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Plaza 88 helps bring Downtown New Westminster back to life

Shreds of New Westminster's former charm still cling to its downtown historic facades and along its broken, cobbled streets. But the squat, bland buildings tucked willy-nilly among the once-regal shops tell a different story: not of the rise of the Royal City, but the fall that came later.

Now city officials are hoping to restore the downtrodden downtown into a bustling city centre full of families, young people and office workers who have every-thing they need within a few blocks of home.

Along Columbia Street, new condo developments are springing up behind historic storefronts. Ground has broken for a civic centre and office block. A precinct featuring a 10-cinema theatre, boutique shops and grocery store is taking shape across from the Quay. A 10-acre Westminster Pier Park is being built along the Fraser River.

"We're probably going to be one of the major downtown communities coming back to life [in Metro Vancouver]," New Westminster Mayor Wayne Wright said.

The move is badly needed. Designated as a regional town centre in Metro Vancouver's growth strategy, New Westminster's downtown is expected to be home to more than 21,000 people - about a quarter of the city's entire population - by 2031. About 15 per cent of the city's 70,000 population now live downtown.

The growth will require another 7,400 units, nearly all of which will be apartments, to be built over the next few decades. Those people will need food, services, drugstores and other amenities such as banks, most of which left the area 15 years ago but are starting to return.

One small Scotiabank now hunches on the corner of Columbia and Begbie, the last holdout from a time when the downtown was "pretty catastrophic," according to Wright, who had owned a chocolate shop at the Quay during those dark days.

"There were drugs, closed buildings. There was nothing happening. It was really hard. It had a bit of a bad reputation but we've cleaned it up."

The work has been slow and steady, said Wright.

During the Second World War, the downtown area was the economic powerhouse of the city - and Columbia Street the "Miracle Mile" - when industry flourished because of its fishing docks and rail lines.

The decline, which started in the 1950s, continued over the next few decades as the city moved its civic institutions uptown, competition increased from neighbouring municipalities and the area became a haven for beer parlours.

By 1997, most of the banks, notary publics and other ser-vices had left the downtown, which subsisted on a slew of bridal and antique stores, mom-and-pop shops and restaurants.

David Young, a notary public, stayed downtown but often considered moving out of his office and joining his competitors uptown, especially when he needed more space and there was no development going on.

That's all changed now. He now has a larger corner office above Waves Coffee with glass-fronted views of the Fraser River and a clientele that also does their shopping and banking nearby.

"I'm the only notary left in the downtown core; I kind of stuck with it," he said. "Even in my industry alone, [the down-town] is becoming appealing to clients now.

"I get lots of compliments on my office since I moved."


The city continues to work with private property owners and developers to reinvent the area, which is destined to welcome a large share of the region's employment and residential growth in the next 20 years.

Wright, who has met with the landowners of the nondescript Army and Navy store, which sprawls across a couple of blocks and anchors the down-town revitalization, said any redevelopment there will be a key part of the transformation. One day, he envisions, the area will be similar to Vancouver's Yaletown, which has become a trendy neighbour-hood for young singles, families and empty nesters.

The scene is already changing. Sidewalks are being widened to accommodate wheelchairs. A Safeway complex has opened across from the Quay, bringing a spark of life to the area, along with boutique shops and a cinema.

Above the heritage facade at the old Interurban rail station, condos stretch toward the sky with commercial businesses on the ground floor.

Tall towers and a retail complex make up Plaza 88, surrounding the New Westminster SkyTrain station, while down the street, more condos rise above an old federal justice building that now houses the police department. Another highrise is also slated to go up behind the nearby heritage Trapp Block building.

"The growth of our city and transportation and how we're going to take control of this is the main focus for me," Wright said. "[Downtown centres] were the focal points of all com-munities at one point but then we got malls."

New Westminster isn't alone in its endeavours to turn its downtown core into a livable and vibrant neighbourhood.

Similar revitalizations are taking shape around Metro Vancouver as politicians strive to build dense "town centres" where residents have access to walking and cycling paths, transit, shops and services.

Vancouver's Cambie Street and Richmond's No. 3 Road, for instance, are seeing trans-formations as a result of the Canada Line.

Surrey is developing its new City Centre along King George Boulevard, around three of its SkyTrain stations, while towers are springing up around Coquitlam's new Town Centre, which is near City Hall and the Coquitlam Centre, and along the Evergreen Line route.


With its two downtown SkyTrain stations, plus another three in the city, as well as its location in the centre of the Metro region, New Westminster is perfect for young urbanites, the mayor insists. Its bridal stores are a favourite haunt of young brides and graduates. Nearby Douglas College, along with the courthouse, serve as major employment anchors.

"The downtown is probably the pivotal point for everyone," he said. "We don't want to have huge skyscrapers. What we want is to have livable sites."

For Scott Walker, 30, and fiance Clara, New Westminster offered an affordable option when they were looking to buy a home. Vancouver and Burnaby were too expensive, so the couple pre-bought a condo in a development across from Queen's Park, which isn't too far from the downtown area.

"I kind of always turned my nose up at New West because I didn't really want to live out here," Walker said, noting that he was persuaded to give it a try by a friend who lived in the city. "It's actually a lot better than I thought."

Walker said he's excited about the changes happening down-town, such as the 10-cinema theatre and the development on the waterfront, including Pier Park and the Quay. Although he drives to his job on the North Shore, he said, he does take transit once in a while to travel into Vancouver.

Wright said the changes are also designed to bring back naval ships, as well as persuade the steady stream of traffic using Columbia Street to stop in the downtown core. Some 400,000 cars travel through the downtown core.

"The problem that we have is we're in the centre and you're never going to be able to get rid of all the cars," Wright said, surveying the downtown from the New Westminster Club on Columbia and Begbie. "What we want is to get them to stop."

He noted the new Pier Park will offer recreational opportunities - such as cycling, walking and road hockey - to thousands of outdoor enthusiasts who are visiting the city or have chosen condo living over detached homes with a back-yard. The park, he said, will be a focal point of Metro Vancouver's Experience the Fraser project, which aims to create a trail along the river from Hope to the Salish Sea.

Wright also predicts Eighth Street, leading to Hyack Square, will be "one of the most famous roads in the country" once the city places a memorial art piece dedicated to the famous Wait for Me, Daddy photograph at the site. The photograph, by Claude P. Dettloff, shows a young boy, hand outstretched running after his father as he heads to war.

But while Wright said he's "proud of the way the city is growing," he acknowledges more work needs to be done.

"We want young people. We've still not had the attention of the people who are going to come," he said.

"Can you find a place to find a future? It's been here once; it can come again."

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