I put forward a motion last Council Meeting regarding revitalization of Downtown, and I thought I would write a bit of a follow up about my thinking in working with Councillor Trentadue on this motion. The motion was seconded by Councillor Trentadue, and supported by all of Council, but it is always important for me to remind folks that what I write here on my blog reflects only my thoughts, not necessarily those of my colleagues on Council. Though my ideas on this have been informed by some really enlightening discussions with business owners downtown and members of the BIA.
It has obviously been a difficult last year and a half for many in our community. This in no way makes us unique in the Province or in Canada, but I want to recognize that the results of the Pandemic hit the historic Downtown of New Westminster at a time when there is already a lot going on, both good and bad. Perhaps that requires a bit of a step-back to look at Downtown New West as a Regional City Centre, and what makes it unique.
The City of New West has committed to the Regional Growth Strategy shares with the other 20 Municipalities that make up Metro Vancouver; a plan aligned with the TransLink Regional Transportation Strategy. A keystone to both of these plans is the increase in new density in identified Regional City Centres – with Downtown New Westminster being one of those identified centres. The vision for these centres is higher density mixed use (commercial, office, retail and residential) at high-service transit nodes to reduce reliance on cars. As a result of this plan and our exceptional Transit-centric location, Downtown New West is becoming one of the densest and most rapidly-growing residential neighbourhoods of the region. Being one of the few such centers with a strong historical walkable street scale, it is also one of the regions of the Lower Mainland most reliant on Transit, and least reliant on cars as a primary transportation mode.
Indeed, since the Downtown Community Plan was developed, we have seen significant residential growth, especially in the last few years, with some key developments coming on line. With more recent emphasis on Family Friendly suites, Purpose Built Rental, and Affordable Housing, there is a much richer and dynamic residential mix in the community as ever. This is even extending to there being more young families buying in the older and (slightly) more affordable units in Quayside. In short, population is booming Downtown, which should be good for local-serving retailers.
At the same time, we have had some significant setbacks. The loss of a portion of the Pier Park was probably the highest profile, and definitely reduced the public space amenity for Downtown residents, but the more recent loss of the building that housed 4 businesses on Church and Columbia was a real punch in the gut. This came after we lost an anchor retailer as the Army & Navy closed their last 5 locations. At the same time, the great work the BIA has done over the last decade to activate the street and draw people into Downtown through events and directed promotion has been hamstrung by Pandemic restrictions. And, though I am optimistic about the medium-term benefits of some of the larger developments currently under construction in the downtown, the ongoing impact of construction noise and disruption is further eroding livability at a time when these impacts pile up. And then there is the damn sewer work.
I would argue that the role of Downtown New West are a Regional City Centre makes it fundamentally different than our other (still important and valued!) commercial strips like historic Sapperton, Uptown, Ewen Ave or 12th Street. I would also argue that Downtown is facing a different set of challenges than the City’s other commercial areas, and needs a different and more proactive approach. And it needs it soon.
There are some interesting contrasts in Downtown. There is actually not an abundance of leasable retail space available right now for a new business to set up in. Indeed, there are a few businesses doing really well downtown, and at times the streetscape is really inviting. There is, perhaps surprisingly, a fair amount of office space in all three class levels yet office vacancy is under 5%, which is one of the lowest office vacancy rates in the Lower Mainland. At the same time, there are vacant storefronts in buildings that have been verging on decrepit for a long period of time, creating significant “gaps” in the retail environment. Finally there are sites like the Copps store site (still a hole 8 years after that devastating fire) and the Kyoto block empty lot right across from the Anvil Centre (empty 7 years after Council last saw a development proposal) that seem to need motivation to get activated.
The motion here is not to put pressure on existing business operators in the downtown – they are doing their best in tough times. Nor does the City have real power add specific retail businesses residents might like (be that a hardware store or a haberdashery). What we are asking is for staff to suggest tactics the City can apply to get these underperforming lots and derelict buildings activated. Though I (of course) have ideas, we really need Staff guidance to let us know what the suite of regulatory tools we have, as the relationship between a Municipality and any business is strictly defined in the Local Government Act and the Community Charter. We appear to have some special powers under the New Westminster Redevelopment Act that we have not yet exercised, and I would love to understand that fuller.
We also may need to have a conversation about street-level retail/commercial space having an amenity value we can apply in new development proposals. I would also love to see us evaluate radical parking relaxations for new buildings on Columbia, in light of the Transit-Oriented Development goals of the neighbourhood. The prohibitive cost and significant risk related to digging deep holes for parkades may be a barrier to innovative builders interested in making something cool happen on Columbia, and the value represented by that parking may be better applied at assuring buildings support other goals in the historic downtown.
These are my opening thoughts, I really hope in further conversation with the business owners, our City’s great Economic Development staff, and the wider community, we can bring some confidence back that Downtown New West will be a walkable, livable, full service community that supports its growing population.