Half a century ago, a visitor to Prince Rupert's Cow Bay waterfront would have encountered a dense cluster of canneries, boatyards, net lofts and fishing vessels at anchor, according to a press release from the Prince Rupert Port Authority. Today, its appearance may be different, but it remains the heart of this coastal city.

While few original buildings still stand, Cow Bay retains reminders of Prince Rupert's heritage. The district continues to thrive as a hub for city culture and commerce.

Now, Cow Bay is the canvas for a new community-inspired vision of life on Prince Rupert's waterfront.

Late in 2011, the port authority conducted focus groups that contributed to a working vision for the future of Cow Bay. The focus group participants included merchants, community service agencies, heritage groups, First Nations, environmental agencies, recreational and tourism bodies, educators and cultural associations.

The port authority secured the services of the Office of McFarlane Biggar (OMB), a Canadian architectural and design firm, to synthesize the input. Using feedback from the focus groups, OMB has produced an architectural vision focused on three key sites with the potential to increase public access and enjoyment of Prince Rupert's scenic waterfront.

That vision was unveiled to the public at a community open house on Tuesday, May 15th.

"At the heart of the guiding principles used to create this vision was the objective to create more beautified public spaces for Prince Rupert that are pedestrian-friendly, well-developed and multi-purposed," said Steve McFarlane, principal architect with OMB. "Having attractive and usable waterfront areas gives a community a sense of pride and place, and necessary for public gatherings and social interactions among residents and visitors alike."

OMB studied other waterfront communities that succeeded in transforming historic commercial and industrial areas into more widely-used spaces, such as Vancouver's Granville Island. The architectural firm also examined other port communities that cater to cruise tourism, such as Juneau and Victoria.

At every stage of planning, it was important that Cow Bay's authenticity be maintained. OMB used archival research to identify key elements and historical values representing various industries in Prince Rupert.

"The historic industrial nature of Cow Bay will remain at the forefront of structural designs, and anything designed will relate to what exists in the area," said McFarlane. "By capturing key elements and common denominators throughout all of them, we have created a new typology of building structure. We feel this hybrid approach maintains the industrial character, but restores openness and lends a tremendous amount of flexibility to the buildings for mixed usage."

The architects explained that while their architectural renderings show all new developments as three-story buildings, it is in order to depict the maximum allowable height and scale for the sites, which have yet to be finalized.

One of the major issues addressed in the vision is the desire to slow traffic through Cow Bay, encouraging pedestrian access. OMB has suggested the creation of streets without curbs, allowing retail and restaurants to use outdoor space. Trees, benches and art installations along the roads and in key spots will further the appeal of the waterfront walkways. As McFarlane explained, bringing trees into Cow Bay could be one of the most dramatic developments to the area.

"Trees with actual roots in the ground are more inviting, and can make streets appear populated even in the absence of people," he said. "The best streets in the world have a sense of arrival and departing. And it doesn't need to be some grand civic gesture to be effective. It can be understated and still powerful."

For those members of the public who missed the open house opportunity on Tuesday, May 15, the visual materials drafted by OMB including the scale model of Cow Bay will be available for viewing in the Port Interpretive Centre when it opens officially later this spring.