Downtown New Westminster is vibrant and active. Sold-out comedy shows, lunch time line-ups at the sandwich shop, new restaurants filling their tables. Residents new and old are finding new reasons to visit the historic downtown.
However, we cannot and have not ignored the recent challenges being faced by this retail district (and other districts locally and across Metro Vancouver) that were raised by the writer in the recent Record Opinion (New West must fix rapidly deteriorating situation downtown, Nov. 1, 2021).
The writer chose to conflate many overlapping issues: neglected buildings, construction impacts, and society-wide social challenges clearly exacerbated by COVID. These issues are affecting all business districts in different ways, but a recent fire and ongoing sewer works mean they may be felt more acutely in downtown. This is why the city is working in partnership with the private sector and service agencies, and leveraging senior government funding to provide extra support downtown.
Clearly, the letter writer is not a council watcher, as downtown has been a frequent topic on our agendas.
In just the last two months, we have launched the downtown recovery strategy to transition to a post-COVID economy and proactively address some of the underperforming spaces in the downtown. We have also brought forward crisis response bylaws to fast-track the approval of supportive housing and assure we are at the top of the BC Housing funding queue.
On the very day that opinion was published, council advanced temporary permitting for additional emergency beds and partnered with the Canadian Mental Health Association on piloting a Peer Assist Crisis Team to reduce conflict on mental health calls and free up police to do policing work.
This recent work followed on and enhanced the region-leading work of our COVID Business and Local Economy Task Force and our COVID Vulnerable and At-Risk Population Task Force, their list of actions detailed in regular council updates but too comprehensive to cover here. Also too long to list are the many livability improvement actions that the city has introduced downtown, from improving access to temporary and permanent toilets to adding larger trash receptacles and creating innovative multi-departmental teams where police, bylaws, engineering and fire departments work together to more quickly address issues that arise.
These are not vague strategies, resting on hope. These are concrete actions relying on partnerships across jurisdictions (government, private sector, not-for-profit) that the city is either leading or supporting in our budget and with the hard work and expertise of city staff. They are actions rooted in respect for all residents and compassion for those who are suffering in our community, because those are the values of this community.
Hope is not a strategy. But hope is intrinsic to all efforts to support a community under strain. Hope has helped sustain the history of this community working together to support one another through good times and bad.
As we move out of the pandemic, the coordination between the city and the businesses, residents and organizations that keep it running is fueled by a hopeful common belief in the future of this great community. We have work to do, and we are doing it. When the repairs are done and people are ready for another great season of BIA festivals, downtown will be there, drawing us together again as a heart of the community.
Coun. Patrick Johnstone, New Westminster