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A new look for the waterfront core of the City of North Vancouver.Frances Bula/The Globe and Mail

Stroll through the rapidly transforming Lower Lonsdale area of the once-suburban city of North Vancouver and it’s easy to spot that the gentrification bingo card fills up pretty quickly.

An Earnest Ice Cream, with vegan coronation grape and oatmeal brown sugar on the board? Tick. The Polygon Gallery, with tasteful art books and highly crafted gifts next to a monthly montage of moody black and white photographs? Tick. A gigantic Tap & Barrel brewpub on the main street, and tiny little Streetcar Brewing down another alley? Tick.

The signs are undeniable: An ice-skating rink set amid the former shipyards that once formed the economic foundation of the city. Kokoro Tokyo Mazesoba, purveyor of a distinctive new style of ramen that, until now, could only be sampled in Vancouver’s West End is now, also, present. Caffè Artigiano, overlooking an industrial-style boardwalk (formerly the Burrard Dry Dock Pier) that has become a favourite with locals that love to stroll the tight cluster of downtown streets. And then there’s Seaside Hotel – a new upscale hotel done up in minimalist style – with rough-hewn boards on the walls and marble-tiled rain-shower cubicles.

That’s the new look for the waterfront core of the city of North Vancouver, an area that – just a 12-minute SeaBus ride across Burrard Inlet from Vancouver’s central business district – is beginning to feel like a seamless extension of Vancouver’s booming downtown.

Shedding the suburban image

Unlike the District of North Vancouver and the Corporation of West Vancouver, both still solidly suburban cities on the North Shore, the city of North Vancouver is rapidly evolving in a different way.

For one thing, it’s packing apartments and townhouses into the blocks near Lonsdale – its main thoroughfare – from 15th down to the SeaBus landing. The city’s plans envision an office and health cluster at the top end. The waterfront area, which for years had only a small Granville Island-style market as its main attraction, will be designated as its “cultural precinct.”

The look and feel is all very different from the North Vancouver of the 1960s, back when the waterfront was dominated by cheap apartments, dodgy bars, and port industries (not to mention the forgettable Seven Seas floating ship/restaurant), while the upper blocks more closely resembled something straight out of Pleasantville.

“The North Shore was always seen as a bedroom community,” Mayor Linda Buchanan says. “We can no longer see ourselves that way.”

To that end, the city has invested a significant amount of money developing charming little areas and entertainment facilities with the aim of attracting new people and businesses.

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The Shipyards Commons is one of the landmark rebuilds that has solidified North Vancouver's waterfront.Frances Bula/The Globe and Mail

North Vancouver’s bill for its almost-ready new ice rink and water park, surrounded on all sides by refurbished or new buildings, is about $35-million, and a further $3-million has been earmarked for a new museum and archives building. The city currently contributes $200,000 a year to the new Polygon Gallery, and is considering a request for more.

Throughout the quaint historic district around the SeaBus landing, there are small, pleasant urban touches: walkways that entice pedestrians around buildings, into alleyways, onto above-street decks and into small gardens.

Investing in development attracts business

It’s initiatives such as these that inspired the Executive Hotels & Resorts chain, which also operates the recently completed luxury EXchange Hotel in downtown Vancouver, to build its latest hotel here.

“The area has grown in the last five to 10 years from rundown properties to sophisticated condos and retail,” says Roland Monteiro, general manager of the EXchange who’s also overseeing the Seaside operation. “The owner – a Sayani family member, who owns a chain of hotels in B.C. – grew up in North Vancouver and he saw the potential [and] the opportunity to [be] a part of the growth.”

The escalating value of land in nearby cities, such as the city of Vancouver, has helped since it makes it harder for businesses catering to mid-price points to compete with those servicing the ultra-high-net-worth. The result is the disappearance of mid-range hotel. This prompts customers to look elsewhere and this demand catches the eye of smart developers.

Big business and high tax rates makes it tough for small retail

Mr. Monteiro considers North Vancouver’s Lower Lonsdale strip, the new Yaletown and, indeed, the area shares many of the same growing pains that were felt by other uber-hip, redeveloped industrial districts in Vancouver.

For one, it can be expensive, especially for small retailers.

“We still have high rates here,” says broker Ross Forman of FormanPilkington – his business devoted, in part, to filling vacant storefronts in the Lower Lonsdale area. He’s thrilled to have just leased to Hunter & Hare, a niche women’s clothing chain with locations in Vancouver’s Chinatown and Gastown that combines vintage with carefully selected new lines.

But he’s lost businesses as well, most recently Crocodile Baby.

“They couldn’t make it work in North Van,” Mr. Forman says. (In fairness, the business didn’t succeed in Vancouver either and the whole chain has recently changed hands.)

Mr. Forman says small businesses in the popular Lower Lonsdale area suffer from the same anomalous tax situation that is crushing many in Vancouver. The triple-net arrangements dictate that businesses must pay a share of property taxes which, particularly in some formerly profitable commercial areas, have risen precipitously. In cases where the land has been zoned for high-rise residential, costs can be even more prohibitive, with the taxes charged to property owners (and their renters) inflated to account for the potential addition of future buildings.

A walk around Lower Lonsdale reveals some of the effects. There are two darkened storefronts on the small block called Restaurant Row, while one corner of the upper floors of the market sits empty.

And it’s obvious, even in the space of 24 hours, that the feel and vibrancy of the area fluctuates. At times, like Friday nights when the market is running or a popular performer takes to the Shipyards District’s outdoor stage, it’s bustling. At others, even at high-noon on a long weekend, it can seem as though it’s barely on simmer.

North Vancouver still has room to grow

A number of urban experts point out that North Vancouver’s Lower Lonsdale is not a “complete” downtown.

“What it doesn’t have is a lot of high-density office space,” says Jay Wollenberg of Coriolis Consulting Corp., a veteran planning and retail consultant who helped with the Shipyards design.

Metro Vancouver is held up as an example around the world for its network of regional city and town centres that, like the city of North Vancouver’s, are linked by transit. But only a few of these places have succeeded at bringing in the kind of office building density and accompanying body heat that make a “real” downtown. In that respect, Burnaby’s Metrotown has led the way, with Surrey, Richmond and, more recently, New Westminster all in close pursuit.

In comparison, the city of North Vancouver struggles to attract visitors, let alone enough business to create a bustling, dense downtown core.

No doubt, that’s partly because it’s still perceived as difficult to get to, in spite of its visibility from downtown Vancouver and its SeaBus connection, Mr. Wollenberg says.

But it’s still not considered as accessible or as central as Metrotown.

Mayor Buchanan acknowledges that she monitors the amount of office workspace in the city, alert for any sign of a drop.

“We want to make sure we don’t lose any office space that we have.”

One strategy being pursued by Ms. Buchanan is to promote the concept of a health-economy cluster around the local hospital, Lions Gate, a regional facility located in the mid-Lonsdale area. The idea is to use health care businesses to fill in the missing elements of what a downtown core needs.

Despite this push to gentrify and grow, there are many North Vancouver supporters, who maintain the city is doing remarkably well with its transformation.

“The diversity of housing, the green design, the district energy system, they’re all good,” says Brent Toderian, the former chief planner for Vancouver who worked on North Vancouver’s public-benefits policies. “I’m a fan of North Vancouver’s evolving urbanism. They’re doing density well. If it was not next to Vancouver, it would be considered a pretty smart city for good urbanism.”

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