). November can not arrive soon enough for many old time New Westminster residents that have simple had enough of these 7 politicians!

  7. Wow. I’m amazed we can have such different experiences on Columbia in 2011. I agree that your description fits Columbia in 1997 when I first moved to New Wesmtinster, but I regularly walk Columbia, and just can’t agree with your interpretation. I don’t think Matt is saying another revitalization, he is saying that long-promised revitalization is finally happening.

    The streets are not in disrepair, there are dozens of great businesses down there (including the wedding shops!). It is easy to get around as the sidewalks are wide, the crosswalks are well lit, and the traffic is calmed. It is safe, 24 hours a day.

    oh, and @Pat? No. a four-lane truck route will be jjust as congersted as a 2-lane trcuk route, it will just be twice as noisy and twice as polluting. I'm not sure what people it will bring, since you call it a truck Route… Guys trying to move goods to "kepp the economy moving" don't stop to buy wedding dresses very often…

    My recent post we might have made a big mistake…

  8. Pat J, even on your own blog site you comment how bad Front St is and what visitors will look at when the White Elephant pier park is open. You can't have it both ways, the city of new west has a dark side and no sense in hiding it. Yes I would look good in a wedding dress – IF I NEEDED ONE! Have you seen the building up from Pharma Save or how about the old Pier 66 Pub or Fantasy XXX just to name a few. Oh lets not forget the forgettable Hyack Square. While you sitting enjoying the diesel from the trucks and trains how about a good whistle blowing to make you soil your pants. Really…. and when you take a little stroll off the main street that's where the strange people lurk! Oh and the streets have you been down Carnarvan or up the cobblestone side streets come on you can just say one street is nice and forget about all the rest. Oh and hang onto your seats Mayor Wrong will use Columbia Street again for his re-election bid you can take that to the bank!

    1. Funny, I edited down my first 1000-word response, and took out the part that started "However, Front Street…" I agree with you that we need to fix Front Street to connect Columbia to the waterfront, and I think Matt hints at that in the post above. My personal opinion is that we have to recclaim Front Street from the Parkade and the Truck Route, but I am sure many in the City would disagree with that. I hope we can start the discussion, becuse Front Street is the next big step for New Westminster. Columbia is where we need it to be to make a better Front Street happen.

    2. Yes, Front street is an eyesore, but hopefully that will start to change when more people are in the area for the new park.
      I saw a zoning permit on Pier 66 Pub, they are going to build condos there, not sure if I want my condo beside the Paramount, but others may find that attractive.
      The Wedding Dress stores bring in a lot of business to New West, as someone who has been in wedding land for the last year, I'll tell you that people in the biz send brides down to Columbia Street, which is great for local businesses. Just because you aren't shopping for wedding apparel doesn't mean there aren't tons of other people in our city looking for dresses.

  9. You know what? When it comes to "trucks and traffic" Reality Resident, you definitely aren't dealing in geographic reality. Like it or not, accept the fact that there is absolutely nothing that can be done to mitigate traffic issues in New West. The residents are dead set against any infrastructure improvements to get trucks and traffic flowing through the city (see the hype over the UBE connector, the pooh poohing over the proposed North Fraser perimeter road and the ballyhooing over a proposed New Patullo Bridge), and the fact is people by in New Westminster because the prices are still affordable. They are affordable because the city is basically 20 mins from just about anywhere, in short, its in the geographic centre of the region. And short of slapping up high gates and city walls… traffic, commercial and car, is just a fact of life. And last I looked, there aren't any traffic movement experts on this blog. Or for that fact, people who work in transportation. I do work in that industry. Most of the drivers I talk to hate New West because of the unneccessary gridlock. Kick the cars off Front St. between 0600 and 0900 am, and 1400 to 1900 pm. Come up with a way to keep access to the bridge open from 1500 to 1800 from Columbia, so that trucks don't have to go up E 8th Ave. Once you do that, you'll shut up a lot of the nimbys in the McBride Sapperton area. Well you won't really because then they can focus their crying and whining on the Elizabeth Fry society. Or some other project that plays into their "Sky is Falling" mentality. Maybe perhaps they should focus on closing RCH. After all those sirens, ambulances and helicopters must just annoy the neighbourhood to no end. Never mind the unsavoury element that the emergency ward attracts. Hell turn the morgue into condos.

    At any rate, whining and ballyhooing about any change in New West is a profession to some people. That and bemoaning the fact that there are trucks in the city. People, for the final time: You LIVE IN THE CENTER OF THE METRO VANCOUVER AREA. Like it or not you will NEVER EVER stop truck traffic from traversing through New West. The city should ignore the Nimbys like Neil Powell and others, and frankly build some decent road capacity to get people in and out of New West as fast as possible. If traffic is moving, they aren't idling, thereby producing less pollution etc. But in Nimby world, its best to sit there with blinders on, harkening back to the days when things were delivered by horse and buggy and wanting so badly to return to those days. News Flash its 2011, not 1811. Wakey Wakey.

    1. Dave, you said it yourself: “accept the fact that there is absolutely nothing that can be done to mitigate traffic issues in New West.”

      So how do you square that with your suggestion that the City should “build some decent road capacity to get people in and out of New West as fast as possible”? Aren’t those contradictory ideas?

      You are right, there are no urban transportation experts (that I know of) commenting on this blog. There are also no transportation experts standing up and saying New Westminster, or any other City, can solve traffic problems by building more freeways through their urban centres. That approach has never worked anywhere on planet earth, and I don’t know why you think it will work here. Traffic expands to fill the space allotted.

      So the choices for New Westminster, as I see them, are to either live with the transportation capacity we have, save a bunch of money by not building useless infrastructure to move cars, and find better ways to use our limited space, or, alternately, to keep building lanes, so we can have twice as much congestion, twice as much pollution, twice as much noise, and keep doing this until we run out of money to build roads with, or we run out of oil.

      Of course, I think the first is the better choice, but then we need to start making rational decisions about how we move goods through this City. I agree with you that designated truck-only routes or times are probably a good part of the solution (note, that equals an actual decrease in traffic capacity), as are increasing the use of rails and the river for moving containers between terminals. Get this terminal-to-terminal container traffic off our roads, and we will have a much more manageable number of trucks on our streets doing what we all want trucks to be doing: moving goods to our stores, and the products of our enterprise to markets.

      1. "Traffic expands to fill the space allotted. "
        So then why isn't every street packed end to end with cars ?

        "as I see them, are to either live with the transportation capacity we have"
        Then we must also stop all development that puts pressure on the system to expand.

        "twice as much congestion, twice as much pollution, twice as much noise"
        twice as much people, twice as much crime, twice as much garbage

        "keep doing this until we run out of money to build roads"
        we already ran out of money to even fix the roads, that's why they went to the fed's for the UBE.

        "(note, that equals an actual decrease in traffic capacity)"
        I have enough trouble understanding some of your logic.

        "as are increasing the use of rails and the river for moving containers between terminals"
        twice as much collisions, twice as much whistles, twice as much stuff

        Ok, thats enough from me, who's next ?

        1. OK, Ricky, I’ll play along. When you pitch me soft lobs like that, it is hard not to take a swing:

          “So then why isn't every street packed end to end with cars ?”
          To hear people complain about traffic in this City, you would think they are!

          “Then we must also stop all development that puts pressure on the system to expand.”
          The pressure to expand is caused by “all” development, but by poor development choices. The City of Vancouver has increased population and jobs over the last 20 years, without significant expansion of their road network.

          “twice as much people, twice as much crime, twice as much garbage”
          Apropos of? New West will purportedly increase population by about 40% by 2050. Crime is going down on a per-capita basis, and waste diversion rates are going up.

          “we already ran out of money to even fix the roads, that's why they went to the fed's for the UBE”
          Pluralizing with an apostrophe. How cute. So you propose building more roads when we cannot afford to maintain the ones we have?

          “I have enough trouble understanding some of your logic.”
          Correction: Remove clause “some of your” from above sentence.

          “twice as much collisions, twice as much whistles, twice as much stuff “
          When was the last rail collision in New West?

          And how does this relate to Downtown revitalization in New West? What is YOUR vision, Rick?

          1. "The pressure to expand is caused by “all” development, but by poor development choices."
            SYNTAX ERROR
            It's true sometime's i put apostrophe's whe're the'y dont be'long And SomeTime's I Over Capitalize WORD'S, but thank you for your apparent agreement with my original point that "all" development (poor or otherwise) is the root cause of our traffic woes. We have enough people already to house, educate and care for in the cramped hospitals. Stop sending us more !

            Building more efficient routes, like the UBE and NFPR will reduce the strain on the roads within our municipal borders that we maintain. As for the roads themselves, Big oil needed to get rid of the tar left over from the refineries, so they developed this garbage called asphalt and said we could safely smear it everywhere. It rapidly breaks down in this harsh climate, cracking and leeching hydrocarbons and god knows what else into the surrounding environment, it was so cheap and easy to roll out roads, we got hooked on the stuff. Opps !

            Take a look around, because our city is old we still have some brick roads and some cement roads. Maintenance costs ? Nil. Lifespan ? hundred's of year's.

            "When was the last rail collision in New West? "
            June 26 2011

            My vision of the Downtown is apocalyptic if things continue the way we are going.

  10. Funny how threads like these always become a debate about industry. This is no doubt the crux of many conversations regarding growth in New Westminster. What I find telling is that there appears to be some who suggest we not question the motivations of industry. but rather to blindly accept whatever industry throws at us. This reaction of "industry can do no wrong" is to me a sign that we are still a young city compared to other western municipalities.

    Picture a setting where trains are not given cart blanche to operate in any fashion they please; where they are not permitted to endlessly block intersections or blare horns at ungodly hours. Perhaps a setting where trucks are mandated to stick to certain routes, obey noise bylaws, and safely maintain their vehicles.

    People should not take a back seat to industry just because it was there first. A vibrant city can have both, but it takes both sides to make concessions.

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