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