In early May, the City of Vancouver announced a plan to explore a new vision for the city’s historic Gastown neighbourhood, which has been experiencing a retail rebound but has also been facing calls for upgrades and investment.
That plan, in a motion brought to council May 9, aims to bring a car-free strategy to Gastown’s Water Street and, if approved, would also focus on improving the cobblestones and streets to rejuvenate the neighbourhood.
The Gastown plan arrives just a few months after City Council approved the Uplifting Chinatown Action Plan, which is providing Chinatown with enhanced cleaning and sanitation services, graffiti removal, beautification, and additional community supports.
Both plans represent steps to support commerce while also bringing more people back to these neighbourhoods that have suffered from public infrastructure degradation, street crime, homelessness and other intersecting social issues that seemed to worsen and spread from the Downtown Eastside during the pandemic.
To assess the storefront retail situation in key commercial pockets of downtown Vancouver and to hear directly from retailers about what they feel is needed, Retail Insider visited several shops and businesses in early May, speaking with owners and operators in Yaletown, Gastown and Chinatown about what’s going well, what isn’t — and what they suggest the city should be paying attention to. While the general message among those who spoke on the record was that they remain confident and optimistic for the future of their businesses and locations, their neighbourhoods would benefit from improved security and safety, including upgraded street lighting.
Gastown needs security boost for workers and visitors
In Gastown, Jimmy Shao and his wife have been operating the Silver Gallery for 10 years at 312 Water Street. The jewelry, gemstone and indigenous art dealer sits kitty corner to the famous Gastown Steam Clock in the cobblestoned, historic neighbourhood now primed for a civic rejuvenation strategy.
Shao said his main challenges are the high cost of rent and the cost of living for his employees. He is also worried about security and safety in the neighbourhood, which he believes chases away potential workers, residents and customers.
But he’s mostly optimistic. That’s partly due to the 331 cruise ships that will come to port just up the street at Waterfront between now and October 24. Many of his customers are international visitors who make a point of coming to the gallery whenever they visit, he said.
“We can see that people are coming back,” Shao said. “We can see that this year will probably be much better than last year (and the pandemic years).”
“The challenge now is the safety of the street, Shao said, noting that he’d like to have a more visible police or security presence on Gastown’s streets daily to make visitors and customers feel more comfortable and protect them from street crime, including random stranger attacks that have become a flashpoint in Vancouver.
Report indicates sluggish rebound for downtown retail
Big picture, the downtown retail experience has not yet fully rebounded, according to the State of Downtown 2023 report.
The report said overall downtown Vancouver storefront vacancy rate sits at 12.8% and has remained stable for nearly two years. However, retail storefront occupancy has not fared as well as other business types.
Since Nov. 2021, twenty-two retail stores have opened and thirty-three have closed leading to a net loss of eleven. Most notably, Nordstrom — a key downtown anchor at the Pacific Centre — announced in March it would close all Canadian locations due to poor national sales. The Vancouver store is expected to close in June.
Since Nov. 2021, there have been 34 openings and 22 closings in the downtown food and beverage sector — a net gain of 12 businesses, according to the report.
Signs of progress in Chinatown, but more work needed
In Chinatown, reports suggest the situation on the streets has been improving, especially with routine street and graffiti cleaning and more visible security. Those were key priorities that have been major talking points for the new ABC-dominated council and mayor — and now appear to be action items.
Lam has experience running a shop in Chinatown and Gastown. The retailer initially opened a store in Gastown, but relocated to Chinatownin July, 2022. “We tried in Gastown for a little bit,” Lam said. “That was pretty rough. The rent was much more than it is here, so we came here and it’s much better.”
They had been on the skirts of Gastown at Cambie and Hastings Streets located next to a Single-Room Occupancy hotel. They were not attracting much traffic. There was regular drug use activity in front of the store and that kept customers away. “We didn’t really have much traffic at all.”
Traffic in Chinatown has been better and Lam sees it as a stronger, more consistent draw for tourists and visitors, overall. The neighbourhood still has challenges. To enter Private and Co, visitors must press a bell at the locked front door and staff buzz them in.
Generally, the headaches include storefront graffiti, human urine and feces left regularly near the entrance, and the threat of break-ins and shoplifting, Lam said, noting they recently experienced a failed break-in attempt.
But there does seem to be signs of improvement. “There’s like a new sort of vibrancy kind of going on in the neighbourhood,” Lam said. “I think a lot of people have… hope and faith that Chinatown will pick up again.”
He said Mayor Ken Sim has visited the store to check on how things are going and VPD visit the store regularly. Before the new government took over, police would mostly sit in their cars, he added.
“You lose a little bit of sleep at night just wondering what’s happening to the store and what’s going to be smashed or spray-painted,” he said.
Ideally, Chinatown will eventually see a critical mass of new and exciting businesses opening to help generate more foot traffic, activation and more business overall.
Customer traffic appears strong in Yaletown
In Yaletown, Gabriela Miro is the general manager at the fine gift shop, Revolucion. Miro said business in the neighbourhood appears to be returning to normal as the challenges from the pandemic fade.
Yaletown remains a dining hot spot and the neighbourhood restaurant business appears strong. “The restaurants around us help to get traffic,” Miro said, adding that the arrival of what’s expected to be a record cruise ship season will bring many customers into the shop located at 1063 Mainland Street. “We get a lot of tourists here.”
During the worst of the COVID-19 lockdowns, the surrounding restaurants were shuttered and people experiencing homelessness became more active in the area. Lately, Miro notices fewer visible social issues in the immediate vicinity today, but problems persist. Just recently, there was a failed break-in at Revolucion, where would-be intruders were thwarted at the front window. “We do have gates. That prevented them from coming in,” Miro said. “It’s not really crazy, but it happens.” Shoplifting hasn’t gotten noticeably worse, she added.
Other hassles on the street include a reduction in street parking spaces on Mainland St., and high parking prices, Miro said. It costs $7 per hour to park on the street in front of Revolucion. “Parking is what customers always complain about.”
One common comment among Miro, Shao and Lam is that each of their neighbourhoods would benefit from improved lighting to provide customers and staff with more visibility and security when walking at night.