New waterfront development, expansion in dining scene are paving the way for more shopping in downtown
The Waterfront Vancouver has come a long way in just a few years. Many of the buildings and public attractions promised in early concept art have been brought to life, and the district features a diverse and still-growing lineup of apartments, restaurants and office tenants.
But one piece of the puzzle is still missing, and it’s an omission that the waterfront appears to share with the rest of downtown Vancouver: retail. The city has experienced a surge in new restaurants, bars and coffee shops in the past decade, but gains in retail shops have been comparatively slim.
In an area once touted in in-flight magazines as “The Shops on Waterfront Way,” there are still no shops to be found, and nothing announced.
“We don’t call it ‘The Shops on Waterfront Way’ anymore, probably for that reason,” says Barry Cain, president of Tualatin, Ore.-based Gramor Development, which has taken the lead in building out the waterfront. “We always assumed we’d be mostly restaurants, at least initially.”
The waterfront needed to become a destination right out of the gate, Cain says, so the highest priorities for Gramor, the city and other developers were public spaces for visitors to enjoy and a killer restaurant lineup. But in the longer term, he expects to see the lineup expand to include service-oriented businesses and eventually boutiques and other retailers.
The rest of downtown Vancouver isn’t a built-from-scratch project, but business owners, landlords and city officials offer a similar assessment of its growth trajectory and the potential for retail development. In some ways, the waterfront may be a microcosm for Vancouver’s overall downtown, in which short-term gains in food retail portend gains in service and commodity retail — or at least, that’s the theory.
Foot traffic first
The food scene explosion is self-evident to longtime Vancouver residents walking through downtown, where dozens of blocks prominently feature restaurants that weren’t there just a few years ago. According to an estimate from the city and Vancouver’s Downtown Association, the area has seen a net gain of 44 dining and drinking establishments in the past five years.
“A couple have closed, but by and large I think most of them have been able to make it and be successful,” said Linda Glover, vice president of the downtown association. The recovery period following the Great Recession created an environment in which entrepreneurs were able to thrive, she said, kicking off the surge in the local food scene.
There are some new faces on the retail side of things too, but the gains have been more modest, and the number of pure retail shops in the downtown core remains low.
“The only new tenants really coming in tend to be restaurants and bars,” says Jeff Lanford, owner of the Lucky Loan pawn shop on Main Street.
It’s a familiar pattern for downtown property and business owner Bruno Amicci. He got his start in Vancouver when he co-founded Low Bar in 2012, and then two years later he purchased the Luepke Flowers building, taking over operation of the flower shop and opening up an unused annex which he rented to Tap Union Freehouse, a new brewpub.
Low Bar and Tap Union have both done well, but the florist struggled, and Amicci decided to close it earlier this year. The shop’s loss is Tap Union’s gain — it recently announced that it would rent the entire building and expand its seating area. But Amicci says the experience has made him wary of future retail ventures.
“I’m looking at being a landlord and providing a space for restaurants and bars, because that’s what seems to sell in downtown Vancouver,” he says.
Amicci and several other business owners all describe foot traffic as an essential prerequisite for retail growth. The downtown area needs to be a destination in its own right, he says, and right now too many visitors don’t have a reason to venture downtown unless they want to go to a specific place or run a specific errand — and those aren’t the type of visitors that generate the necessary foot traffic.
“We don’t really have shoppers,” says Joe Lanning, owner of My Jewelers on Main Street. “For the businesses that are down here, their customers are coming to them.”
In another example, Schofield Properties general manager Robert Aschieris says the company abruptly found itself in need of several new tenants when the long-running Vancouver School of Beauty closed, vacating a row of three storefronts along Sixth Street east of Main.
The first two spaces were filled by the restaurants Little Conejo and Nonavo Pizza, with the third space only more recently becoming a new home for the clothing store Believe Boutique. Co-owner Cortney Rivera says she and her business partner Bryttani Nieves initially opened the boutique in Camas but had long dreamed of moving to downtown Vancouver, and were willing to bet that Believe Boutique’s inclusive approach to fashion would allow it to succeed there.
“We took a leap of faith with support from great family and friends,” Rivera says.
Future of retail
For city development staff and Vancouver’s Downtown Association, the growth of the restaurant side is deliberate; the two agencies teamed up on a study several years ago and concluded that restaurants had a stronger foothold and more potential, so that’s where they chose to concentrate most of their efforts.
The idea was that the retail side would catch up once the foot traffic improved, and there are signs that the strategy is working. The downtown area has lost three retail stores so far this year, according to economic development division manager Teresa Brum, but it’s gained five others.
But even if retail can make a comeback, it won’t be the kind of big stores that used to call downtown home.
The overall nature of retail is changing, Brum and Glover point out, and not just in Vancouver — online shopping is eating into the territory of traditional and big-box retailers, and the future of brick-and-mortar retail is likely going to be more experiential, with an emphasis on services or unique goods.
As an example, Brum points to one of this year’s new Vancouver businesses: Dickens Children’s Books, an uptown bookstore that also includes a “publishing lab” where kids can draw, print and bind their own booklets and ‘zines.
“Experiences make shopping more memorable, and that keeps people coming back,” Brum says.
Downtown also has two big experiential mainstays that aren’t tied to any one store: the Vancouver Farmers Market and the Vancouver Night Market, both of which feature dozens of retail sellers and generate substantial foot traffic, albeit without permanent storefronts.
Downtown property owner Dean Irving, who owns Billy Dean Leasing, says he’s also seen an increasing number of companies stabilize their retail spaces by adding nontraditional uses, such as running their online shipping operations out of the back. Sweet Spot Skirts is one such example.
Landlord Aschieris says the current trend needs to be looked at from an historical context. Sixty years ago, downtown Vancouver was a retail center, he says, and not just for small local shops — big corporate retailers like J.C. Penney and Montgomery Ward lined Main Street.
But the downtown retail climate shifted with the late 1970s arrival of the Vancouver Mall, he says, and the departure of the bigger retailers led to a downturn from which the downtown area is arguably only now recovering.
“It was kind of a ghost town downtown,” he says.
The expansion of restaurants and bars is an important first step, he says, because it’s leading to a reestablishment of Vancouver’s nightlife. Retail will eventually follow, he says, although he expects it will likely be a lineup of independent and more experimental stores rather than a return of the big corporate sellers.
“These transitions in downtowns, they can take up to 50 years,” he says.
Cain foresees the experiential angle taking root in the waterfront too; he says he expects some of the future retailers might be more focused on selling services rather than just boutique commodities.
As a premier downtown destination, the waterfront also has the potential to spark further retail growth beyond its own borders, although some retailers have mixed feelings about that potential. Lynn Loewen, owner of vintage clothing boutique Mod Haus, says she thinks the waterfront is too physically isolated to increase foot traffic in the rest of downtown. Amicci says he’s hopeful but cautious about its potential.
“Whether that works or not, I don’t know,” he says. “I think the jury is still out.”
All signs indicate that Vancouver is moving in a direction that will eventually support more retail, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t obstacles. Downtown retailers point out several.
One of the most common obstacles is parking — many downtown retailers talked about customers being frustrated by a lack of nearby parking as well as the meter fees.
City studies have shown that there is ample parking available, according to Brum, but the key is that sometimes visitors will need to walk a few blocks to get to where they’re going.
And that ties into a second problem: lack of retail density. Put simply, it’s hard to convince people to walk through downtown when there aren’t many places to stop on the way. Loewen says customers at Mod Haus often ask what other nearby shops they can check out, and she’s only able to offer a couple of suggestions.
“We haven’t done the cluster effect well,” she says.
Tenants are also facing rent hikes as the value of downtown property rises, Amicci says, and Lanning adds that new startups are deterred by mismatched property sizes. Many of the empty downtown storefronts remain vacant because they’re too big for a small startup business to afford, he says, but the owners want to rent it as one unit without subdividing the space.
Irving also points to the sizing issue as a limiting factor. Many downtown buildings are too large for retail startups, he says, so his company has worked to try to carve out smaller spaces where possible, particularly on the ground floors where retail uses will contribute more to the vibrancy of downtown than office tenants.
It’s an issue that Glover says the downtown association has been working to improve too, teaming up with building owners to modernize their structures and storefronts.
“You can see on Main Street, a lot of them have really improved over the years,” she says.
Amicci also says he’s concerned that the downtown population’s income level won’t support the price levels seen at high-end stores in Portland’s Pearl District, creating a limit to how upscale the retail scene can become.
“When you come into a town and see a bunch of antiques stores, you know that town’s not going anywhere,” he says.
The downtown population is another concern — despite recent growth, it’s still too low to attract corporate tenants. Even on the restaurant side, Amicci points out, the Starbucks and Subway shops near Esther Short Park are among the few corporate faces downtown, and the city center has long struggled to attract a grocery store.
And there are some geographic constraints on population growth.
“We’ve had people say ‘Why aren’t you like Hawthorne or Alberta (streets in Portland)?’ ” Glover says. “They have blocks and blocks of people around them — we’ve got the river and a railroad.”
Vancouver has another geographic disadvantage, Glover says, although it’s not really something that can be helped: sales leakage to Portland. It’s easy for shoppers to be enticed across the river due to Oregon’s lack of sales tax, she says.
The daily rush-hour congestion doesn’t help either — Vancouver residents who work in Portland might choose to stay there for their evening shopping rather than sitting on Interstate 5. Although that one does cut both ways, she says — other Vancouver residents might be more inclined to keep their shopping local in order to avoid the congestion.
Growth to come
Despite the concerns about parking and foot traffic, most downtown leaders see strong potential for retail, with Vancouver well-positioned after years of restaurant development and other placemaking. The message from the likes of Cain, Brum and Glover is clear: stay tuned.
Downtown retail growth is modest but trending in a positive direction, and newcomers see enough potential in the area to prompt them to take the plunge.
In the case of Believe Boutique, Rivera says the store has enjoyed a fantastic first two months, buoyed by its central position along a busy traffic corridor and drawing in much faster foot traffic than it did at its former Camas location. And the area is only going to get busier as more waterfront attractions come online, she says.
“I think the downtown area, I’d say in a year we’re going to be booming,” she says. “With the waterfront, it’s going to be a destination for people to explore.”