Retail Insider continues its Photo Tour series to provide a window into retail hotspots across the country that are continuing to see changes while dealing with the after effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
This edition takes us to well-known Gastown neighborhood in Vancouver, beginning with Water Street, then West on Cordova Street and then onto West Pender Street. Gastown is known for its whistling Steam Clock and retail mix ranging from high end boutiques to souvenir shops – all framed with historical buildings. The area is also seeing a resurgence with new retailers opening stores — including Miami-based luxury multi-brand retailer The Webster which is on the hunt for a Gastown store.
History of the Gastown Neighborhood
The history books for the Vancouver area notes that Gastown was Vancouver’s first neighborhood. A saloon owner, “Gassy” Jack Deighton, known for the gift of gabbing (or “gassing”) was the cornerstone of the neighborhood in the mid 1800s and the surrounding area became colloquially known as “Gassy’s town”. The name evolved over time to become “Gastown”.
The area prospered with the lumber and seaport industries growing as well as the arrival of the railway connecting the region to the rest of the region and country. The balance of the 1800s saw department stores arrive in the area, including Spencer’s, a Hudson’s Bay Company warehouse, Woodward’s, Fairbanks Morse, and Army and Navy stores. Food retailers like Malkins and Kelly Douglas also set up bases to begin trading from as well.
Gastown fell into decline through the Great Depression and fell into disrepair until an effort to preserve Gastown’s history and architecture began in the 1960s. Buildings were renovated and streets were paved in brick to make the area appear even more historical in terms of visual elements. The neighbourhood continued to see revitalizing efforts and was designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 2009. In reality, it continues to struggle with crime and vagrancy given its proximity to the socially challenged Downtown Eastside.
Breaking Up Gastown
The Photo Tour of Gastown is broken into three main sections. The tour starts at the Waterfront Station in the downtown core and heads eastward on Water Street to Carrall Street. After a visit to Maple Tree Square, the tour then touches upon the Woodward’s development at West Cordova Street and Abbott Street, before wrapping up in the Victory Square neighborhood.
- Water Street
- Woodward’s Complex
- Victory Square Neighborhood
Water Street in Gastown
Waterfront Station is a an historic public transportation facility and the main transit terminus for transit lines including Skytrain, West Coast Express and Seabus. Within it are several food vendors and restaurants which is the start of the Gastown retail tour. Waterfront Station is also next to the Harbour Centre with its “Lookout” tower atop the office building making it a prominent landmark on the city’s skyline. A Sears store operated at Harbour Centre in the 1980s and from the 1950s to 1970s Eaton’s operated a large store in the building formerly occupied by upscale Spencer’s.
Water Street (From Richards Street to Cambie Street)
The typical downtown Vancouver street layout follows a militant grid format; however, Water Street in Gastown begins a series of radical non-confirming streets that jut out at 45 degree angles to follow the shoreline. The photo tour began at Waterfront Station on West Cordova Street, which is one of the militant grid streets, and continued east to encounter the first 45 degree, non-grid street branching off called Water Street.
The northern building at 375 Water Street is called “The Landing” with the iconic Steamworks restaurant. In years past, the space housed a Polo Ralph Lauren/Polo Country Store as well as brands such as Snowflake furs and Rogers Chocolates. Across the street is a ‘Flatiron-like’ building with a Buro espresso bar in the ground level.
The first city block of Water Street (300 block) between West Cordova Street and Cambie Street includes several souvenir shops for tourists, but also a retailer featured in Retail Insider:
- Herschel Supply Co.: Its 5,000 square foot North American flagship opened in June 2018 at 347 Water Street.
The city block includes several retailers such as the Whitecaps Official Store, Little Mountain Vancouver and Vancouver-based fashion brand The Latest Scoop which opened next to Gastown’s historic Steam Clock.
One historical building on this block is linked to the Hudson’s Bay Company and is currently a family-run souvenir store named “Hudson House Trading Company”. Built in 1894, the Romanesque Revival style building with round-arched windows, brick facades, and rough-dressed stone trim was the Hudson’s Bay Company Warehouse.
Water Street (From Cambie Street to Abbott Street)
Continuing on from the historic “Gastown Steam Clock” is at the corner of Cambie Street and Water Street. The block is actually the street’s “100 block” as Water Street, given its configuration, lacks a 200 block.
The 100 block of Water Street between Cambie Street and Abbott Street includes several souvenir shops for tourists and retailers featured in Retail Insider including:
- Kit and Ace: Redevelopment resulted in this location being relocated from 165 Water Street in March 2018.
- Maison Kitsuné: Paris-based fashion and music brand (and café) opened in August 2021 at 155 Water Street spanning about 2,400 square feet with about 30 feet of street frontage.
- Oak + Fort: Vancouver-based fashion and lifestyle retailer will be expanding into its flagship store in Gastown in 5,000 square feet at 151 Water Street from its current location of about 2,000 square feet in the same neighbourhood.
Before leaving this city block, a brick building was demolished on the corner that used to be home to the “Flying Pig Gastown” restaurant and “The Australian Boot Company”.
Water Street (From Abbott Street to Carrell Street)
Across Abbott Street from the former Flying Pig is the local Lamplighter Public House which begins the last block of Water Street for this photo tour. This is the “00” block with upscale multi-brand retailer Secret Location occupying 1 Water Street.
The “00” block of Water Street includes several souvenir shops for tourists, and also retailers featured in Retail Insider:
- Filson: Seattle-based heritage fashion brand opened its first Canadian store in Gastown in May 2017.
- COS (‘Collection of Style’): H&M‘s upscale fashion brand opened its fourth Canadian location in Gastown in March 2017.
- Native Shoes: Vancouver-based footwear brand opened its first standalone retail space in Gastown in December 2017.
- CNTRBND: Toronto-based multi-brand luxury menswear retailer relocated its Vancouver store in November 2021 from the Yaletown area to Gastown.
- Aesop: Upscale Australian skin care brand opened its 615 square foot Gastown location in July 2015.
Other retailers include 28 Water pop-up space, John Fluevog, gravitypope, Roden Gray, and Secret Location.
Maple Tree Square
Water Street ends at an awkward intersectio, named “Maple Tree Square” where Water Street, Carrall Street, Alexander Street and Powell Street meet. Once home to the now-vandalized “Gassy Jack” statue, it is now an open-air square considered the birthplace of Vancouver.
The city square includes a couple retailers featured in Retail Insider:
- Le Labo: Estée Lauder-owned fragrance brand opened its second Canadian freestanding store in Gastown in January 2019.
- Rains (Noble Gentleman): Denmark-based waterproof product-focused brand opened its first standalone storefront in May 2019. The store unfortunately shuttered during the pandemic.
With a nod to Vancouver’s history with former homegrown department store retailer Woodward’s, the Woodward’s Building is a historic building originally constructed in 1903 for the Woodward’s department store. The redevelopment was completed in September 2010. The “W” neon sign sits on top of a replica Eiffel Tower which was removed before demolition of the original store. A new replica tower features energy-saving LED technology.
The Woodward’s complex is home to a London Drugs, Nesters Market grocery store, JJ Bean Coffee as well as other financial, health and food services.
Victory Square Neighborhood
Victory Square is a Gastown neighborhood named after its namesake park located between West Hastings and West Pender Streets bounded by Hamilton Street and Cambie Street.
The neighborhood includes a couple retailers featured in Retail Insider:
- Avenue Road: Upscale Toronto-based furniture store opened its second Canadian flagship showroom in January 2018.
- Major Interiors: The Fendi Casa, Bentley Home showroom spanning 5,000-square-feet opened in February 2018.
We had a very interesting photo walk around the Gastown neighborhood in downtown Vancouver and we hope you enjoyed coming along with us. Don’t forget to check out our other retail photo tours and thank you for taking this tour with us.
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