Brighter days in Nanaimo

On Wallace Street at the edge of the Old City Quarter

Fraseropolis Occidental Hotel

The Occidental Hotel, 1886, restored in the 1980s.

Nanaimo’s roots go back to the 19th century. Its central area has rich architectural and heritage interest — combined with a mix of sometimes brutal modernist styles, and a tendency in recent decades for local owner-operated business to fail.

But as of 2018, central Nanaimo may finally be finding its feet.

The city occupies a difficult site. It faces the lights of Vancouver across the Strait of Georgia, which is atmospheric, but it’s fragmented by steep hills, gorges and bogs. Growth has hugged the coastline, sprawling northward. As with many Canadian cities, the establishment of ever-bigger shopping malls sucked the energy — i.e. the pedestrian traffic, and therefore the potential customers — out of the old downtown.

So what’s happening now to reverse the trend? In no particular order: we could look at the exodus of boomers from Vancouver, cashing out of their high-priced homes and looking for something cheaper and calmer. We could notice that climate change and extremely hot weather in the United States is bringing hordes of American tourists to the B.C. coast, seeking relief. At the same time, the city government’s central area plan, adopted in 2002, is generating new apartment housing and improved transit.

My co-tourist on a late Saturday afternoon was Russell MacEwen. Russ remembers when Nanaimo residents travelled downtown to shop at the butcher shop and the department store. He landed his first job at Ryan’s wholesalers in 1962, at the edge of what they now call the Old City Quarter. He assembled packets of school supplies for delivery to drug stores and such.

During our walk, he pointed to where the high school stood, to ruined steps leading up to a vanished mansion, and to an empty field where the bells once rang at the Catholic convent. However, we also saw structures that have been rescued by redevelopment. The railway station is now a pub and museum, the Eaton’s department store is an apartment complex, and heritage homes have been occupied by lawyers and health clinics.

Fraseropolis Coach and Horses Nanaimo

A corner of the E&N Railway station, dated 1920, now partly occupied by the Coach and Horses pub.

Fraseropolis Nanaimo pot cafe

On Selby Street opposite the railway station. This classic streetscape shows up Nanaimo’s history as a town of miners and mill workers. The yellow structure, a former neighbourhood grocery store, is now a cannabis club.

Boutiques on Wesley Street, a block below Selby.

Nanaimo’s harbour marina and the Old City Quarter make up the two poles of an easy touristic walk. They are about 10 minutes apart by the most direct route. In between lies the old downtown, with a European-style network of winding streets.

Fraseropolis Nanaimo marina

Nanaimo’s waterfront promenade: a bistro with a newish residential tower behind

The marina lies close to the southern end of a scenic waterfront promenade, offering a half-hour walk with a view of islands and parks. The marina precinct has seen its own struggles: it was conceived some decades ago as a tourist attraction, especially because of its proximity to the city’s convention centre. However, the federally-controlled Harbour Commission (by local rumour) has been greedy in setting rents for ice-cream vendors and gift stalls, with disruptive results. The pattern may have stabilized; there is certainly lots of foot traffic in high summer.

Menu reducedWe had dinner for four at Le Café Francais, just behind the convention centre. It is operated by a very nice family from a town in Normandy, and the food was good. Our server, one of the sons, joked about having to post pictures of the Eiffel Tower on the walls, but c’est la vie.

Fraseropolis Nanaimo downtown

The Nanaimo marina, with the high-end Cameron Island residences to the right

Fraseropolis Nanaimo downtown 2Fraseropolis Nanaimo downtown plan

Fraseropolis Nanaimo Commonwealth

Meanwhile, back in the real world: Nanaimo’s central area also features severe examples of modernist architecture. At the top of this set of three is the rear of the City Hall, showing postwar Art Deco elements. Second is a commercial block on Wallace Street. Dunsmuir Place, immediately above, was developed around 1980 by the Nanaimo Commonwealth Holding Society. This “charity,” fed by bingo revenues, was the child of a one-time B.C. Minister of Finance, David Stupich. His insurance company happened to rent space in the building. He was sentenced to prison for diverting charitable donations to the New Democratic Party, but he died before he could serve his time.

Fraseropolis Nanaimo heritage

A shambles of settlement-era wooden structures in the lower downtown, possibly 1880s, with the Cameron Island tower in the background.

Fraseropolis Nanaimo downtown plan 2

Fronts of the same structures, facing Victoria Crescent

Family incomes in Metro Vancouver

Yaletown, 2017

Statistics Canada has added new community profiles to its website based on the 2016 census. These include income measures the federal Conservative government axed from the 2011 census — possibly because open up a discussion about economic inequality.

Within Metro Vancouver, the highest median family income, in North Vancouver District, is 50 per cent higher than in Richmond, which has the lowest family and individual incomes and the biggest low-income population (“federal Low-income measure, after tax”). Continue reading

A democracy of beer

Brewing tanks at the Ridge Brewing Co. tasting room, Maple Ridge

Kory Tiemstra behind the bar at the Silver Valley Brewing Co. in Maple Ridge doesn’t usually advertise commercial enterprises, but we want to note the launch of The Growler, a print publication devoted entirely to a single burning question: where can I find fresh craft beer near my house?

The Growler illustrates a point that we often underline here: there is life in British Columbia beyond downtown Vancouver. The latest issue reports that there were four craft beer tasting rooms in Port Moody at the time of printing, four in Surrey or White Rock, and many more in the Fraseropolis region and in towns and cities around the province, with a full-page listing of venues that are “coming soon.” Each location offers a chance to sample what’s for sale, fill up a jar to take home, and talk philosophically about beer with the folks people behind the counter and whoever happens to be perched nearby. Continue reading

Transit funding and election speculation

Focus on Surrey: the B.C. government’s $2.2 billion transit announcement, March 31, 2017. Transit minister Peter Fassbender, MLA for Surrey Fleetwood, is flanked by Marvin Hunt, MLA for Surrey-Panorama, first elected to Surrey City Council in 1988; and by technology minister Amrik Virk, MLA for Surrey-Tynehead, formerly a prominent RCMP officer in Surrey. The photo by Arlen Redekop is clipped from the Vancouver Sun.

British Columbia’s Liberal government took a surprising step late last week with a rapid transit announcement that exceeded most expectations.

The Province will match the federal government’s $2.2 billion pledge toward Phase 2 of the 10-year transportation plan put forward in 2016 by the Metro Vancouver Mayors Council. This phase includes construction of a Clark Street to Arbutus SkyTrain extension in Vancouver, and the Newton-Guildford light rail line in Surrey. Continue reading

Touring B.C.’s Southern Interior



A recent four-day trip through the South Okanagan, Central Kootenays and the Shuswap Valley reminded me of the benefits of slowing down. I would have liked to really get to know these landscapes and villages — what you see here are only glimpses. Thanks to co-tourist Dominic Kotarski for bringing his global perspective, and to the excellent Hume Hotel for a welcome in Nelson.

Many of these towns — Princeton, Hedley, Midway, Greenwood, Kaslo, New Denver — were at their peak in 1900 or before that, riding a boom in silver. Our guide at the volunteer-run historical centre at Sandon said the now-abandoned town was “the Fort McMurray of its age,” the place where young men came to make their fortune. Continue reading

Passionate about Esquimalt

Esquimalt House 1

Fernhill Road, Esquimalt. Garry oak, a tree peculiar to southern Vancouver Island, grows all around this house. The garage-under-the-dining-room feature was popular on the West Coast from the 1910s into the 1940s, but many of these spaces are now used for storage.

Voters in Greater Victoria, population 345,000, are looking at the possible amalgamation of their 13 municipal governments into a smaller number. Possible, but not likely, since so many urban British Columbians are passionate about the randomly-sized cities and towns where they live. Rather than amalgamation, a slight increase in the number of “shared services” — a joint parks department here, a joint library there — is a safer bet.

Esqumalt condos

New apartments, Carlisle Avenue, Esquimalt

Esquimalt is one of the odd-shaped municipal bits that makes up Greater Victoria. Its Pacific shoreline is home to a naval base that employs 6,000 people. Otherwise, the city has waterfront parks, a modest urban village and an on-street bike lane connecting to the offices and retail stores in Victoria’s downtown. Continue reading

Does British Columbia need elected school boards?

Hastings School, Penticton and Franklin streets

Hastings School, Vancouver

Last year, property owners in British Columbia paid close to $1.9 billion to support  elementary and secondary schools through property taxes. It works out to thousands of dollars per homeowner over time, but if you’re childless like me, you may never have asked where the money goes. I ignore the school board ballot at local election time because I don’t know the people or the issues.

In December 2015, the Government of Quebec introduced legislation to eliminate elections for local school trustees. Only five per cent of the electorate filled in their school board ballots in the most recent election. The government plans to operate the school system through local administrators, with input from voluntary local advisory committees made up of parents, school employees and community members, up to a maximum of 16 people per committee. Over time, it will look for ways to share services across school districts. Continue reading