The suburban high street at risk: a Fraseropolis example

The modern history of Canadian cities can be written partly as a struggle between the pre-1939 shopping street — or high street, as they say in the UK — and the automobile-oriented shopping centre.

The high street has seen repeated setbacks, with the creation of full-service shopping centres in the early 1960s, the covered mall a few years later, and the big box more recently.  In most cases, the shopping centre offers the retailer a reduced level of risk in terms of customer traffic levels, security, building maintenance and flexibility for expansion or contraction.  For the shopper, the shopping centre often promises lower prices and an escape from the weather.

In fact, the high street has become something of a niche phenomenon — patronized by the carless, by friends and supporters of individual merchants, or by odd ducks who like to walk and browse but not necessarily buy. 

Vancouver’s Main Street south of King Edward is the model for a Fraseropolis high street, with an engaging mix of specialty boutiques, neighbourhood shops and cafes.  New Westminster’s Columbia Street appears to have enjoyed an an age of glory, probably peaking in the 1940s; it then slid into a long period of business failure and deteriorating building stock.  Today it is finally improving — twenty-five years after the arrival of two rapid transit stations, followed by a slow but large-scale process of residential tower construction.

Not every high street in Fraseropolis enjoys the benefits of a central Vancouver location, or of foot traffic from rapid transit stations — or college campus construction, or courthouse construction, both of which are recent additions to the Columbia Street area.  But a surprising number of these old-fashioned shopping streets survive — in Cloverdale, the City of Langley, Mission, Port Coquitlam, Fort Langley, Aldergrove, old Abbotsford, Chilliwack — and local governments are working with business to keep them alive. Most of the same local governments, however, are also looking for the revenues that come from big box or mall development.

In Maple Ridge, as in some other towns, our “high street” shopping is dispersed unevenly over an area of several central area streets, with the oldest commercial structures dating from the 1920s.  Despite relentless population growth and residential construction in Maple Ridge, only two small commercial buildings have opened in the area since 2003.

The area has life, and people care about it.  There are some excellent restaurants and boutiques.  Local government dumped $100 million into upgrading the civic centre around 2000.  A new transit terminal offers frequent bus service to other town centres.  A smart growth planning process has helped to add 500 units of condo housing, with more on the way.

The current regime has introduced incentives for development: for a new building valued at $1 million or more, “up to $37,500 up-front; building permits at less than half-price; and an exemption from municipal property taxes for either 3 or 6 years.”  For renovations valued at $20,000 or more, or façade improvements valued at $10,000 or more, “building permits at less than half-price and an exemption from municipal property taxes for either 3 or 6 years.”

And after years of foot-dragging and bickering, central area businesses have formed a Business Improvement Association.  It runs a program in support of the District’s facade improvement incentive, as well as security patrols and special events, some in cooperation with the municipal arts centre.

But substantive growth, in terms of new businesses, remains painfully slow.  An old Safeway space, used as a flea market since the 1990s, is currently being renovated for Thrifty Foods.  This is a major step forward.  A six-story, mixed-use residential-commercial building is under construction.  The Extra Foods supermarket and the big Rogers video store have recently closed. Just guessing, I’d estimate that half the town’s central area, narrowly defined, is either entirely vacant or awaiting early redevelopment.

The objective is to achieve something like Main Street Vancouver.  How do we get there?  The answers are fairly clear: attract major employers, or many employers, and push the residential densification.  Build a critical mass of people who are content, or obliged, to circulate on foot.  Maple Ridge is talking to Douglas College about creating a post-secondary education facility, which we lack.  We’re trying to elbow our way into the queue for rapid transit.  Council recently approved a concept for a Newport Village style development, with destination-quality chic at the ground level and five residential towers.

But the payoff for this big thinking is far out in the future.  In the meantime, local voters  have rebelled after 15 years of municipal focus on the town centre.  They instructed Council in the recent election to get busy with approving big boxes and other dispersed development (see, December 7.)  This is likely to delay (at least) the positive evolution of the central area.  Our Maple Ridge high street is a local asset — an asset of uncertain value, perhaps, but an asset all the same.  Many residents seem to have taken the position that it should be written off.

2 responses

  1. I completely agree with you, the downtown is an asset and should developed more. I love Main Street and all the uniqueness it has to offer. So many of those shops are local clothing designers and I’ve sold things I make at Shop Cocoon ( a few streets over on Cambie). This shop sells local clothing and it’s not alone. There are plenty of people creating products or services that could benefit from these types of stores downtown. I hope there is a way the BIA can encourage this and attract more businesses like these.

    • Thanks, Lisa. The City of Vancouver is lucky to have a number of urban villages — Commercial Drive is also a good example — that are able to serve the needs of people living nearby and also provide an outlet for local suppliers.

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