The New New Westminster

Expo 86 brought SkyTrain, a waterfront market and optimism that the city named by Queen Victoria was on the cusp of a new beginning. Good things come to those who wait: a quarter-century later, it seems it’s finally happening.

The Met Hotel, New Westminster | BCBusiness
The exterior of downtown New Westminster’s historic The Met Hotel.

Expo 86 brought SkyTrain, a waterfront market and optimism that the city named by Queen Victoria was on the cusp of a new beginning. Good things come to those who wait: a quarter-century later, it seems it’s finally happening.

The pink neon light from the Paramount strip club, where you can watch the girls, but can’t have a drink, contrasts with the clean white light reflecting off the rhinestones on the satin wedding dresses displayed in shop windows along New Westminster’s Columbia Street. The pubs are mostly empty on this August evening, but a bored bartender at The Met Bar and Grill assures me that’s to be expected. It’s hot and in the middle of barbecue season. He offers his take on the area, expressing his general disdain toward people in the Lower Mainland, except for New Westers. For some reason he can get behind New Westers. He turns up the country music.

Down the street The Heritage Grill is busy. The New Orleans Ale Stars are playing tonight and a few 20-somethings dance the balboa to cheeky jazz lyrics. The youth sweat it up on the dance floor, or drink it down at candlelit tables, while a gaggle of grandmothers sway in their chairs, snapping their fingers to the familiar riffs. The beer is common and the wine is cheap, but the stucco walls are painted orange and there’s a sense of history in the room. Another room is in the back, but the bar is blocked off by a chalkboard sign that reads “reserved for the ESL club dance party.” No one’s there.

It’s a 20-minute SkyTrain ride back to Vancouver, back to Main Street, where the creative class rules and microbrew beers are the norm. It’s easy to see why some say that New West has become sort of a second city for urban creatives who have been priced out of Vancouver: stores along Columbia Street are mostly independent, the downtown strip is walkable, the transit is good and the buildings are old. It’s all there, begging to be turned into something young urbanites can get behind. And slowly the transformation is taking place; there’s no doubt that something is happening in New West.

Image: Nik West
Once lined with sawmills and canneries, the New
Westminster seawall is now a pedestrian seawall.

Robert Fung pauses in the dark stairwell of the Trapp Block building, pulls out his iPhone and turns on the LED flashlight app. He turns the corner and makes his way up to the second floor, where he marvels at the timber posts, the original glass panes and the pigeon poop that encrusts the uneven wood floors. Fung is accustomed to seeing past the filth, the dead pigeons and sinking foundation. Where others would see a dump not worth saving, Fung, co-founder and president of the Salient Group, sees his next project.

Looking out the grimy windows onto Columbia Street, Fung explains the meticulous steps that will be taken to dismantle the facade of the Trapp Block building, including removing and inventorying each terracotta tile before demolishing the body of the building. He laments the loss of the timber pillars, but the foundation is sinking and can’t support the current building, much less the 20-storey, 196-unit tower he plans to build.

“It would be a cool space, but what we’ve come to know is that people like the notion of a cool building, but it has to function like a brand-new building,” he says. To create the illusion of history, every salvageable tile will be used to recreate the original facade of the building, because “it’s the only way to authentically keep that feel on the street.”

Winding back down the stairs, Fung points out the general splendour of junk-shop teacups, paintings, antiquated computers and massive floppy disks left by a bailiff tenant years ago. “Somebody will find a Picasso buried in here,” he says, perhaps only half-joking.

Image: Nik West
Developer Robert Fung admires the view from atop
the Trapp building.

Fung has a habit of working in troubled areas. He saw the potential in Gastown, while others saw only drugs and tacky souvenir shops. Like Gastown, Columbia Street has a history of homelessness and substance abuse. “It’s not necessarily that we look for a derelict area,” Fung explains, “but areas of change, or maybe that need to be looked at in a slightly different way. If you can put those pieces together and the opportunities are there, it makes sense. But this project has 196 homes in it. We need 196 people to also understand that the area is a place that they feel can be home.”

Incorporated in 1860, New Westminster was the original capital of B.C. It’s in the middle of the Lower Mainland and it has been served by rapid transit since Expo 86, but for some reason the city has remained faded for half a century. This baffles Fung. “I’ve got a lot of friends in the development industry and the thing I find confusing, and interesting, and frustrating, is that almost everybody would say that New West should be so much more successful. It has so much more potential.” Even the banks, he says, were not sure about New West. But he believes all the factors that make an area desirable – affordability, transit, heritage – have come together in what he considers a critical mass. It’s just a matter of building the space that people want to live in.

His developer sense isn’t off. According to the 2011 census, the population of New Westminster jumped 12.7 per cent in five years and it’s expected to reach 84,000 by 2021. Other developers are also seeing the future of New Westminster and in the next few years, if all proposals are approved, the city will gain an extra million square feet of commercial, office and retail space, plus another 1,500 residential units. That’s a significant amount of development in a city that’s only 15 square kilometres.

Fung is operating in the downtown area, where most of the development projects are concentrated, but there is activity all over New West’s nine official neighbourhoods. TransLink is building a 170,000-square-foot new headquarters in Wesgroup’s master plan development in Sapperton, where the Labatt brewery once was. Called the Brewery District, the development, if everything is approved, will be an eight-building mixed-use project, which, when completed, will have up to 750 residential units and commercial space for 100 business. The first building opened in 2011 and houses a 30,000-square-foot Thrifty Foods, a Take Five Café and a TD Canada Trust bank. The TransLink building is set to open at the end of this year and a third, 30,000-square-foot retail centre is scheduled for either 2013 or 2014.

Images: Nik West
Old meets new at Fourth and Columbia streets;
cyclists cruise the newly opened westminster Pier
Park; relaxing at drink Urban lounge.

The Victoria Hill and Queensborough neighbourhoods are both getting 21-storey residential towers, and Ballenas Project Management is waiting for approval of a 20-storey highrise on East Columbia Street. Ballenas already built the 19-storey Inter Urban condo building on Columbia Street in 2009, and restored the old B.C. Electric building beside it for the Salvation Army.

Step off the train at New Westminster station, and you’re in the new Plaza 88 development, which garnered attention when the commercial portion sold for $100 million in July to First Capital Realty. The SkyTrain runs past the three residential towers and through the modern complex, which is home to a new 10-screen Landmark Cinema and a Safeway. The centre is completed, but besides an Ardene’s, a Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory, a Fresh Slice and a few other small stores, many of the storefronts still sport “for lease” signs. Walk out of the complex and down to street level, you’ll look down into a deep hole where the new civic centre will be.

Despite the many developers working in the area, it’s Robert Fung and the Salient Group that give Michael Richardson reassurance. “When I see cool kinds of businesses or developers with the same mindset as I do start to jump in, I start to think, thank God,” Richardson says from behind the counter of his contemporary furniture store, Redbrick.

Richardson is an Ontario transplant who moved first to Vancouver, then to New West two years ago. He owned several furniture stores back east and says he contemplated opening up on Main Street in Vancouver, or even in South Surrey, before opening his store on Sixth Street in downtown New West. But New West filled his four requirements: cheap rent, heritage, a sense of community and a burgeoning market. “Knowing or thinking that New West was going to turn that corner, there were already retailers that had jumped in here, but nobody was catering to the changing demographic here – I mean nobody,” says Richardson.

There are still gaps that need to be filled, says Richardson, who still has to go elsewhere to do much of his shopping, mainly because he says business owners continue to cater to a lower-income demographic. “I don’t think that everybody understands where the city is going or who’s moving in. There’s way too many dollar stores here; they keep opening them. I think they’re just catering to who they think is here.”

Social services and health care is a major sector in New West; according to census stats, it accounts for 22.6 per cent of the workforce. The abundance of rehabilitation clinics has been a deterrent to curious entrepreneurs, says Kendra Johnson, president of the Downtown New Westminster Business Improvement Area. “I think the perception of that has affected the business community in the past, but when you look at other communities with a similar amount of social service agencies per capita, or even more, they’ve overcome that perception,” she observes.

Image: Nik West
Antique shops line Front Street in
what locals refer to as Antique Alley.

Paul Minhas, owner of The Heritage Grill on Columbia Street, felt the full effects of the New Westminster stigma when he first opened his jazz lounge in 2005. Sitting on the patio one recent afternoon, Minhas recounts how he was lucky if he had five customers a day. “Nobody wanted to be here. Even staff members didn’t want to be here. It was a scary place for a lot of people.” Minhas pauses to make a quick call to the cops: a young man is pacing the perimeter of the patio, hurling insults at the customers in a demonic voice. For the grill to survive, Minhas continues, he had to diversify. His bar became a hub for the gay community, hosting Gay in New West nights and drag shows in the speakeasy-style back room. To keep things fresh, Minhas says, he switches things up. Right now the focus is on indie rock Sundays and ukulele nights.

Richardson and Minhas are representative of the new influx of people showing interest in New Westminster, says Johnson. “There are certainly a lot of younger people moving into downtown, and with that comes people who are really interested in doing business here,” she notes. The people who are contacting her are mostly interested in opening lounges and restaurants, she notes, and most are coming from east Vancouver. “They’re looking around and asking questions, waiting to see if the density is here for that and what the demographics are like.”

A few well-known Vancouver dining spots have already taken that leap of faith. Andrew Wong, owner of Wild Rice in Chinatown, opened a second location in the newly relaunched River Market, which was bought and revamped by former New Yorker and Disney Imagineer Mark Shieh. Owners of the Vancouver food truck Re-Up BBQ, Michael Kaisaris, Lindsay Ferguson, Chester Carey and Jose Rosales Lopez opened a permanent location in the market and Chronic Tacos opened up a few blocks away.

Richardson says that his store has also become a go-to destination for the curious prospector. Someone walks in almost every day to inquire about business, he says, and, like Johnson, Richardson has found that most of the people interested are coming from east Vancouver. He’ll admit to the curious prospectors that business is a bit of a roller coaster, which he expected since he set up shop in an emerging market, but he says he’s making money. “I don’t truthfully have the kind of overhead I would have in Vancouver,” he says. “I don’t have the pressure. I can have a little more of a relaxed atmosphere, a little more of a relaxed lifestyle. If I were on Main, I’d be on every customer who walked in the door.”

Not being from B.C. originally, Richardson says he didn’t fully understand the extent that New West had been stigmatized and was always baffled that these charming storefronts were not attracting shop owners. “I could never quite figure it out. This seemed to be a great area, how come it’s not full of artists, and shops and coffee shops?”

Image: Nik West
Michael Richardson’s Redbrick
furniture store on Sixth Street.

Part of New Westminster’s problems lies in its past. Sitting under the eaves of the century-old Westminster Building, Archie Miller describes the sawmills and canneries and the port network that once lined New Westminster’s waterfront. He runs A Sense of History, a tour outfit that puts together historical walking tours of different parts of the city. He’s been a New Wester all his life, which, judging by his long white beard, is a long time.

Downtown New West felt the tyranny of the malls in the ’50s, he says, when people opted for cars and parking lots over main streets and water craft. Uptown New West got a Woodward’s with a parking lot, which encouraged car-crazed people to move up the hill. Downtown built above-ground parkades that residents are now trying to tear down. As Miller tells it, the parkades didn’t save the neighbourhood: the port was closed in the ’70s, and the mills soon followed. One of the few big industrial manufacturers that stayed is the Kruger Products paper mill, but it underwent a significant downsizing in the spring of this year, laying off about one-third of its 600 staff and shutting down its production of raw paper for industrial clients. Miller recalls the ’80s, with Expo 86 and the SkyTrain. Downtown New Westminster was outfitted with two stations and the River Market. There was new hope that the faded neighbourhood would be rejuvenated, but save for the bridal shops, Miller says, the rebirth didn’t really come.

“One of the things that is humorous about this whole story is that the library used to have these files of the rejuvenation plans for downtown,” says Miller. “Every two or three years someone would say they were going to save downtown and they would come up with another way of doing it. Constantly reinventing the wheel.”

Image: Nik West
The Trapp Block will soon be transformed into a
20-storey condo tower.

Mayor Wayne Wright is taking a pretty hard stab at reinventing downtown. Wright and his council are pursuing a pro-development downtown community plan and in the last few years the City has taken on some very ambitious projects. It recently broke ground on the new civic centre, which was set to have an eight-storey office building above it. The office space was to be built by Uptown Property Group, but Uptown pulled out in the spring of this year. There were no other prospective developers at the time and the City faced a choice: either foot the bill for the tower, or build the centre without it. The City chose to foot the bill, borrowing up to $59 million for the project. The decision sparked a city-wide petition campaign, headed by former mayoral candidate James Crosty, calling for a referendum. The campaign failed to gather enough signatures and the possibility of a referendum was dropped in early August.

The civic centre is a major part of Wright’s goal to make New West an “A-class” city, and he has harsh words for those who question his approach: “You’ve got losers all the time in life who keep looking for things to throw stones at, and someday they want to break a window,” says Wright. “The fact of it is, this is one of those windows that is too strong and their information is too wrong for me to let it go too much longer.”

Councillor Jonathan Cote admits that building the centre is a risk, but one worth taking if the city wants to grow. “Frankly speaking, that has kind of been the philosophy the council has been working under for a number of years, which is that if you really want to transform this sleepy neighbourhood that has never been able to reach its full potential in the last 40 years, then you’re going to have to take a more aggressive and ambitious approach to solving the problems and really create the city that we’ve been telling everyone that we want to create.”

Image: Nik West
The Heritage Grill caters to a young
demographic with live music.

For Cote, who is also a master’s student in urban planning, it’s all about being cautiously progressive. He wants the downtown to improve, but he doesn’t want to alienate those who already live there. “To me it would actually be a failure if the city gentrified and made all these huge improvements, but in the end all the population that was here before could not live here,” says Cote while touring the recently opened Westminster Pier Park. “I often worry sometimes that maybe I am naive to think that you can dramatically improve a neighbourhood but still have a place for everyone who was in the neighbourhood before.”

The City may be seeing the light, but Peter Newall, president of Ballenas Project Management, says there’s still a ways to go before developers and businesses take New West seriously. “I think all these stories and hype will eventually generate some excitement, and it is happening and it will happen more,” says Newall. “If the public at large kind of caught on to downtown New Westminster, then it could happen overnight, but in the meantime there’s still some dinginess to it.”

Both Newall and Fung see the city as being in a transitional stage. It has some of the elements that young urbanites look for – good parks, good transit, trendy eating spots like Chronic Taco – but all the pieces that make a great city are not entirely lined up. However, what New Westminster is now doesn’t really concern Newall and Fung. They’re looking at what it can be and, to Fung, what it will be. In his opinion, New Westminster is past the tipping point.

“This is an evolving neighbourhood, so it’s had its periods of glory and it’s had its periods of decay, so it’s cycling back,” says Fung. “This is just another point in its long future.”