British Columbia

Fires, construction work and COVID-19: Why New Westminster's historic downtown needs a jump-start

Despite municipal growth, leaders and businesses say the downtown is plagued by derelict buildings and construction work. The municipality has approved a downtown recovery strategy to enliven the historic downtown strip.

Despite municipal growth, leaders and businesses say downtown is plagued by derelict buildings, construction

Mary Trentadue, Kendra Johnston, Patrick Johnstone and Karima Jivraj are advocating for improvements to New Westminster's downtown strip to make it more livable for residents and vibrant for businesses. (Jon Hernandez/CBC)

Between the bridal shops, pubs and clubs that line historic Columbia Street in New Westminster sit a series of derelict buildings, boarded up windows and empty storefronts.

Mixed with the sound of traffic is the pounding of jackhammers as construction crews gobble up traffic and parking lanes to rehabilitate the city's sewers. Signs posted along the sidewalks assure those passing by that businesses are still open.

For those working behind the counter, the customers have been few and far between.

"People just don't come in most of the time," said Fey Martinez, manager at Fuel Supplements and Smoothie Bar, which has found success selling its products online during the pandemic. "The construction that's happening right now, it's affecting us more than the pandemic."

"We're trying our best to do what we can for our customers, but it's complicated," she added.

Fey Martinez, manager of Fuel Supplements and Smoothie Bar on Columbia Street, says foot traffic has dwindled during both the pandemic and ongoing construction projects downtown. (Jon Hernandez/CBC)

Local leaders and business owners say the historic downtown core is in need of a boost. Between the COVID-19 pandemic, ongoing construction, fires and a number of derelict buildings, critics say the character and charm of the neighbourhood is going to waste.

That's why city council recently passed a downtown recovery strategy, with the goal of rapidly supporting businesses, activating underused street space and revitalizing vacant or derelict buildings.

"The street isn't necessarily a place that's inviting all the time for people that live in the neighbourhood," said Coun. Patrick Johnstone, who introduced the motion on Sep. 13, alongside fellow Coun. Mary Trentadue.

"I'd just like to make sure the city is being as proactive in making this as attractive and as livable a space for the people who are moving here," he added.

Vacant buildings like this one on Columbia Street in New Westminster have been a hot button issue for business owners and residents, who believe the space is being underutilized. (Jon Hernandez/CBC)

Problems piling up

Shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, one of Columbia Street's anchor stores, Army and Navy, shuttered its doors for good. The owner cited economic challenges posed by the pandemic and closed outlets across the province. A number of retail spaces sit vacant and are boarded up.

"These empty spaces on the retail face, I think, make it very difficult for other retail owners nearby to have confidence there's a future in the neighbourhood," said Johnstone.

Meanwhile, derelict buildings have drawn the ire of politicians and business owners alike who say they are damaging to the esthetics of the neighbourhood.

"If we're going to have a vibrant, downtown New West that's welcoming to everyone, we shouldn't have buildings like that," said Karima Jivraj, owner of Bosley's pet store in Columbia Square. "There are some property owners who really don't care."

Fire collapsed the roof of this commercial building on Columbia Street in New Westminster early on May 24. (Yvette Brend/CBC News)

Fires have also played a big role in the appearance of the street. Most recently, flames took out four businesses on the corner of Columbia and Church streets. Wreckage from the since demolished property now sits in its place.

What can be done

Mayor Jonathan Cote says the city plans to work with property owners to ensure the land is used to its full potential.

"We have a couple of empty sites on Columbia Street that I would think be prime for redevelopment," said Cote.

Under the recovery plan, the municipality will look at ways it can use powers under the New Westminster Redevelopment Act to make use of the properties.

"The best case scenario is that we can kind of encourage activity to happen on its own there, but the redevelopment act does give the city some extra powers to potentially even start processes on their own and even acquire properties that are vacant if they're not contributing to the development of downtown," he said.

Staff will also make recommendations on both rapid and medium-term solutions to support businesses, make best use of streets, and improve "the amenity value" of the overall neighbourhood, according to the council motion.

As for construction, Cote says residents and business owners will just have to be patient. He says the sewer line reached a critical point where the district was worried about it failing — and leading to a possible sinkhole.

"Although the timing is absolutely terrible ... the reality is it's a critical piece of infrastructure and I think delaying that project would have potentially put downtown at risk of an even more catastrophic situation," said Cote.

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