By Kelvin Gawley
A cafe bursting with hipsters and young stroller-pushing parents. A shop selling $9.50 juices next door to a gluten-free bakery. A microbrewery serving IPAs in mason jars.
This isn’t Brooklyn, East Vancouver or even Fort Langley. It’s the new face of Abbotsford’s historic downtown.
“As you can see, there’s been phenomenal changes,” says Gerry Palmer.
The lawyer and president of the Abbotsford Downtown Business Association moved his office to Essendene Avenue in 1997, expecting to be among the first in a revitalization of the area.
“We thought we were the beginning of a wave and it was a really, really slow wave.”
But that wave is finally here, he says, and it is only going to pick up speed. Twenty years ago, Palmer was surrounded by empty storefronts, thrift stores and other businesses attracted to the area primarily for its cheap rent.
Now, he’s flanked by hip boutiques targeted at a younger demographic.
“I think the most recent successes have been the ones that appeal to the younger crowd – you know, the guys with the lumberjack beards, etcetera,” he said. “I don’t understand that group … but I’m glad to see them down here.”
He said the chic shops, cafes and restaurants represent a certain flavour that has long been absent in the area, but he hopes that it doesn’t become the only flavour.
One such business across the street from Palmer’s office, the Habit Project, sells cold-pressed juices for nearly $10 per 473 ml bottle. Co-owner Mariah Vermeer says they sell the juices to people who used to drive to Vancouver to buy similar products but they also hope to “educate” more reluctant customers like Palmer.
The nutritionist said each serving of juice contains the equivalent nutrients of two pounds of fresh produce. Compared to a salad of the same weight, the juice is a bargain, Vermeer said.
Habit has been pressing juices in Chilliwack for two years but their Abbotsford location is their first storefront. Vermeer said she and her business partner – who’s also her sister – chose the historic downtown precisely because of the changing dynamics in the area.
“I think that there’s just so much more life there now,” Vermeer said. “Last Saturday, the streets were packed with people walking around and stopping at different shops and you wouldn’t see that life four years ago.”
That lively atmosphere is not just attractive to entrepreneurs selling goods and services. It also sells condos.
A slick video promoting the upcoming Upper Montrose condo development seeks to capitalize on the cool factor. The 90-second spot spins through Oldhand Cafe, Duft and Co. Bakery, Fieldhouse Brewing, Haven Yoga, Spruce Collective and more, showing the faces of local entrepreneurs creating a sense of place in the neighbourhood.
Using neighbourhood dynamics to sell condos is not unusual in Vancouver’s Gastown and Yaletown but it’s much less common in the Fraser Valley, according to Chris Milton with Fifth Avenue Real Estate Marketing, the firm that commissioned the video.
“Abbotsford is becoming a really attractive place for a lot of people,” he said.
And he appears to be right, as more than 70 per cent of units were sold by May 16. The development currently under construction at the corner of Pauline Street and Montrose Avenue will feature 108 units ranging from 1 to 3 bedrooms. The Pauline-side ground floor will include four live/work units where entrepreneurs will be able to run a service business and live in the same place.
The building will also have bike lockers and a room set aside to receive parcels from online orders. Milton says it all adds up to a modern condo building built to accommodate the new demands in downtown Abbotsford.
The project is one of several set to dramatically increase the number of housing units in the area in the coming months and years.
Palmer expects the increased foot traffic to create a stronger sense of place and a safer neighbourhood, with more citizen eyes on the street day and night.
As development and change rolls ahead, Palmer said it’s important for the historic downtown to remain historic. He said part of what makes the area special and attractive is its local small businesses and lack of chain stores.
“It’s all people following their dreams with their own business plan,” he said.