COLUMN: Should we risk inviting people Uptown?

The plaza outside London Drugs in Uptown has no public seating at all. The plan is to re-introduce elements, the architect says, to see what works. - Mario Bartel/NewsLeader file
The plaza outside London Drugs in Uptown has no public seating at all. The plan is to re-introduce elements, the architect says, to see what works.
— image credit: Mario Bartel/NewsLeader file

Wouldn’t it be nice if Uptown was a vibrant gathering place for the community?

If it had wonderful public spaces, where residents could mingle, linger and enjoy?

If we’d say to a friend or family member, “What do you feel like doing?” and they’d say “I don’t know—why not head Uptown?”

As though going there were an end in itself?

As I’ve written in the past, Uptown is the busiest retail area in the city. By that measure, it succeeds.

Where it fails, though, is in its public spaces. We visit Uptown to shop or get a coffee, but we’re not encouraged to stay and get to know our neighbours better.

There isn’t much in terms of public space (or private space we consider public) within a block of Sixth and Sixth.

Created with flickr slideshow.

The biggest and most important, the plaza outside Royal City Centre, I’ll get to in a moment.

The other locations include outside the library, where there are a few benches, and outside London Drugs at Westminster Centre.

This latter spot is a case study for Uptown, a pivot between negative and positive street life captured in a single space.

For years, that plaza had some planters to sit on, and a large fenced-off seating area. But a group of biker-types that “lingered” there was seen to be scaring customers away, so Uptown Property Group redesigned the space, and removed all seating from the plaza. Now there’s nowhere to sit, unless you buy a coffee at Starbucks to use their small patio.

Today, this public space is neither positive or negative. It’s simply neutral. From a business standpoint, the situation has improved. No intimidating-looking folks, nobody begging change.

The plaza was redesigned by Bruce Hemstock through his firm PWL Partnership. A landscape architect, Bruce is also a Moody Park resident and no slouch in terms of designing beautiful, vibrant, welcoming public spaces. His firm designed the multi-award winning Westminter Pier Park, CBC Plaza, and several parks at False Creek. They also redesigned Prospect Point in Stanley Park after the 2006 windstorm.

At Westminster Centre, Bruce told me, the plan is to re-introduce elements to the bare plaza over time and see what works.

Uptown is struggling with a challenge facing many cities: What will happen if we encourage people to linger?

Will the streets teem with vibrancy and positive energy?

Or will it become a landscape of despair, where the sight of too many rough-looking, disturbed or desperate people scares the others away?

At the heart of the neighbourhood, at Sixth and Sixth, small interventions are possible that have low risk, and the possibility of great reward.

The plaza outside Royal City Centre should be the “piazza” or civic square of the area.

LEFT: Removing visual barriers like the shrubs and bringing the seating around to face into the plaza would give diners something to look at and add life and energy to the 'public square' at Sixth & Sixth.
Chris Bryan/NewsLeader

Today, though, there are overgrown shrubs in planters. The “gateway” circle in the middle is ringed with benches, but anchored by an ugly sign that screams “remember Expo 86?” Walking through that gateway means running a gauntlet of cigarette smoke.

My ideal situation would be to see mall owner Strathallen would hire someone like Bruce Hemstock to do a full redesign.

When I ask his opinion, Bruce is more diplomatic and isn’t as hard on the space as I am.

He says the folks at the mall did a good job designing the space at the time.

“Perhaps it’s a bit old and dated,” he told me.

“Could we update it to the 21st century? Of course.”

A couple of quick, easy wins that Bruce said could help is to “animate” the edges of the plaza. Today, White Spot’s patio is hidden behind a high wall, gate and shrubs and is mostly oriented to Sixth Avenue.

Not an attractive place to sit.

But people would absolutely love that patio if it were just marked with a low wrought-iron fence, and some of the seating was brought around to face the plaza. People love people—to watch and be watched.

Across the plaza, for some reason, is a defunct Esquires coffee. Here at the busiest pedestrian intersection in New Westminster, no café should fail.

A new café could be redesigned to face outwards, with most of its seating outside, facing Sixth Street.

LEFT: The busiest pedestrian intersection in New West — where no café should shut its doors. A new coffee shop here should turns its focus outward with a large patio.
Chris Bryan/NewsLeader

Even if Strathallen lacks the money for a full redesign of the the plaza, those two small adjustments could make a world of difference.

The space would become more of a draw—always good for business.

And it would reduce nuisance behaviours which is good for business too.

“When you have activity, you minimize the marginal activities,” Bruce says. “No one likes to do negative things in full view.”

Another simple idea that Bruce says could help animate Uptown is adding “parklets.”

These involve taking over a couple of parking spots with outdoor seating.

His company has the grand opening this weekend for one it designed at 21st Avenue and Main Street in Vancouver. Parklets add a bit of interest and design flair to the street, and have been a big hit in cities seeking to increase public space in areas where it’s in short supply.

“That’s what creates energy, and that’s what creates an interesting sidewalk,” Bruce says, adding that a parklet might work outside Tim Hortons at Sixth and Belmont streets. Uptown Property Group did put one outside London Drugs last summer for its Uptown Unplugged music concerts, which was great, but only temporary.

One spot I like for a parklet is near Anni’s Dairy Bar up the street.

It’s close to the Seventh Avenue bike route, and next to a hair salon and a tattoo parlour.

It could be a popular place for NWSS students to hang out. And anyone, for that matter.

Who knows?

Can we imagine a more lively Uptown?

More vibrant?

Do we dare risk it?

• Chris Bryan is editor of the NewsLeader.

Created with flickr slideshow.
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