The riverfront city of New Westminster enjoyed a long history as an industrial and commercial hub separate from Vancouver. But as suburban populations and shopping malls grew to the east, north and south, New West lost something of its distinctive position and much of its commercial market.
The City government responded with repeated beautification efforts and a failed attempt to launch a new Granville Island development at Westminster Quay; but through 1980s and 90s, Columbia Street, the downtown area’s high street, grew increasingly frazzled and transient.
Things have turned around now, the result of decisions that were made years ago. Rapid transit arrived in 1986, a big Douglas College campus not long after that, significant tower development west of the Quay around 1990, and then more residential towers above Columbia Street. The area benefits, at the same time, from the many surviving examples of vintage architecture. The Business Improvement Association claims 500 members with a wide range of retail stores. A new SkyTrain-oriented shopping centre offers key services such as a supermarket to residents of the urban village; this is a welcome development in a way, the first of its kind in the region, although in my view the link between the shopping floor and the streets outside is inadequate.
There’s variety enough in New West to attract young people who work elsewhere. The rents are generally cheaper than Vancouver’s, and the transit ride into the big city is a bearable 25 minutes. The Skytrain stations are also 10 minutes from Surrey Central or Metrotown, significant business centres independent of Vancouver, offering career-track jobs in the offices of large organizations (for example Fraser Health at Surrey Central or Metro Vancouver at Metrotown.)
Starting about 2008, New Westminster Council began a project to make New West a business centre in its own right. A new office tower, across the street from Skytrain and a block from New Westminster Quay, would combine commercial space with convention and arts space. This dual concept was affirmed in the Official Community Plan of 2011, which designated the Downtown business area “the tourism and entertainment centre of the City”. But the private developers walked away, and in 2012, Council decided to take a Big Risk. The people of New West would borrow up to $59 million to finance the multi-use facility, on the bet that the business centre dream was viable. Construction commenced on what is called the Anvil Centre, in honour of New West’s industrial past.
The parallel that jumps to mind is Maple Ridge, where local government entered into a business centre partnership in the 1990s that included a library, arts centre and recreation centre. The partnership collapsed, taxpayers took a $35 million loss that we’re still paying for, and the local political climate turned toxic for a decade. Fears of a similar debacle have surfaced in New West, although, to be fair, much of the media coverage has been mild in tone. The truth is that New Westminster, with its central location and transit links, is much better positioned than Maple Ridge; although I have to repeat that this is a big and uncommon risk for a city government to take.
And aside from its mere existence, there is some controversy about the new building’s design. This is reflected in a long thread on the Skyscraper Page.
I recently visited Downtown New West with my brother-in-law John Heaney, shown looking into the bookstore window above. He said he hadn’t taken the time to poke around Downtown for many years. He and my sister used to eat at the Old Spaghetti Factory on Eighth Street when they were young and broke. The restaurant is still going, and still busy, but we went instead for beer and a burger at The Met on Columbia. We also stepped into the Army and Navy department store, which has seen neighbourhood residents through their darkest times. It’s hard to see the old store’s operators surviving if Downtown New West truly hits the big time; but there’s no doubt the facade will survive.