Sinking Retail Strips

For every boulevard of luxe boutiques, there are a hundred retail strips that never improve. Here’s why:

April 17, 2015

The winter sun is setting on a sparkling cold day outside Fantasy Factory, which has been selling novelty condoms, dildos, and fetish videos on Davie for a quarter-century and on Granville for twice that. A lot has changed since 1966, when Tony Perry started her first version of the store. Japanese Mary’s Whorehouse, as she recalls it, is no longer in operation at the corner of Robson and Granville. None of the shoeshine boys are left from when she was a teenager. There’s been a lot of condo development near her stores. “But Davie, it hasn’t developed,” says Perry, 83. “It doesn’t change.” The strip seems frozen in time, a fragment of an older city.

I feel like I’m in a music video from 1985 when I walk down the street,” says Denna Keating, who works in promotions at the local business association. “It’s kind of the quirky side of the West End.”

Lights glow above the rooftops of the area’s low-lying shops. Some are from apartments in the old buildings from the early 1900s; others come from the towers that have muscled in over recent years. Just a few blocks away, a penthouse inOne Wall Centre was recently listed for $8.8 million.What gets missed in this fear of gentrification is how ungentrified, how consistently down-at-the-heels most of the city’s shopping strips are. There may be houses selling for $5 million in Dunbar, but Dunbar Street itself — at least, the commercial stretch in the West 20s — could easily be mistaken for a run of shops in Langley or Maple Ridge. Houses in the streets behind Kingsway and East Broadway are going for over $1 million nowadays, but their inhabitants continue to enjoy an unlimited choice of grungy pho restaurants, cheap car-repair operations, and any number of produce shops with vegetables stacked on makeshift wooden stands shaded by awnings filmed with green mould.

Those little stores combine to tell a story far removed from the aspirational Tomorrowland of cocktail party chatter. Take the block of Denman south of Barclay. It’s not far from the expensive enclave of Coal Harbour, yet look what’s available: the Denman Market, its wooden sidewalk shelves filled with inexpensive daisies and tinted carnations; a Cut My Hair barber shop, with its United Nations of customers, and ABC Hair Express; the Denman Shoe Repair and the Cash Store; Joe’s Grill, Café Phin and Pho, and the Olympia, purveyor of a kind of Greek food that has remained unchanged sinceboomers discovered life beyond tuna casserole. As a group, they reveal Vancouver’s real economy and a foundational mindset shared by the many small, conservative owners who ply these byways.

“Every city has great streets, and then local streets where the rest of us go. Businesses that are marginal need those spaces. That’s incubator space for independent retailers,” says Gordon Harris, a planning consultant who had to think about how to re-create the idea of the small mom-and-pop store at Simon Fraser’s UniverCity when he became president of its development arm. Shopping streets everywhere are divided into these two kinds, he says: the destination streets that draw people in from the city or region, and the local streets that serve mostly the locals.

When a small neighbourhood hub does become a destination, as Robson Street did in the 1980s and 1990s, as West Fourth Avenue did in the 2000s, as some fear Main Street is doing now, it’s often painful. Rents skyrocket, older small businesses are forced out in favour of chains. But most of Vancouver’s shopping streets aren’t like that, Harris says. And so they provide that ideal starter space, where the small-scale entrepreneurs low on money but big on ideas can launch. And that’s as far from glitzy condo prospectus imagery as you can get.

These are landlords under-equipped with the money to invest or overequipped with the stubbornness to ensure their survival. The properties aren’t big enough for massive redevelopment — or they figure redevelopment is coming someday, so no point in spending a lot now. They don’t invest much in spiffing things up, leaving it to their tenants to do the work (or not). “A lot of the buildings are in terrible shape,” says Jay Wollenberg, owner of the consulting firm Coriolis, which is Vancouver’s go-to company for assessing the impact of new developments or new policies on existing retail. “One of the things that small retailers are good at is creating a nicer environment than the exterior.”

The little businesses that colonize those rundown shops are in evolutionary competition. If their idea is good, they expand and move up. If it’s bad, they close up shop and someone else takes over. If it’s in the middle — a necessary service for the local neighbourhood — they can carry on at a steady pace forever. Like Monica and Davie Kim, the older Korean couple who opened Denman Shoe Repair five years ago. Their front window is filled with kitschy shoe ornaments, the awning has seen better days, and the small shop, with its Victorian stitching machine, is little changed from its last iteration selling candy. “We only did a little bit,” Monica says in hesitant English as a Korean-speaking young woman collects her thigh-high leather boots.

Even as surrounding homes rise in price, there’s no guarantee that retail gentrification will follow. That’s the logical fallacy we fall into, thinking that the arrival of a small wave of West Side refugees will bring about a local high street’s wholesale transformation. As the unchanged strips of Victoria Drive and south Fraser and Nanaimo show, Rodeo Drive is often slow in arriving. Wollenberg says that’s because no matter what the house or condo prices are today, the vast majority of residents bought before the upswing. If you want to understand the real demographics of an area, don’t look to the Just Sold lists. Look to its retail street.

Notwithstanding the high prices, a lot of houses are still occupied by the traditional residents,” he says. “A lot of people in those areas don’t have as much money as you think.”

The shopping along Victoria between East 33rd and East 41st is relentlessly low budget because the area around — the highest density of Chinese residents in the city — is dominated by people who are just making it day to day. In Dunbar, the neighbourhood is still home to many who have been there for decades and are now living on retirement incomes. Wealthier people are moving in, paying those top prices, but “the rich don’t just shop locally,” says Harris. When they do spend their money, it’s often at higher-end locations, like Vancouver’s few destination shopping areas — Oakridge Centre, South Granville, Robson/Alberni — or in other cities. The local stores keep going thanks to people one or two income strata down.

Things stay the same, except when they don’t. There is always the threat of a change that will drive out the quirky, local-serving businesses. That reality got brief attention in the last bitter civic election, when Gregor Robertson released an economic platform that promised to find ways to encourage new developments to provide a home for small, independent businesses.

That’s not how redevelopment traditionally operates. “The tenants in properties that have redeveloped, they tend to be different. There’s this pressure to lease the space to chains,” says Wollenberg. Thus, the monotonous repetition, in the newly developed properties on otherwise ungentrified streets, of Shoppers Drug Mart, Subway, TD, RBC, and Sleep Country. It’s not that those national chains actually pay more rent, says Colliers real-estate consultant Jim Smerdon. It’s that the landlord can be sure they won’t fold in the middle of the month, leaving a big hole in the revenue plan. A national chain will subsidize a low-performing store and will also pay the rent until the end of a lease, no matter what. Safety is the orientation of all small, conservative-minded landlords. Even if an owner/developer is willing to take a risk, sometimes those financing new developments are not. “The banks are dictating the terms of the loans,” says Smerdon, and they often insist that space be leased to those chain companies as a condition of the loan.

In the face of that, a city’s efforts to hold back, or at least modify, redevelopment can make a difference. The West End is the city’s current experiment; the recently approved West End community plan is deliberately crafted to keep the retail scene from changing too much.


Since the 1990s, Vancouver has had a policy of allowing residential to be built over shops, part of its solution to the affordable-housing crisis of the time. Councillors back then blanched at the idea of letting developers build apartments or townhouses in single-family neighbourhoods, so they rezoned the main streets instead. This had unintended consequences: it made it worthwhile for a property owner to contemplate tearing down a shabby shop to rebuild with condos on top. That’s what happened to beloved Black Swan Records on West Fourth and the delightfully rundown Rumpus Room on Main Street, with its plentiful helpings of hangover food for the millennials. It’s also the economic pressure that was at play for the Ridge Theatre, now becoming a condo project, and the Hollywood Theatre on Broadway — saved for the moment.

But in the West End, planners have removed owners’ former right to add condos or apartments above street businesses, at least in what city planner Holly Sovdi calls the three villages: gay Davie, main street Denman, and high-end Robson. Under the new strategy, owners can get almost double the density they were allowed before on sites in those areas, but it has to be all commercial. Thanks to that policy, they no longer have to resist the temptation of easy profits from condos.”It takes that pressure to create residential away,” she says. “We wanted to be really clear that these three villages are for business.”

The city’s plan also envisions adding a lot of the elements that make little shopping streets thrive: patios, street trees, lighting, wider sidewalks. It capped building heights at 18.3 metres on Davie and Denman, 21.3 metres on Robson, to make sure that the sun can get in — another factor that makes people linger on shopping streets.

With all those directions in place, everyone hopes that the area’s oldest businesses — the sex shops, Celebrities nightclub, the Quick Nickel — can carry on operating unimpeded. That’s good news for Elsie K. Neufeld as she comes out of European Deli International Foods with her three bags of groceries. For five years, Neufeld has done most of her daily shopping on Davie Street, amid its nondescript businesses: the Super 99 Discount Store with its plastic tubs and brooms stacked outside, Ho Ho Yummy, the Maple Leaf Bakery, the Fingertips nail bar. “I do prefer to go shop-to-shop here,” says Neufeld, a poet and personal historian who lives a few blocks away. “I like the ambience and selection. And you get to know the store owners. It’s neighbourly.”


Get the Newsletter

Own your city with Vancouver’s thrice-weekly scoop on the latest restaurant news, must-shop hotspots and can’t miss events. Rest assured your email is safe with us.