Downtown New West goes for the big time

Columbia Street

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.

Begbie Street

Begbie Street

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.

Clarkson Street

Clarkson Street

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.)Sixth Street, New Westminster

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.

New West Facility

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.

Holy Trinity Cathedral[Although much of the above looks at the development of Downtown New West as a commercial centre, it is also a settled community, so we will make this post #16 in our Urban Villages series.]

3 responses

  1. Seriously you have to be kidding. Many other areas of New Westminster are in tatters as a result of concentrating millions of dollars (estimates are over $135Million) on the downtown area. Other parks are suffering, Canada Games pool needs replacing the roads are in terrible condition along with that the sidewalks, 12th Street is desolate, Plaza 88 at New West SkyTrain is a failed experiment – less than half the stores are occupied, uptown is social welfare place and and and…. The train whistles, the traffic and the air pollution is simply unbearable and people who arrive for the first time are leaving disappointed. Those that live here say “it’s like putting lipstick on a pig”. People may come but are quickly disappointed once they look past the main streets. The city planners don’t listen and less than 100 people influence decisions in the city because no one really cares. Apparently the Mayor calls anyone who disagrees with him a “loser” and the NDP Labour stacked council is spending money like never before. I could go on but what’s the point I am leaving this place as it can only get worse.

    • This writer is disillusioned, which puts him in the company of many Canadians, maybe the majority. It’s true that New Westminster is a relatively old town in a region where most neighbourhods have emerged since 1960; much of the housing stock in New West is old, and so is the infrastructure. He seems to be suggesting that the City government should have invested in conventional infrastructure upgrades rather than a risky office tower venture; this is a valid position, and I’m not going to argue with it. And yes, the trains run through New West, as they have since 1885. I don’t accept the claim that civic influence is limited to 100 people, but it is rooted in the established neighbourhoods, and likely to be exercised by people who grew up in the community, with bonus points if your parents and grandparents were born nearby. The same can be said of any town in the Lower Mainland; here in Maple Ridge, the majority of residents have moved in fairly recently, but Council and local business have been dominated by people who played together on the local school grounds in the 1950s. New West may be unusually defensive and entrenched in this regard, but it’s not unique. An outsider has to pay dues to become established as a voice in civic affairs; volunteer work, boring meetings, community events. It’s not a matter of cruising up to the drive-through and shouting your order at the unseen girl behind the wall.

      Amid these political and geographic conditions, New West has developed two urban villages that offer more housing choices and more walkable services than in most municipalities in the Lower Mainland. This includes social services for low-income people, a category of service that is available in any functioning urban village from Vancouver’s West End to Chilliwack.

      If you’re planning to move to a new community, check it out first. Walk around it, in the daytime and at night. Talk to a few of the business owners about their taxes, the crime rate, and whether local businesses generally are dying or coming to life. There’s more to choosing a home than price and location. You’ve got to know where you fit in.

      • You forgot in your response to mention backlash when someone complains in an old town. This bully mentality is extended to one kids at school. So you may not like anonymous postings but sometimes that is just life. Nothing said in my post hurt individuals but simply laid out another truth.

        Date: Sat, 23 Mar 2013 19:17:27 +0000

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