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Meet Downtown New West’s biggest landlord
David Sarraf isn’t quite the King of Columbia Street yet. But he’s working on it.
Sarraf recently acquired his fifth building on Downtown New Westminster’s main drag, making him one of the strip’s most prolific landlords. His holdings include the building housing The British Store; the block of two buildings, including the Paramount, between Mckenzie Street and the new Trapp & Holbrook development; as well as the building kitty-corner from it across Columbia that houses a DNA testing lab, a cigar store and pizza shop amongst its myriad tenants.
Sarraf’s latest property is at the southeast corner of Sixth and Columbia, directly across from the police station.
He also owns other buildings in the city, including a law office on Carnarvon beside the Supreme Court and a couple of houses further Uptown that are also zoned for commercial use.
All of the buildings are older, and much to the delight of the city’s heritage planner Julie Schueck, Sarraf is committed to restoring and maintaining much of their historic characteristics.
“He’s really giving those buildings back their lives,” said Schueck. “He’s putting commercial uses back into them. We can’t make every building a museum.”
Sarraf, as affable and gregarious as the King of Kensington neighbourhood patriarch portrayed by actor Al Waxman on Canadian television for five years, loves New West’s old buildings. Three years ago he didn’t even know how to get to the city.
That changed following a conversation with city administrator Lisa Spitale as he shopped around for opportunities after scaling back his chain of kitchenware shops.
“She was so enthusiastic and excited,” recalled Sarraf. “I thought ‘Oh my god!’”
As a businessman Sarraf saw an opportunity to get into the city as it was on the rise. Commercial properties could be had for less money than other areas of the Lower Mainland but still benefitted from ready access to the entire region. They just needed a little care and attention.
“If the building makes sense, I can fix them up,” said Sarraf.
In fact, he does most of the work himself, his tools, brushes, buckets and ladders piled into an old van.
“Keeping heritage is harder, but it’s more fun,” said Sarraf.
That’s music to Schueck’s ears.
“It’s every heritage planner’s dream,” she said. “You want people realizing owning heritage is an advantage, it gives you a marketing advantage.”
Sarraf is the first to admit he’s not in the property game to lose money. But a little care, a lot of elbow grease and a positive attitude can go a long way to revitalizing a building, attracting new tenants, bringing renewed life to an area.
“You should attract good people to the neighbourhood,” said Sarraf. “You should not have losers as tenants. If you bring bad tenants, you are shooting yourself in the foot.”
“He’s making them leasable, so people want to go in,” said Schueck.
A case in point is 631 Columbia St., between the massage school and McKenzie Street. A seemingly nondescript modern brick building, it’s actually the old Holmes Block, designed in 1899 by Fred D. Bauer. It then became known as the Collister Block when it housed Collister W.S. & Co., a dry goods and millinery store. In 1960 it was converted to a Fields department store and then a grocery store.
The building’s original upper bay windows are still somewhere behind the modern brick facade, said Schueck.
And while Sarraf said restoring those would be a big project for down the road, he did pull up a lot of drywall to expose the original brick interior walls in hallways and some of the office spaces. He restored a mysterious brick alcove and turned it into a quiet reading area. He saved a giant safe and displayed other artifacts he found in the building’s basement and storage areas, like an antique ladder, a vintage stretcher and an old cash register.
Sarraf’s latest acquisition will need a lot of attention. The roof and windows are in rough shape. The brick in the back alley was painted an ugly yellow years ago. The detritus of previous tenants is still scattered in offices and storage spaces.
But, said Sarraf, he’s ready to get to work.
That’s good for Columbia Street, Schueck says.
“It’s a snowball effect,” she said. “If this building or this building looks great, then more people get interested in the street.”