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New West approves Downtown Recovery Strategy to re-ignite the area’s spark

Fires, COVID-19 and departure of anchor retailer have impacted Columbia Street
Downtown - Jen Gauthier - September 2021
A gaping hole remains at Columbia and McKenzie streets, where a massive fire in October 2013 destroyed a heritage building once home to Copp's Shoes and other businesses.

New Westminster is looking for ways to bring a bit of a spark back into the downtown.

Coun. Patrick Johnstone said the downtown has been identified as a regional town centre that will include transit-oriented, mixed-use development. He said it’s one of the densest and most rapidly growing residential neighbourhoods in the region.

Since the downtown community plan was developed in 2010, Johnstone said there has been “pretty significant” residential growth in the area. But at the same time, he said, the downtown has faced some setbacks such as the loss of historic buildings to fire, the closure of an anchor retailer(Army & Navy), the loss of an important park space at Westminster Pier Park, ongoing impacts of construction and limitations on programming and public engagement because of COVID.

“Just as people are moving in, as it is really densifying and becoming that active, dynamic neighbourhood we want it to become, our livability goals are being challenged because of all these overlapping situations,” he said. “I don’t think it is going to be the thriving town centre we want it to be unless we sort of take some proactive action to make it so. So what I’m asking for here is for staff and council to work towards a more proactive approach to assuring the downtown is walkable, livable, that full service community that supports its growing population.”

On Monday, council approved a “downtown recovery strategy” motion put forward by Johnstone and Coun. Mary Trentadue that asks staff to review strategies and regulatory tools that are available to council to support the rapid revitalization of underperforming, derelict and vacant properties on Columbia Street in the historic downtown. The motion also asks staff to provide recommendations for rapid and medium-term actions to support the vibrancy of business, the activation of the streets and improving the amenity value of the historic downtown for all city residents.

“I’m hoping that staff can find us some creative ways to get moving on these sites and can send a signal to both the residents and the businesses in downtown that we are still hopeful, we are committed to the future of the community and it’s going to be a mixed-use and successful community for this growing population,” Johnstone said. “I am just hoping that staff can give us some ideas and we can find some creative approaches to bring back some confidence.”

Trentadue said it’s been “a challenging number of years” for the downtown and it doesn’t appear to be improving.

“There was some work that was started in a number of storefronts in the downtown core, but everything at this point seems to have stalled out,” she said. “I think it is time to reinvigorate that conversation and try to understand what the city’s abilities are to encourage and incentivize, require changes to storefronts that are really not doing any justice to our downtown core and to the number of businesses that are really working hard at making the downtown a draw for the rest of the community.”

Fresh restart

Mayor Jonathan Cote said the city has seen “tremendous progress” in downtown New Westminster in the past 10 to 20 years, which has included significant city investments in projects like Pier Park and Anvil Centre.

“Those investments will continue to pay dividends in creating that town centre and urban downtown,” he said. “But we have also seen thousands of new residents move into the area. I often credit that as a big part of the turnaround in the downtown, where more people live and more people actively using the downtown. That’s really what brings the energy.”

Cote said it’s been difficult in the last year-and-a-half to see the momentum that was building in the downtown slow down. While COVID has impacted all neighbourhoods, he said urban neighbourhoods like downtown New West have been disproportionately affected by the impacts of COVID.

“I appreciate the spirit and intent of the motion. I think it’s really  about how can we maybe add that spark to bring back the momentum that we had been building upon for many years,” Cote said. “As we emerge out of COVID-19, I think there is still going to be tremendous value and importance in important urban neighbourhoods like downtown New Westminster. …I think now is a critical time to make sure we are providing that spark and can move out of COVID-19 with fresh restart for downtown New Westminster.”

When proposing changes, Coun. Chuck Puchmayr said he’d like the city to keep in mind that downtown businesses and property owners have been hit hard by COVID. He noted one landlord lost 90% of his office leases in a building because of the pandemic.

“I’ll support the motion. I just want temper things a little bit,” he said. “I want to make sure that the general public doesn’t come away with an impression that things are really dire and going sideways downtown.”

Puchmayr recalled some dark days on Columbia Street in past years.

“I saw the banks leave; I saw the drug trafficking at SkyTrain and the drug trafficking all along Columbia Street,” he said. “We have come a long ways. I think putting some density onto Columbia Street has really helped. It helps the small businesses. I know that right now this is an anomaly what we are seeing.”

Follow Theresa McManus on Twitter @TheresaMcManus