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Retail in the 'hood? Urban planners, designers re-imagine a part of Coquitlam's Austin Heights

Registration for Urbanarium's The Mixing Middle competition closes Nov. 2.

Take a walk around your block.

Are shops, businesses and offices close by? And could you see your neighbours’ homes transform with storefronts or cafés in their back yards?

Those are some of the ideas that dozens of international urban planners, designers, artists and students will be dreaming about as they re-imagine parts of four Metro Vancouver neighbourhoods — including Austin Heights in Coquitlam — for Urbanarium's The Mixing Middle competition.

Approved by the Architectural Institute of B.C., the open contest calls for ideas for how commercial enterprises such as corner stores, eateries and doctor’s offices could fit into single-family residential areas, offering more vitality as well as goods and services for the residents living there.

The winner of the best Urbanarium's design in Coquitlam, Surrey, Vancouver or North Vancouver will receive the grand prize of $10,000. Another $10,000 will be awarded by Urbanarium’s planners’ advisory committee that includes Genevieve Bucher, Coquitlam’s director of community planning who’s currently overseeing the city’s Southwest Housing Review.

The competition deadline is Nov. 2. The winners will be named in February.

For the Coquitlam component, the competition focuses in on four blocks south of Rona and the John B Pub in Austin Heights, between

  • Dansey and Rochester avenues
  • Marmont and Lebleu streets

Executive director Amy Nugent told the Tri-City News last week that it’s the first time The Mixing Middle has featured Coquitlam.  

“We want to see what happens when you have trades within domestic realms,” she said. “The Tri-Cities is ripe to explore that.”


Nugent said the COVID-19 pandemic has had an impact on the competition, as more residents are now working remotely and people are finding out what’s close to their homes to buy local.

Because of the lockdown, small businesses have never been so vital, she said, and there’s pressure on municipalities to intensify neighbourhoods to allow owners to make full use of their home and land.

“We’re building on the lessons learned during the pandemic,” she told the Tri-City News. “We’ve all become a little bit more aware of what our neighbourhoods have to offer. It’s about that five-minute walking distance to get to places instead of hopping in your car and commuting.”

Nugent added, “It’s not about large redevelopment. It’s about inspiring ways to integrate non-residential use and add community vitality.”

Already, Urbanarium has received 30 registrations for its competition including from teams in the United States and India. 

Registrants can choose their preferred community to study; however, hometown entrants will be paired with their own city. During the competition, registrants will also receive mentorship. The winning submissions will be presented before the respective city councils.

“In the past, we’ve really seen some things start to change with the municipalities in terms of setbacks, building heights, parking and zoning,” Nugent said, noting the four Coquitlam blocks were selected two months ago and residents living in the area haven’t been notified about the contest.

Andrew Merrill, Coquitlam’s director of development services, said the four blocks are designated Neighbourhood Attached Residential in the official community plan, and the city’s Housing Choices program permits three- and fourplex developments. “There are currently no plans to change this; however, we’ll see what the results of the competition are that we can learn from.”

Further, the city’s updated Commercial Zones Review allows for more flexibility under the the C-1 Local Commercial Zone, as well as for a wider range of business types. Home-based businesses are also permitted.

According to Urbanarium, about half of Canadian businesses are now based at home but 65 per cent of a typical residential lot in Metro Vancouver is vacant: 45 per cent in the front and 20 per cent at back.

Decades ago, having storefronts attached to houses was a common sight in the City of Vancouver but they were outlawed because of resistance from neighbours (largely noise and pollution complaints) and a desire to have deep front lawns for aesthetic reasons.

Still, they’re making a come-back.

This year, the City of Vancouver unanimously passed a motion to allow bids for neighbourhood grocery stores in residential areas. Over the past 10 years, 350 corner stores disappeared in Vancouver; only 34 remain today.

• To enter the competition, visit