The trajectory of New Westminster’s historic downtown has embodied a lot of the conversations around downtown renewal over the last few decades. For years, Columbia Street struggled to compete with newer shopping centres, while the surrounding area declined. In the mid-eighties, the construction of the Skytrain and Westminster Quay shopping centre were promised to bring new life to the area, but that didn’t last. After its novelty wore off, Westminster Quay languished through several reincarnations and was largely empty for a long while, while Columbia Street relied on wedding shops for its primary retail strength.
It’s been said that the real estate boom in Vancouver is responsible for New West’s downtown renaissance, along with the construction of many residential towers on redeveloped industrial lands. Independent small businesses are now thriving alongside the wedding shops on Columbia Street and Sixth Avenue, while Westminster Quay has rebranded itself as the River Market at Westminster Quay and focused on food and the creative sector to allow it to become a community hub.
I spent the day in the area today, exploring the River Market with my Mom. The cold snap didn’t allow us to wander as far as we’d have liked, but we found more than enough to keep us busy at the Quay and in the surrounding area. The Quay is divided into the “Hungry Floor” (which is just as you’d expect) and the “Curious Floor” (which is dominated by arts organizations and creative sector businesses). We predictably spent most of our time in the food zone. There are a number of Vancouver transplants, anchored by a branch of Donald’s Market and including La Grotta Del Formaggio, Wild Rice, Re-Up BBQ, Longtail Restaurant, and Wally’s Burgers. When you include Fratelli Bakery’s branch farther up Columbia, it’s no wonder people have taken to calling New Westminster East Van East.
My mother and I limited our tasting today to Dim Sum at Wild Rice and sweet crêpes at Crêpe Des Amis (expertly made by its Parisian proprietor). Unfortunately, after that we had room for no more. It would be fun to go back with a larger group and do a proper tasting tour of all the River Market has to offer.
The management has also done a good job of making the Quay a community magnet, with lots of seating, family-friendly events, and initiatives like a book-sharing station. It creates a city square sensibility, provides indoor amenities that connect with the riverside boardwalk and Quayside Park, as well as providing incentive for walkers to move beyond the Quay into the revitalized Columbia Street shopping district. I’m looking forward to going back on a warmer day and exploring further.