Uptown: Density at the centre of Metro Van

Uptown New Westminster was built to function as a city centre, providing shopping and employment for the city of New West and adjacent pieces of Burnaby, but its success in that regard has been mixed.  It works better as an urban village for the thousands who live within walking distance.

Present-day Uptown dates from 1954, when a new Woodward’s Department Store opened on Sixth Avenue and began to suck the life from the old downtown on Columbia Street.  The New West Library followed, and diverse small retailers.  The commercial architecture is something like that of European towns that were bombed and rebuilt.  Functional, let’s call it.

My co-tourist in Uptown was my sister Ellen Heaney, who has worked at the library for 38 years.  We ate at the Belmont Bakery and Bistro, a good tea shop in the grandmotherly style.  The area is well set up for seniors, with transit, recreation, shops and cafes.  New Westminster has the highest concentration of rental dwellings in Metro Vancouver — 46 per cent of the housing stock, compared with about 25 per cent in neighbourhing Coquitlam, Richmond and Surrey.

In my sister’s time, Woodward’s has closed, to be replaced by the Royal City Centre, which has shrunk from two retail floors to one.  Another off-street shopping centre nearby, the Westminster Mall, opened as all-retail but has been substantially converted to office use. A small arcade off Sixth Street has also closed.  Street-facing retail businesses, meanwhile, seem to do reasonably well in a busy pedestrian environment; there is spatial voodoo at work here, but I’m not enough of a planner to understand it.

There’s no neighbourhood plan for Uptown, but there is a 1999 plan for Brow of the Hill, taking in maybe a quarter of the urban village on the southwest side.  The plan says that with 89 per cent of the housing units in the Brow located in multi-family buildings, there was no need for further densification.  Possibly as a result, most growth in New West since 2000 has taken place elsewhere, although a large tower is now underway at Sixth Street and Belmont.  The land use on the east side of Uptown’s main commercial street is much less dense; Queen’s Park is possibly the finest heritage residential district in mainland B.C., and well worth a walk.

Uptown New West lacks the artsiness of inner-city villages like Commercial Drive, and the proximity to the bright lights.  I believe, however, that many people would find this village more livable on balance.

(This is post #3 in our Urban Villages series.)

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