Empty storefronts in Kitsilano have some retailers and business leaders wishing more were being done to save independent local shops.
Vacant stores sit beside each other on the neighbourhood’s two main shopping streets. Surrounding streets fare better, but not by much.
As of March 31, there were 45 empty stores along West Broadway and West Fourth Avenue between Alma and Burrard. While several remain open for the time being, “For lease” signs in their windows suggest they may soon join the growing vacancies.
A report released by the City of Vancouver this February said that vacancy rates among business properties were no longer an issue due to efforts over past years to stabilize property taxes. It concluded that there was no need to shift any more taxes from commercial properties onto residential ones to relieve pressure on businesses as there had been in previous years.
However, shop owners, BIA members, and economists in Kitsilano see a different picture when they look at the neighbourhood.
For lease signs
Cheryl Ziola, executive director of the Kitsilano Chamber of Commerce, is aware that affordability in Kitsilano is typically seen as a residential issue and not a business problem.
But she is concerned about the growing vacancies in her neighbourhood.
“You’ve noticed that there are a lot of ‘For lease’ signs these days,” said Ziola, “and this is a matter of some importance to this community that’s been largely ignored by the mainstream media.”
She would like to see more done to care for those leasing non-residential properties in ways similar to how residential renters are protected.
“People who own these properties can charge whatever rent they want, and they can increase it by whatever amount they want when the lease is up,” said Ziola, “Whereas when you look at the residential-property system, if you’re renting an apartment, your landlord can only raise it by a certain percentage each year.”
[toggle title=”Retail in Kitsilano”][list type=”arrow”] [li]Average retail lease in Kitsilano is between $30 and $60 per square foot.[/li] [li]In 2006, lease rates were as low as $22 per square foot.[/li] [li]As of January 2006, only seven per cent of commercial buildings in Kitsilano were built pos- 1991. [/li] [li]First Lululemon store opened in Kitsilano, on West Fourth Avenue, in November 2000.[/li][/list][/toggle]
Some of these growing vacancies that concern Ziola are spaces that have sat empty for months and, in some cases, even years.
Ron Fryer owns a business that has weathered the ups and downs of the business rental market in Kitsilano. His used bookstore, Kestrel Books, has been on West Fourth Avenue for over a decade.
It has sat next to an empty store for almost two years.
“It’s a huge space. Most small retailers can’t afford that kind of rent,” said Fryer, “but if they sub-divided, turned it into two, but that would mean putting a few thousand dollars, and permits, but what if you had done that three years ago?”
Fryer believes the initial attraction of saving money, which would have been at a time when the property-tax system was much more imbalanced, has now left streets like his with vacancies that stand to continue for years.
Bill Ritchie has had his store, Rescued A.R.T, on the same street for about eight months and has been watching the vacant space by Fryer since before he got to the neighbourhood.
“That space is twice the size of here, and it’s even in a more active block,” said Ritchie, “but I looked at that space before [I came here] and that space is still empty.”
The property Ritchie ended up picking is close to a third the size of the still unoccupied space. While it costs him less, at the time he was concerned about his location on the street. Today he thanks his past self for prioritizing budget over beauty.
Roslyn Kunin, president of the economic consultancy Roslyn Kunin and Associates Inc., recently noted that only an average of four new businesses were licenced per year in Vancouver between 1999 and 2012. These numbers are bad news for the city since such information could scare away new business needed to resolve the issue.
She said that since the demand for retail space is diminishing, alternative ideas, like Fryer’s proposition to sub-divide, need to be considered to handle the ongoing vacancies.
“You could adjust zoning so people have an option, even on commercial streets, of not being obliged to always have the first floor in commercial use if there is no demand,” said Kunin, “[…] to allow at least some of these street level spaces to be used for residential or other purposes.”
[pullquote align=”right”]We really work hard to draw attention to our neighbourhood[/pullquote]While economists and shop owners try to find unconventional ways around retail vacancies, successful BIAs, like the West Fourth BIA, remain focused on tried and true methods of boosting business.
The West Fourth BIA’s strip between Burrard and Balsam is doing well in comparison to the rest of Kitsilano, with only eight vacant stores. But the issue, especially along West Broadway, has manager Russ Davies paying attention for the sake of his BIA’s members. He feels that someone must as most people vote in a way that helps their home, not necessarily their business.
“If you’re voting, you know, you’re voting as a resident, and not necessarily as a business owner,” said Davies, “so in a lot of ways property owners don’t really have a say, and that’s where the BIA comes in, and we fight on their behalf.”
Davies insists that in light of the area’s current situation, which he said is currently “in a valley instead of a peak,” BIAs need to put in the extra effort to support their shop owners.
“We have managed to maintain, but we really work hard to draw attention to our neighbourhood,” he said. “We promote our categories, we promote our restaurants, we have developed a brand that shoppers or guests can identify with.”
While such marketing strategies seem like an obvious suggestion for retailers, they are valid ones as many lack the kind of presence and promotion that is required to survive these days.
Ron Fryer thanks his online presence for his ongoing success as an independent retailer, but not all adapt to the changing landscape so easily.
“I’m busier than I’ve been in 30 years,” said Fryer, who goes out of his way to find even out-of-print titles, “but I’ve been online since 1999, and I know it, and people will find me that way. I get about 15 per cent of my business that way.”
And what Fryer credits his steady business to is also the advice economist Roslyn Kunin said she would give to concerned merchants: “How is your website?”