River Market at Westminster Quay

Going to market.

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Consider the era of the rise of the waterfront public market. In the 1970s, Granville Island, love child of a cement plant and the federal government, was transformed from industrial backwater to West Coast destination. Then came Lonsdale Quay, which sputtered somewhat before eventually blossoming as the North Shore’s other go-to shopping destination. But Westminster Quay Public Market languished long and almost succumbed. That is, until 2008, when Mark Shieh arrived on the scene and commenced resuscitation as the newly rebranded River Market.

“The intersection of commerce and culture is something I’m curious about,” says Shieh, a civil engineer–trained Mayfield Fellow who also served on the Vancouver City Planning Commission. Over the years, he’d followed the fortunes of public markets with interest. “There was a lot of excitement, and everyone thought just being on the waterfront would lead to a thriving market. But we learned that markets are complex and hard to cultivate,” he says. A shift in supermarket styles (several have co-opted the farmer’s market feel, Shieh suggests) led to more competition right in consumers’ neighbourhoods.

Not to be deterred, he and his sister Leslie, who has a Ph.D. in urban planning, founded Take Root Properties. “Our motivation was to use real estate to enrich community life—or at least explore new models where private development could serve a social purpose,” says Shieh. “The challenge for us was how to revitalize a public market without it turning into a mall.” Shieh explains that they went back to basics and considered the semantics of public and market. “We had to ask ourselves, if you can probably now do all your shopping online, why would you choose to go to a physical place?” For them, the definition of market was based on three pillars: commerce, culture, and community. “We believe the future of retail is shifting from the ‘experience economy’ to the ‘activity economy’, where value comes from people doing things together,” he suggests.

In River Market (now 98 per cent leased), Shieh has stayed true to his philosophy of working with locally grounded businesses. For example, the anchor grocery store is Donald’s Market, which consistently wins accolades as Vancouver’s best independent grocery store. “When you shop locally,” says Shieh, “you’re really going beyond a commercial transaction. You’re making an investment for your community.” Together, River Market and Donald’s match 1 per cent of all money spent at Donald’s and put it back into One Prize, what Shieh calls “a community piggy bank fund.” Those funds help crowd-source projects such as PopLuck, a series of community pot luck picnics and dinners held across New Westminster, including at Westminster Pier Park and on the walkway to the market.

“When you shop locally, you’re really going beyond a commercial transaction. You’re making an investment for your community.”

Shieh also walks the sustainable walk, as he advocates the market’s Food 360 philosophy that helps people “reconnect with the full cycle of food,” from growing vegetables and buying organic and local produce to enjoying a meal from one of the market’s independent restaurants. Along the boardwalk are volunteer-maintained edible garden plots, and a zero-waste compost program is well under way.

While you can certainly drive to River Market (there’s ample parking), it’s just as easy to hop on the SkyTrain, which gets you there in 25 minutes from downtown Vancouver. Once at New Westminster Station, it’s a couple of minutes’ walk over a footbridge. Chances are you’ll enter via the “Curious Floor”, which gives a hint of the more alternative style at play.

Upper-floor retail is a known challenge, so Shieh has worked at attracting some more unusual and intriguing businesses. Among them is the Vancouver Circus School, the Music Box Music & Theatre Academy, and Hanson International Academy. Among the range of diverse dining options on the ground level, or “Hungry Floor”, you’ll find outposts of Commercial Drive’s La Grotta del Formaggio and cafeteria-styled Longtail Kitchen, run by Angus An, who also owns Maenam, widely regarded as the region’s top Thai restaurant.

Earlier this year, Vancouver’s original modern Chinese room shuttered its erstwhile gritty downtown Vancouver location to concentrate fully on Wild Rice Market Bistro, where the restaurant boasts an expansive south-facing patio and sweeping water views. Much-loved and long-running Wally’s Burgers is here, as is a thoroughly irresistible pulled-pork sandwich, courtesy of Re-Up BBQ. There’s more, of course, from the cheerful surroundings of the Paddlewheeler Pub to cappuccinos at Tre Galli Gelato Caffe and crepes à la minute at Crepes Des Amis. Missing are the likes of Starbucks and McDonald’s, which just don’t fit in the grand scheme of things.

“It’s not that we’re against malls or multinational chains,” says Shieh, “but it seems our economy is tipped in favour of large companies. We thought having a more diverse opportunity for small, local independents was really important.” Does that qualify him as a socially conscious developer? “That’s a big title,” he says, laughing. “We do this for profit. We’re trying to make money! But we’re also hoping to connect money, people, and ideas.”

Looking ahead, that primary aim of connecting with people is beginning to pay off. And he’s convinced there’s “still plenty of momentum in waterfront sites,” with scheduled major developments in the next few years that will link River Market and its boardwalk to still more people, who will further build the community. Understandably, he’s bullish on New West, which he sees as being to Vancouver what Brooklyn is in relation to New York. “I believe that as Vancouver grows and we think more about the regional context, there are a lot of exciting things happening outside of the downtown core,” he says. “Innovation happens around the edges.”

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April 14, 2014