New Westminster's urban revival
(Continued from Page 1)
The recent investment boom echoes the city’s early years, when it was the hub of the province. New Westminster was the original capital of the colony of British Columbia, after it was founded in 1859 by the Royal Engineers. At the time, it was the first city west of the Great Lakes, and Queen Victoria selected the name. This is why it’s still referred to as the Royal City.
A huge fire in 1898 wiped out much of the downtown, which prompted a major building boom that gives Columbia Street much of its existing character. This preceded an economic boom in Western Canada leading up to the First World War.
The Trapp Block was built after the blaze on the slope between Columbia and Front streets, anchored by a wholesale and retail hardware company founded by Thomas and Samuel Trapp. The first four storeys were completed in 1902, with additional floors and a terra cotta façade added over the next decade.
A description on the Canada’s Historic Places website states: “The extensive use of glazing on the front and rear façades maximized the use of natural light and increased the amount of product display space. The prominence and detailing of the terra cotta façade elements contribute to the visual dominance of the Trapp Block and help establish the historic character of the area.” The Holbrook Block immediately to the east was once a three-story masonry hotel.
Wild Rice's Andrew Wong sees parallels between New West and Vancouver.
This rich history is one of the things that drew Robert Fung to the city. In an interview at the Straight office, he says that he likes the “can-do attitude” of the city’s mayor.
“He’s one of the reasons you’re seeing so much activity in New Westminster,” Fung states. “It takes political will. It takes capital. It takes the market to be there at the right time. In terms of political will, he has put everything into it from the standpoint of the interests of New Westminster.…There is no quit in the guy.”
As an example, Fung cites the new waterfront park, which was made possible when the city obtained a $16.6-million federal stimulus grant. Fung says he also admires how younger businesspeople in the city are creating networks and holding meet-ups to build a sense of community and share ideas.
“They seem to get the notion that creative space attracts creative people,” he says. “Creative people create dynamic urban spaces.”
Re-Up BBQ's Michael Kaisaris likes New West because it's affordable and urban.
Some of this takes place at the River Market, which was developed by Mark Shieh, a cerebral 38-year-old former Disney “imagineer” and New York City resident who returned to Vancouver after 9/11. Over lunch with the Straight in the new Wild Rice restaurant, Shieh explains that he wanted to create a project that would have just as much impact as Granville Island had on Vancouver.
“I wasn’t looking to do a public market, per se, but this property was available for sale,” he says. “I loved the experience of Disney, but a lot of that is about creating something that is like a fantasy. But this is about a real place.”
He then mentions that he sees parallels between the relationship of Manhattan and Brooklyn and the impact of Vancouver’s rapid growth on New Westminster.
Both regions are linked by rapid transit. Both have a unique pride associated with each area. Manhattan, like Vancouver, has experienced rising real-estate prices, which has driven younger people to urban areas outside the core.
There’s one key difference, however. GQ magazine has described Brooklyn as the “coolest city on the planet”. That distinction has eluded the Royal City, whose downtown core is still dominated by a cluster of wedding-wear shops.
But Shieh is making inroads. He persuaded restaurateur Andrew Wong to open the Wild Rice in his market.
Wong explains to the Straight that he and his partners were looking to create a new restaurant near some water.
"New West is an engaging community filled with people who love to say hello when you walk down the sidewalk," he says. "It's very reminiscent of the areas I've lived in around Vancouver, which was Mount Pleasant and a little bit in Strathcona and Cambie—just little pockets of nice neighbourhoods."
Shieh says he's created the River Market around a concept that he calls “Food 360”. Everything is visible, including the chef cooking in the Wild Rice kitchen and the back areas of the nearby Donald’s Market. There’s a garden out front by the water, where volunteers grow herbs and blueberries that will be served to customers.
Shieh explains that his company is trying to create an “activity economy” at the River Market. “Value comes from what your customers can do with you,” he says.
One of his newest tenants is Re-Up BBQ, which has created a buzz in Vancouver with its street food. The 30-year-old cofounder, Michael Kaisaris, sits down for a few minutes to talk about why he and his wife recently bought a 100-year-old character home on a corner lot in the city.
He points out that it cost about three-fifths as much as a comparable house in East Vancouver.
“We really wanted the authentic urban experience,” Kaisaris says. “It has public transit. It has history and community—and all of those things are organic. They haven’t been forced on the city.”
At the next table, the local NDP MLA, Dawn Black, is having lunch.
NDP MLA Dawn Black likes the changes in New Westminster.
She tells the Straight that she’s excited by what’s happening downtown and loves dining at Wild Rice. “This area along Columbia Street was known as the Miracle Mile early in our history,” she says. “We may get back to that kind of economic development and potential in New Westminster as we go through this revitalization. And more and more people are moving here.”