As PT editor, I’m bringing forward this comment in case readers miss this analysis from frequent commenter Guest on the post below – Will Densification Bring an End to Independent Business in Vancouver?  As always, he adds interesting and informed comments from a knowledgeable viewpoint on this city’s development.  
(There’s an open invitation to you, Guest, if you’d like to be a guest editor.  Hopeless pun unavoidable.)

There are a few factors at play:
– New vs old – New construction is expensive/valuable so rents/property taxes will be higher. The property taxes on highly assessed commercial spaces is probably one of the reasons for high vacancy rates for older existing buildings on Robson St. and Denman St.
– Design – Retail space is subject to design constraints on exterior appearance. The City could relax restrictions, and/or architects and the Urban Design Panel could allow facades that easily allow tenant modifications (i.e. flat facades, removable individual awnings instead of continuous awnings). I think the biggest culprit is the continuous awning – the uniformity deprives the retail frontages of individual character, and prevents the installation of unique signage.
Despite East is East’s experience, I note that the Dublin Gate Pub on Main St. in the new Central office block has a “personalized” façade (though I think it looks out of place on the modern building!)
– WRT large versus small spaces, I think that the majority of retail spaces under condo builds are small, awkward spaces unfit for large retail tenants (unless originally designed for them, such as L’Hermitage). That’s because of all the services/common areas for the condo building eating into the ground level floorplate. That’s also why you hear of people complaining that condo retail is littered with hairdressers and nail salons (which are often independent businesses!).
– Tenant mix is also tied to ownership structure – retail spaces that remain corporately owned by the developer tend to be more successful on retail mix – because it’s like a mall and the landlord can control the mix to make the project attractive to the community (i.e. drug store, grocer, coffee shop). The classic local example is Pacific Boulevard. The retail units on the north side were sold to small independent businesses as strata units (largely immigrant investors). For the first 10 years or so, the mix of “small businesses” was disappointing (including a button store). The retail on the south side was retained by Concord Pacific as landlord and more reputable “anchor” businesses such as Urban Fare and HSBC opened up.
It’s really an evolving environment. West Fourth probably used to be a lot cheaper than it is now – in both old and new buildings. There have even been a number of one storey retail buildings rebuilt as modern one storey retail buildings on that street. The incubator zones have moved to Main St. and Fraser St. from West 4th and Cambie (or even Granville). Gastown used to be an incubator area, but has taken off in recent years too.
For older buildings, I guess the bottom line is that you can’t pay incubator rent in a very popular area, and the popularity of different areas changes over time, and with the general trend of increasing population, more areas are becoming popular (and higher rent comes with that).
For new buildings, the high construction costs (translated to higher base rent) and the newly improved premises (translated to high property taxes (additional rent)) means that the space may sit vacant for some time until a tenant able or willing to pay the rent comes along.


And as editor, I’ll add my own historic note.  The City’s requirement that retail development on some commercial streets, notably in the West End, be designed in 25-foot segments, with doors placed such that the spaces can be assembled or divided over time, found its origin on this half-block in the early 1980s:


Denman block


Up to the arrival of a building-permit application (roughly around 1983, if I recall), the block in the 1100-block Denman contained some well-loved local services – a hair salon, butcher shop and, notably, Pauline’s Books.  The redevelopment was for a single use: a Burger King (in a neighbourhood with almost no fast-food chains).  That was enough to cause outrage in the community.  But, further, the development permit proposed only interior changes, avoiding the need to go to the Development Permit Board or, possibly, Council.  In fact, all but one wall was demolished and the site totally redeveloped.  Further outrage!

The Harcourt Council authorized the Planning Department to draw up new guidelines for retail strips in the West End, including the 25-foot requirement – which you can see in the current configuration.  Ironically, the Burger King failed to survive economically; people didn’t go to Denman Street for fast-food chain restaurants.  (Fast food, yes; but in subsequent years even a McDonald’s and three or four other chains failed to gain sufficient patronage.)

The best example of the requirement for small storefronts, even if they’re simply the frontage for a bigger box behind, can be found here – the London Drugs at Robson and Bute.




I’d be interested in Guest’s take on the success of these projects.


  1. I’ll add another example here. I don’t know if it meets all the criteria for new development, but the Marquee building at 2250 Commercial Dr. was extensively renovated – 2 residential floors were added, and there are new retail units at street level. Except this time the retail units are smaller and they match (or at least try to match) the rhythm of the rest of Commercial Dr. You can distinguish one business from another, as opposed to getting lost in a crowd of identical looking stores.,-123.0697316,3a,75y,77.76h,84.35t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1spPvKtXxxuzXWagDbBbJYvA!2e0!7i13312!8i6656!6m1!1e1
    So we see this development with a better mix of businesses here. Three of the seven retail spaces are independent restaurants… Relish Gourmet Burgers; Jam Jar Folk Lebanese Food; and Cabrito – Tapas Bebidas. One unit has yet to be leased.
    Even with the minimal effort put into the retail facades (customized awnings would improve things further), you can see it attracts different types of businesses. And keep in mind that this is a new build.

  2. I was going to comment on what Jan Gehl, one of the most respected urban designers around, would do as espoused in his book ‘Cities For People,’ but Gordon and Logan 5 above linked to images that say it all. Thanks for that!
    Too often the focus is on the block-long streetwall of architectural façades when the human experience on foot is more fine-grained. This perception is even finer than awnings, and has everything to do with bringing tactile elements forward to occupy the public sidewalk space out front, such as wares and outdoor seating for cafes.
    I am of the mind that planners and architects must actively seek to engage people at the sidewalk level in commercial streetscapes, and this entails creating flexible ground floor spaces in new development. Gehl measures off narrow commercial spaces of 3-4m for “visual and active density” but also recommends the ability to quite easily knock out walls to expand / combine the spaces as necessary as the neighbourhood matures. Providing an appropriate number of stubbed-out services (water, electrical, sewer) through the floorplate will not break the bank. Providing too few and having to break through the floorplate after the fact is far more expensive and disruptive.
    I wouldn’t get too hung up on individual awnings. In Vancouver it rains, and it rains very hard and often in winter. Providing continuous rain protection in new development for pedestrians on the sidewalk should therefore take precedence over providing a gap-toothed block of individual awnings. Put a generous rain canopy high enough overhead (say 3.5-4 m to contact) and allow individual storefronts and displayed wares to give that human touch.
    Scale is important, but again so is flexibility. There is a sandwich shop on View St in Victoria in the high-rent Bay complex (filled with big chain stores) that is nothing more than a hole in the wall not more than 1.5m wide. It has been there for years. Banning multinational chain stores is also a slippery slope. Instead, encourage them to adapt to the scale and heritage of the neighbourhood, such as these Starbucks outlets in Calgary and Toronto:

  3. It would be very interesting to see how the size of the retail space relates to the success of the business and length of occupancy.
    There are definitely many factors at play, but one difference that I always found fascinating was that until about 10 years ago, Vancouver had very few small bars compared to Toronto. Things have started changing over the years.
    The other factor is the design of the buildings. Toronto commercial buildings usually have basement that free up a lot of the ground floor compared to Vancouver buildings that do utilize some of the ground floor for services, etc.

  4. I like the use of shallow stores to provide variety and hide a big box store – like the West End Safeways and London Drug example, above.
    Note that the Davie St. Safeway is about to be redeveloped by Westbank – listed here:
    WRT the London Drugs on Robson St., the business itself has a different view to the city’s requirements (one of which is transparency), which is why that location has not been renovated:
    Another grievance London Drugs has, specifically with the City of Vancouver, is that the city has “fallen in love with glass,” Mahlman said.
    The city demands that retailers use as much durable transparent plastic as possible on walls that face streets – a requirement that has deterred London Drugs from renovating stores such as one near the corner of Robson and Bute streets.
    Replacing concrete walls with expensive polycarbonate at that location not only would make it less safe if there is another post-hockey-season riot on the scale of the ones in 1994 and 2011, Malhman said, but will also diminish the value of the interior space next to the transparent walls.
    London Drugs would not be able to use its walls to present merchandise and instead would have to keep the valuable floor space next to the window free of products so customers could see inside the store.
    There are some cases where the City’s requirements for transparency for streetfront retail are subverted by the store putting up posters or window displays (the worst was Virgin Records blocking off the old library building windows). But then again, historic department stores like Hudson’s Bay have had display windows for many years, which many people fondly remember.

    1. The wording from “Another grievance…” to “…inside the store” should have been offset as a quotation, but the formatting didn’t take.

    2. PS – the Shoppers Drug Mart at Cambie & 16th is an example where the store has blocked off the windows with posters – i.e. undoubtedly due to the same floorspace issues that London Drugs is concerned about at Robson & Bute.

      1. Shoppers has the most appalling visual merchandising of any retailer. They completely ignore the window space sone of their locations are blessed with and feature faded saccharine posters that seem to occupy the windows for decades.

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