Vancouver’s Historic Gastown Amid Retail Rebound, but Some Say a Major Facelift is Needed [Feature]

Date:

Share post:

On April 12, the Sapphire Princess arrived at the Port of Vancouver, depositing roughly 1,700 people in downtown Vancouver’s waterfront at the doorstep of Gastown and marking the beginning of what’s expected to be a return-to-normal tourism and cruise ship season in the historic Vancouver district.  

Walley Wargolet. Photo: Gastown.org

The Sapphire Princess was the first of 331 cruise ships expected to arrive in town between now and October 24. Days after its arrival, Retail Insider visited Gastown with Gastown Business Improvement Association executive director Walley Wargolet, who pointed out ways the national historic site should be updated by local leaders, while also painting an optimistic picture for the neighbourhood’s long term retail prospects as it rebounds from a couple of tough years caused by reduced tourism, the work-from-home movement, and security and social problems spilling over from the troubled Downtown Eastside.

This isn’t the first time that revitalization of Gastown has become a hot topic around Vancouver. In the 1970s, civic leaders installed faux Victorian-era streetlights and red bricks on sidewalks and Water Street to “play-up” Gastown’s Victorian roots, this recent account in The Tyee describes.

Like Wargolet, other retail stakeholders interviewed by Retail Insider frame Gastown’s retail market as returning to strength, post-pandemic, with relatively low vacancy and a healthy mix of boutique shops, cozy cafes, international retailers, restaurants and improved alley activations. But for Gastown’s full potential to be realized, it needs a facelift, Wargolet said. And the City of Vancouver agrees.  

Iconic Steam Clock in Gastown in downtown Vancouver in April 2023. Photo: Lee Rivett
Iconic Former Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) Warehouse on Water Street in Gastown in downtown Vancouver in April 2023. Photo: Lee Rivett

“The neighborhoud was neglected by the city for quite a while, unfortunately,” Wargolet tells Retail Insider in a strolling interview. Over the last 15 to 20 years a lot of maintenance work has piled up, including painting the light fixtures and maintaining the cobblestone streets and brick sidewalks.

Wargolet is standing on the sidewalk at Water Street near Cambie Street, beside a section of smeared asphalt patching what used to be red bricks. On the street surface, the cobblestones here are heaving and sinking, with more asphalt patchwork visible. There are a few empty storefronts with for-lease signs in the windows, but not many. 

“The good news is over the course of the last couple of years, we’ve seen some of that (repair) work done.” Wargolet said, but adds that the work has been “piecemeal”. What’s really needed is a comprehensive public realm plan to reinvigorate the neighbourhood.

“Piecemeal” repairs to cobblestone on Water Street in Gastown in downtown Vancouver in April 2023. Photo: Lee Rivett
“Piecemeal” repairs to cobblestone in Maple Leaf Square (and former location of John “Gassy Jack” Deighton Statue) in Gastown in downtown Vancouver in April 2023. Photo: Lee Rivett

The city appears to agree. In an email to Retail Insider a city communications staffer said “Gastown’s streets and public spaces are in need of urgent repairs and major rehabilitation.”

Home to about 80,000 people and a diverse, commercial mix, the city recognizes the importance of supporting public life, economic vitality and cultural vibrancy in this neighbourhood, the email said, adding that Gastown’s public spaces should also be updated to reflect the histories and cultural significance of the Musqueam, Squamish, Tsleil-Waututh Nations, as well as urban indigenous communities. 

Carrall Street in Gastown in downtown Vancouver in April 2023. Photo: Lee Rivett
Water Street in Gastown in downtown Vancouver in April 2023. Photo: Lee Rivett

In late May 2023, staff will bring forward a report to Council presenting options and seeking direction on the revitalization of Gastown’s streets and public spaces, according to the staffer’s email. 

Wargolet hopes that process will include analyzing the neighborhood, talking with residents, local businesses and bringing the best ideas to life. He said various studies, plans and design concepts have been activated in recent years, but have yet to come to any meaningful results. 

Current retail picture is strong

Andrian Beruschi. Photo: CBRE.ca

Adrian Beruschi, a vice-president with CBRE brokerage house in Vancouver, feels that the BIA and new city council is overstating the need to revitalize Gastown and that the current retail market in Gastown is rebounding nicely. 

“I think the retail along Water Street is quite strong,” Beruschi told Retail Insider, acknowledging the visible wear and tear, and concerns over safety and crime spilling over from the troubled Downtown Eastside. “There’s not a lot of vacancy; there’s some quirky spaces down there, (but) it’s not by any means plagued with vacancy.”

The neighbourhood obviously went through tough times, like all commercial districts, during the pandemic, but the next six months (and beyond) will bring in more cruise ship traffic, tourism, returning office workers and warmer weather, Beruschi said. “(Gastown) needs a little bit of time for people to get reacquainted with it,” he said, stressing there’s no need to hit the panic button.

Gravity Pope and John Fluevog on Water Street in Gastown in downtown Vancouver in April 2023. Photo: Lee Rivett
Water Street in Gastown in downtown Vancouver in April 2023. Photo: Lee Rivett

Supply and demand for retail space seems to be in balance with a retail vacancy around 7% in the district. 

Martin Moriarty. Photo: LinkedIn

Gastown is “on the ascendency”, said Martin Moriarty, senior-vice president at Marcus & Millichap. The area continues to blend attractive architecture with good mix of local, international and boutique retailers including the likes of Herschel Supply Co., Aesop, Bailey Nelson and Fleuvog Shoes. “There’s a really good cafe and food scene down there too,” he said.

Moriarty supports any city plans that could pump capital investment and development into the neighbourhood and surrounding areas. Mostly, they need a better grasp on safety and security, he said. “I think the number one (priority) would be trying to improve the security… and improve the environment such that it’s more conducive to walking, and people feeling comfortable.”

Wargolet says there has been a greater effort to have security patrols of Gastown from 9am-7pm daily to help visitors, and to support retailers against shoplifting and other petty crime. Since last summer, the BIA has also been working with the city to support a homeless outreach program to help people find shelter who would otherwise sleep on the streets or in tents. 

Eateries Carrell Street at Blood Alley in Gastown in downtown Vancouver in April 2023. Photo: Lee Rivett
Eateries on Gaolers Mews just off Carrell Street near Blood Alley in Gastown in downtown Vancouver in April 2023. Photo: Lee Rivett
Water Street Garage building: Meet (Eatery) and Neighbor (Retail) on Gaolers Mews with corridor backing out onto Blood Alley in Gastown in downtown Vancouver in April 2023. Photo: Lee Rivett

Blood Alley Square re-do represents a good start

Wargolet takes the interview to Blood Alley Square, a treed courtyard wedged between a few eateries and businesses on the north edge of the square and an ambitious redevelopment site on the south side. Workers are now updating the square to add more public seating, improve its appearance and thread it together with the businesses adjacent to the square.

Westbank has been working on a redevelopment of the Blood Alley complex at 23 West Cordova St. The project will have 142 homes including 80 social housing units and 62 market rentals. Plans also aim for a 72-seat restaurant and bar, and include a proposed 600-seat event and music venue that would reside in the basement of the structure. 

“This is a prime example of a really well-designed development,” Wargolet said. “You have activated spaces, restaurants, retail, housing. So, this whole concept of mixed-use is really the only way forward for our city… Gastown has some amazing examples of how that can be done really well.”

Meanwhile, Army & Navy Properties and Bosa Properties are working together on a proposal to redevelop the former Army & Navy department store location on the shoulder between the Downtown Eastside and Gastown. 

The project aims to re-energize commercial and residential development in the troubled DTES neighbourhood, but city staff have refused to support the project, reportedly due to the project’s size. The developers say they will take their application directly to the mayor and council. 

Former Army & Navy storefront on Cordova Street in Gastown in downtown Vancouver in April 2023. Photo: Lee Rivett
Blood Alley Property (Left) and Former Army & Navy storefront (Right) on Cordova Street in Gastown in downtown Vancouver in April 2023. Photo: Lee Rivett

“We see that (Army & Navy project) as a benefit to the neighborhood,” Wargolet said. It will add market and social housing while bringing in more people to support the local businesses. It will also add new commercial space, office space and services on Gastown’s doorstep, he said. 

Something Gastown could do with less of, is cars, said CBRE’s Beruschi. At least on the weekends to make way for more pedestrian-friendly activity and summer festivals. “I don’t think vehicular traffic should be there 100% of the time,” he said. 

Gastown is an historic site, Wargolet reiterated. “This neighborhood has not received the care and maintenance that it really deserves. The good news is the city council, city staff, everyone, agrees — and everyone has come to the table now saying, ‘we want to do better’.” 

Related Retail Insider Articles

Evan Duggan
Evan Duggan
Evan is a freelance journalist in Vancouver. In addition to Retail Insider, Evan's work has appeared in the Vancouver Sun and the Postmedia network, RENX, Business in Vancouver, Reuters, the Bangkok Post and many others.

3 COMMENTS

  1. I would really like to see the waterfront stadium pursued with an MLB franchise in Vancouver, where a connected Gastown could be revived using a mix of public and private capital. Water Street may be better off as a pedestrian-only zone.

  2. I notice that the author hasn’t included any interviews with retailers in Gastown. I know several of them and they’d be telling a far different story if they had been asked. Constant vandalism and aggressive shoplifters. Lots of empty store fronts and empty offices leading to streets often empty of shoppers. Constant roadwork by the city and BC Hydro which means access is being blocked to shop doors regularly. Little street parking left and what there is, is $6 to $7 an hour at the meters.
    Despite all of that you have the landlords asking top rents for renewals and new leases. That’s why the two leasing guys you’ve quoted are saying “the retail market in Gastown is rebounding nicely” and “Gastown is “on the ascendency”. That’s just self-serving.
    I understand the BIA is working hard to advocate for the merchants but Gastown “business” is far from thriving.

  3. Most cities in US and Canada have been infiltered by “progressive activists” to implement their ideals, specifically, rampant drug use, unhindered criminal activities (aka criminal justice reform) and harassment of businesses. Vancouver BC is no different and the state of Gastown is a reflection of that. City officials have give de facto permissions for constant vandalism and shoplifting as well as public drug use/sale. As the article points out, the city staff has refused to support Army & Navy project (ostensibly because its “too big” but in reality because it wishes to preserve troubled DTES area as haven for drug use/sale). Gastown, and cities in general, will not recover until they rid themselves this vile strain of “progressiveness” that has taken hold.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

More From The Author

RECENT RETAIL INSIDER VIDEOS

Advertisment

Subscribe to the Newsletter

Subscribe

* indicates required

Related articles

Canada’s Competition Bureau Launches Investigation into Loblaws and Sobeys [Op-Ed]

Sylvain Charlebois says that grocers must recognize that today's market is different, with consumers being less tolerant of practices limiting access to affordable food.

Anatomy of a Leader: Sarah Segal, CEO of DAVIDsTEA

Segal discusses her career and how she got to to where she is today, as well as a family history that includes founding a toy store in Montreal and big banners such as Le Chateau.

Apple Launches Tap to Pay on iPhone in Canada, Revolutionizing Contactless Payments for Businesses

Apple says it will allow businesses to seamlessly and securely accept payments using an iPhone and app, adding competition to the crowded payments space.

Half a Billion Dollar Downtown Ottawa Revitalization Announced to Bring Vibrancy to the Core [Feature/Interviews]

The Ottawa Board of Trade and the Canadian Urban Institute launched the initiative that will create new retail opportunities with the addition of 40,000 new residents and 50,000 jobs over 10 years, creating a more vibrant core that will be a destination.

Bayview Village to Overhaul Property with Marble Flooring and Luxe Interior, New Retailers and Restaurants Being Added [Exclusive Renderings/Interviews]

The Toronto shopping centre at Bayview and Sheppard is being transformed into something unrecognizable, creating a 'European-style' centre unlike competitors in the region.

Food Prices Dropping in Canada, Mainstream Media Fails to Report [Op-Ed]

Sylvain Charlebois says that food prices are declining according to StatCan data, but that media and the public have been focusing elsewhere.

Innovative App ‘Too Good To Go’ Rescues 4.2 Million Meals in Canada Since 2022, Plans for Expansion [Interview]

The innovative platform is looking to expand by adding more retailers, after launching two years ago by offering consumers excess end-of-day edible goods from a wide range of businesses.

New Hockey Legends Training Facility in Markham ON Elevates Player Skills with Cutting-Edge Technology [Interview]

The unique indoor training concept allows players to practice including improving shooting and stickhandling skills.

Arc’teryx Opens First ‘Alpha’ Store Concept on Bloor Street in Toronto [Photos]

The largest Arc'teryx store also focuses heavily on product care, and is located on the Mink Mile in the Holt Renfrew Centre.

Waterworks Food Hall to Open in Downtown Toronto Next Month, Showcasing 20 Gourmet Vendors in Historic Location [Interview/Photos]

The highly anticipated food hall on Richmond Street will span 55,000 square feet and will add more food and beverage competition in the downtown core with a range of hand-picked specialty vendors.

Bluenotes Launches ‘Unplug’ Activewear Shop-in-Shops in Stores Across Canada [Interview/Photos]

It's the first activewear line for the Canadian retailer, with dedicated shop-in-stores being part of a segment that is growing rapidly.

A Grocer Code of Conduct Could have Prevented Canada’s Bread Cartel [Op-Ed]

Sylvain Charlebois says that the grocer code aims to curb illegal activities that would make it tougher to orchestrate such schemes.