Moha Bateni crosses his arms and gazes out his storefront window. Across the street a crush of pedestrians file in and out of the King Edward transit stop on the Canada Line, but not one gives his business a second glance.
The Iranian-born Bateni is in the process of closing Authentic Rugs & Art, a business he’s owned for 14 years. He’s slashed 80 per cent off his remaining inventory of Persian rugs and plans to convert the space into a furniture store in a last-ditch hope that dining sets and bookcases will be more appealing to customers than high-end carpets. The combination of steep rents, chilled sales and property taxes – which have nearly doubled since the 2009 installation of the Canada Line – have sliced his financial situation to ribbons.
“For the past three and a half years, I’ve had very little business,” Bateni said. “It’s difficult to make a living here.”
According to urban-planning principles, this corner – served by the rapid-transit Canada Line and situated on an arterial and a major bus route – should be ripe for businesses. Every other stop on the line has seen development blossom around it. But those principles are being put to the test, as current businesses struggle on a corner that’s been dubbed the Bermuda Triangle by locals and as everyone tries to figure out the precise formula for success in this one-block commercial strip.
Larry Frank, an expert in sustainable urban transportation systems at the University of British Columbia, believes that the potential is there for a multi-use, pedestrian and business-friendly hub.
“There are opportunities for density at the intersection of King Edward and Cambie, particularly right above the station,” said Frank via email. “It’s essential [for Vancouver] to intensify development along our rail lines.”
But Richard Wozny, a Vancouver retail consultant who specializes in malls, says people shouldn’t assume just anything will succeed. He believes the location could be a gold mine for the right type of retail – small service-oriented storefronts like barbershops, cafes, newsstands, and fast-food outlets.
That’s not good news for store owners like Bateni, who aren’t able to capitalize on the existing foot traffic.
Business should fit neighbourhood dynamic
“The types of businesses that will thrive there should offer the normal neighbourhood conveniences,” Wozny said. “It’s a great place to invest in.”
The challenge for Bateni and his neighbours is that, even while property values and taxes have been skyrocketing thanks to the Canada Line and the city’s plan to allow redevelopment, businesses are hurting because this intersection seems perpetually resistant to growth and development.
Coming out from the Canada Line stop feels like stepping into a ghost town. Though the commercial district consists of a row of shops facing each other between 24th and King Edward, there are seven unoccupied storefronts. TransLink sold a vacant lot to a large real estate development company almost a year ago, but so far the land sits empty.
The buyer, Yuanheng Holdings, Ltd., purchased the lot for $9.4 million in November 2011, with a proposed 18,000 square feet of mixed-use mid-rise retail, office & residential development.
Wozny said that when condo units do go up, businesses that invest in ground-floor storefronts should find the neighbourhood more sustainable.
Johannes Angai, who runs Helping Hands Cleaners on the east side of Cambie, says he would like to believe the proposed residential development will provide a customer base for his ailing business. After 10 years, he’s not sure he can afford to wait.
Customers slow to embrace retail corner
Angai said it hasn’t helped that some of his customers have fled to larger houses in the suburbs, having sold their bungalows to cash in on the rising property values.
Marty Strong is one of the homeowners who stayed. A lifetime Vancouver resident who worked as an on-air DJ for several local radio stations, he lives just south of the King Edward stop on West 28th Avenue.
He said he hopes the going-out-of-business signs and empty storefronts are the indicators of a neighbourhood in transition, a precursor to the promised boom of multi-use development.
But at this moment, Strong says, the King Edward-Cambie intersection is simply not a destination zone.
“It’s always been a bit of a Bermuda Triangle,” he says. “Nobody is getting off the [Canada Line] to shop there. It’s odd when you think about it.”