Opinion: How to revive Robson Street to its former glory

Dec 23 2016, 10:41 pm

For approximately 30 years beginning in the 1980s, Robson Street has been the prime destination that major domestic and international retailers sought to establish a presence in the city. But that started to change more than half a decade ago when retailers began leaving en masse, leaving many storefronts empty.

At its peak, there were over 20 vacancies along a four block stretch of the retail strip, including long-time retailers RW&CO, Tommy Hilfiger, Nike, Levi’s, Guess, American Eagle, and the Starbucks on the northeast corner of Thurlow and Robson. It is important to note that some of the closures were a result of the retailer’s own corporate financial circumstances, such as HMV, ESPIRIT, MEXX, Danier Leather, French Connection, American Apparel, and the Vancouver Canucks Store.

“Retailers unable to adapt quickly have had issues and we have witnessed a number of retailers shut their doors across Canada, not just on Robson Street,” Teri Smith, the Executive Director of the Robson Street Business Improvement Association (RSBIA), told Daily Hive.

Of course, many of these spaces have since been filled, some with other major brands, and the number of vacancies has fallen to approximately a dozen. Other brands, such as Nike and Aritzia, have also returned or expanded into adjacent spaces.

American Eagle’s old space on the south side of the 1100 block of Robson Street has been vacant for approximately two years. (Photo credit: Kenneth Chan / Daily Hive)

Despite the vacancies, Robson Street remains as one of the world’s most expensive retail streets for retailers to expose and showcase their brands.

A report last month by Cushman & Wakefield ranked the street as the seventh most expensive ‘Main Street’ for average annual rents, with rents averaging at $225 per square foot this year. This represents a drop of $10 per square foot from last year’s ranking, but up by about 66% from 2012’s average of $224 per square feet.

In Canada, Robson Street is only second to Bloor Street in Toronto at $336 per square feet.

“The lease rates on Robson Street are among the highest in the country and when coupled with increasing and unpredictable property taxes, it impacts the overall profitability of retailers,” said Smith.

“We have faced challenges on Robson Street, but retail itself has been experiencing a lot of change and we are seeing the effects of this. There has been a significant increase in the number of American retailers into the Canadian landscape, such as Nordstrom and Victoria’s Secret, thereby increasing the competition in an already competitive industry.”

The need for new, unique retailers

Metro Vancouver’s retail landscape has changed significantly with the expansion of CF Pacific Centre and Holt Renfrew and the opening of Nordstrom and a number of new shopping malls, such as McArthurGlen Vancouver Airport Outlet Centre and Tsawwassen Mills.

Future plans for a Saks Fifth Avenue flagship department store and La Maison Simons within downtown Vancouver would also create more competition if they are located away from the Robson Street retail area.

A swath of vacancies on the 1100 block of Robson Street. (Photo credit: Kenneth Chan / Daily Hive)

Moreover, malls like Metropolis at Metrotown, CF Richmond Centre, Guildford Town Centre, and to an extent even Oakridge Centre are now home to the same mid-market brands that were once only found along Robson Street even in the early 2000s. And for those who live in the suburbs and get around mainly by driving, there is no need to travel all the way to downtown Vancouver, where parking is expensive and often difficult to find, when many of the same brands are available at their local suburban shopping mall.

“New retailers have been opening, though many are also available in suburban malls and, in some instances, even downtown at CF Pacific Centre,” said Retailer Insider’s Craig Patterson, a national retail industry consultant, told Daily Hive.

“Robson Street has been in a state of transition for the past several years. I wouldn’t say the street is in a ‘death spiral’, though I’d say it could use a few unique tenants to give it an injection as well as to draw people to the street. As to how long things will continue – there are so many moving parts, it’s almost impossible to predict.”

Large and popular retailers that draw customers, such as Apple Store, Under Armour, and Uniqlo, drive traffic to a retail district as they act as destinations. Patterson says Apple and Uniqlo flagship stores at the intersection of Robson and Bute would easily raise rents on the 1100 block by 25% in a year.

A number of new luxury retailers have entered the downtown Vancouver market, but without any suitable space on Robson Street they are opting to set-up shop along neighbouring Alberni Street instead.

As well, the opening of the Canada Line, Nordstrom, and Sport Chek have expanded the Robson Street retail strip to Granville Street, pushing the core away from the traditional area just west of Burrard Street.

Retailers don’t want to be in old buildings

While there have been some big losses over the years, there have also been some gains with Forever 21 and Sephora, also found at CF Pacific Centre, setting up flagship locations within new, modern retail buildings on the 1000 block of Robson Street. There have also been renovations to the buildings that house Roots, Aldo, and Kiehl’s.

One block further west on, Ladurée is arguably the most significant recent addition for the 1100 block.

Patterson notes that a large anchor like Uniqlo location would become a major draw, but a deal for a Robson Street Uniqlo flagship on the 1000 block did not proceed last year.

“We’re crossing fingers that Uniqlo ends up on the Robson strip, as opposed to on Granville or in the CF Pacific Centre expansion [at the northeast corner of Howe and West Georgia streets],” he said.

New retail buildings recently constructed on the north side of the 1000 block of Robson Street. (Photo credit: Kenneth Chan / Daily Hive)

Many of Robson Street’s low-rise buildings between Burrard and Jervis streets were built in the 1960s and 1970s, when the street was mainly comprised of independent neighbourhood retailers.

Such small and old spaces that independent businesses might fair well in were suitable for Ladurée, which tend to be small boutique locations, but it is definitely not for everyone especially when it is associated with some of the highest rents in the country.

“Some of Robson Street’s buildings are aging as you pointed out, which presents a few challenges,” said Patterson. “Some retailers looking for street front space will want to be in an attractive building, and some will demand features not available in existing commercial stock.”

Policies enforced by the City of Vancouver to maintain the heart of the Robson Street shopping district as a low-density “village” restrict the business case and economies of scale for major redevelopment projects that attract international retailers and traffic.

Street retail and a shopping centre at Orchard Road in Singapore. (Photo credit: Choo Chin Nian / Flickr)

For example, along Toronto and Singapore’s much larger equivalent of Robson Street – Bloor Street in Toronto and Orchard Street in Singapore – there are office and residential towers perched on top of several levels of ground retail to provide businesses with a major foot traffic boost. Shopping malls in both areas also further enhance the retail strips as international shopping destinations.

In 2013, Vancouver City Council did approve a new community plan for the West End neighbourhood that increases the density allowance of the three blocks of the Robson Street retail strip from Burrard to Jervis streets. But the density increases were modest – an increase from 1.0 floor-space ratio (FSR) commercial and 2.0 FSR residential to 3.0 FSR commercial. Building heights are limited to just 70 feet (21.3 metres), rigidly limiting the flexibility of what can be built on the strip.

Typical form of density now permitted on the 1000 to 1200 blocks of Robson Street as mandated in the City of Vancouver’s West End Community Plan. (Image credit: City of Vancouver)

Although there is now a modest increase in retail density allowances on Robson Street, not all landowners are willing to proceed. Many, in fact, are holding back.

“There’s a missed opportunity to have a really great retail street in Vancouver, though it’s a challenge when there are so many different landlords holding real estate for various purposes, and are in some instances unmotivated to improve or redevelop existing commercial buildings,” said Patterson.

However, there is at least one known retail redevelopment going ahead. Smith says all of the one-storey retail buildings on the 1000 block’s north side from TNA to Geox will be demolished and replaced with a new major international flagship retailer.

“Shoppers, particularly those who are international, may also look at older buildings on the street and may develop an overall negative view, or at least a less favourable view than if the street featured new, exciting buildings and retailers,” Patterson added.

The City of Vancouver’s West End Community Plan envisions future improvements to the public realm of Robson Street, but there is no concrete timeline nor major funding allocations for a sweeping redesign.

Urban realm needs improvement

Fixing Robson Street isn’t just about fixing its retailers and the buildings that line the street, it’s also about fixing the street experience.

Although the street is still in a state of transition, Robson remains as one of Vancouver’s busiest streets for pedestrian traffic, but the street experience does not reflect that – its sidewalks are unexceptional, too narrow for the crowds along most sections, and in some areas it is in a state of disrepair.

There have been some improvements over the last few years. New retail buildings, particularly on the north side of the 1000 block, are built with better overhead awnings to protect pedestrians from the elements and deeper building setback to provide more sidewalk space.

There is also a parklet on the south side of the 1000 block just outside Cafe Crepe, which was previously a major pinch point for crowding as the sidewalk narrows there.

But so far, these have all been relatively minor improvements.

Parklet outside Cafe Crepe on 1000 block of Robson Street. (Photo credit: City of Vancouver)

The last time downtown Vancouver received a major street beautification project was just in time for the Olympics, when $21 million was spent to redesign Granville Street from Cordova Street to the northern end of the Granville Street Bridge with new and high-quality street paving, wider sidewalks, street furniture, and special lighting.

A street redesign of Robson Street of a similar scale could provide a long-term boost to the retail district and a greater sense of place as the main ‘fashion walk’ of the region.

Artistic rendering depicting the redesign of St. Catherine Street in Montreal. (Image by: City of Montreal)

“Fixing up the street will cost money and take time, and some retailers may be against it, particularly for the amount off time it would take,” he said. “But Robson Street needs something – not only is it competing with local malls and streets, it’s also competing with streets like Sainte Catherine in Montreal, which is ripping up sidewalks in a beautification overhaul.”

Montreal’s revitalization project for Saint Catherine Street stretches 20 blocks, approximately 2.5 kilometres, at a cost of $90 million and is scheduled for completion in 2019.

Christmas decorations by the Robson Street Business Improvement Association. (Photo credit: Kenneth Chan / Daily Hive)

Such street improvement projects are normally led by the municipal government, certainly not the local business improvement association (BIA). However, Smith says the RSBIA, which is one of the smallest BIA’s in the city, already does its part with what resources it has collected from its pool of members and supporters.

This includes Christmas lighting decorations, seasonal street lamp post banners, flower baskets, and regular contracted street cleaning that supplements any efforts by municipal crews.

Smith adds that the BIA recently worked with Pechet Studio to create a public realm vision for Robson Street that addresses sidewalk pinch points, potential locations for mid-block pedestrian crossings, and a pedestrian plaza at Bute Street.

“The Robson Street BIA is terrific… and in some ways I think it’s frustrating for them when overseeing a commercial street where some landlords are uninterested in making it better, or at least making substantial efforts for the betterment of the overall retail environment,” said Patterson.

The City of Vancouver’s West End Community Plan envisions future improvements to the public realm of Robson Street, but there is no concrete timeline nor major funding allocations for a sweeping redesign.

Conceptual illustration of Robson Village between Thurlow and Bute Streets, looking northwest, showing potential public realm enhancements, rooftop patios, and infill housing along the adjacent laneway. (Image by: City of Vancouver)

A fully-pedestrianized street

Earlier this year, Vancouver City Council approved a plan to permanently pedestrianize the 800 block of Robson Street, the road running through Robson Square, and since then City staff have created a $6.5-million conceptual design to turn the roadway into a plaza.

When complete over the next few years, a question that will undoubtedly be asked is whether more of Robson Street should be fully pedestrianized – whether it should be turned into a pedestrian-only mall.

“I think it will be interesting to see how the 800 Robson closure and transformation into a multifunctional pedestrian space will fare and succeed as a pedestrian only zone,” said Smith.

There have been many successful large-scale applications of full pedestrianization bringing more foot traffic and increasing business for retailers, particularly in Europe, Asia, and Australia. In North America, not so much.

“At one time Granville Street was basically a pedestrian street, and it failed,” said Patterson. “Same with part of Yonge Street in Toronto in the 1970s. Pedestrian streets have worked well in parts of Europe but in only a handful of locations in North America.”

The pedestrian-only Queen Street Mall in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo credit: Adam Campbell / Flickr)

If Robson Street were fully pedestrianized, trolley bus routes that currently run through roadway would have to be completely rerouted to another parallel street. The rerouting of the Robson Street bus routes to accommodate the new plaza space at the 800 block has attracted opposition from West End residents who use transit.

Consideration must also be given to the change in traffic patterns in downtown from closing down Robson Street to all vehicles.

“The idea of a pedestrian-only Robson Street has been talked about for years in various capacities,” said Smith. “I don’t think we’re ready for that yet. While things are changing in people’s modes of transportation, there is still a need for vehicles and we want to support all transportation needs, whether it be by foot, bike, transit or car.”

“The transit system in Metro Vancouver is not as strong as in other cities around the world, which does make the car still necessary for people to move about.”

A subway station

One significant difference between the 800 to 1000 blocks of Robson Street and Toronto’s Bloor Street and Montreal’s St. Catherine Street is its proximity to rapid transit.

There are two TTC subway stations along the core of Bloor Street’s retail strip that provide ample foot traffic to businesses. And in Montreal, there are five Metro subway stations along the main stretch of retail along St. Catherine Street.

Meanwhile, the Robson Street retail district’s nearest SkyTrain stations – Burrard Station and Vancouver City Centre Station – are several city blocks away. A subway station at the intersection of Bute and Robson streets, for example, would not only enhance the existing core of the retail district but also act to expand it westward, perhaps all the way to Denman Street.

Of course, there are no plans to extend SkyTrain to the West End anytime soon, and such an extension would likely be associated with a new line to the North Shore should that ever happen.

Despite being one of downtown Vancouver’s densest and most pedestrian-friendly areas, car ownership within the West End neighbourhood remains relatively high with a recent City survey revealing nearly half of the residents in the area own a vehicle. Approximately 45,000 people live in the West End, a geographical area of two square kilometres.

Kenneth ChanKenneth Chan

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