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Future of Robson Street no longer a certainty

Retail spaces for lease along Vancouver's Robson Street ar

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

When it comes to Robson Street, deals are nothing new – but those deals in downtown Vancouver's shopping district usually involve clothes or shoes, not the stores themselves.

Vancouver's most famous street has been hit by a wave of vacancies. An unusually high number of retailers – including HMV, Starbucks, Tommy Hilfiger, Guess, Esprit and Payless Shoes – have closed shop, and several storefronts sit empty. The Levi's store remains open, but has a large "for lease" sign at its window.

Industry observers blame the exodus on some of the highest retail rents in the country, plus a tough economic climate. However, Robson does face other problems. Many of its high-profile chain stores can also be found in the nearby Pacific Centre mall, unique items are difficult to find, and the narrow sidewalks are often jammed.

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Some believe the shopping district has grown stale and is in need of reinvention.

David Ian Gray, owner of retail consulting firm DIG360, said Robson's star has somewhat diminished because other Vancouver shopping areas have emerged.

"It used to be the place," Mr. Gray said of Robson. "Now it's one of the places."

Robson Street – a 2.5-kilometre stretch that spans from BC Place Stadium on the east to Lost Lagoon on the west – was named after John Robson, B.C.'s premier from 1889 to 1892. The street's early claim to fame was its streetcar, but it evolved into "Robsonstrasse" after the Second World War because of its European shops and schnitzel eateries.

Civic historian John Atkin said it was during the 1980s that Robson shifted from a largely residential shopping area to a destination shopping area. Although there are retailers – and for-lease signs – throughout Robson, the hub is a three-block section from Burrard to Jervis. (Sears, which will soon leave its Robson location, is three blocks east of Burrard, on Granville).

Despite its high rent, Robson is not home to high-end stores – it's viewed as mid-market.

Mario Negris, senior vice-president of retail properties for commercial real estate firm CBRE, said one of the non-economic challenges the Robson shopping district has faced is a lack of innovation.

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"If you walked down that street a year or two ago, you could find any tenant in a suburban mall here. It got a bit stale as a result of that," he said.

Mr. Negris said he expects new retailers to fix that problem. J. Crew just opened, and Forever 21 is erecting a 39,000-square-foot store. There have been persistent rumours that Victoria's Secret will soon arrive, but the lingerie retailer's parent company would not confirm that information. Mr. Negris said the space previously held by Guess has just been leased to a European shoe retailer.

Swapping old chain stores for new is one way to reinvigorate – as Mr. Negris put it, certain retailers that were fashionable before are less fashionable now. New, trendy stores should draw a crowd.

However, that won't fix all that ails Robson.

Alberni, with its high-end stores, is Vancouver's version of Rodeo Drive. And more affordable retail spaces at Main Street and Gastown offer more unique experiences and businesses.

Leanore Sali, executive director of the Gastown Business Improvement Society, said she recently met a woman from New York who chose to shop in Gastown because it was where she would find one-of-a-kind items. The woman, Ms. Sali recalled, said anything she wanted from the chain stores on Robson could just as easily be picked up in New York.

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The Robson Street Business Association did not respond to calls and e-mails requesting an interview. The Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association said while the number of vacancies does appear higher, it remains bullish about retail downtown.

Gordon Price, a former city councillor and director of The City Program at Simon Fraser University, has lived in downtown's West End for three decades. Mr. Price said window shopping on Robson is "not pleasant" because the narrow sidewalks are often brimming with people. The pedestrian issue is a difficult one, though, because of a lack of space.

Avtar Bains, president of real estate investment firm Premise Properties Ltd., also cited the importance of the pedestrian experience. He suggested building a new SkyTrain stop to usher people directly into the shopping district.

At an indoor mall, where there's only one owner, the landlord can offer a sweetheart deal to bring in a popular store, and create a theme among different businesses. Sherman Scott, associate vice-president of retail at Colliers, said that's more difficult on Robson because there is fragmented ownership.

While the problems are evident, none of the people interviewed believe the Robson shopping district is at death's door. It's simply too important.

"Every city needs a commercial strip like Robson," Mr. Bains said.

Added Mr. Price: "It's a street you can't kill."

Amber Sessions, a Tourism Vancouver spokeswoman, said she hasn't heard any complaints from tourists about empty storefronts on Robson. "I don't think anyone thinks the vacancies are a cause for concern," Ms. Sessions said.

Craig Haziza, vice-president of retail for Cushman and Wakefield, said Robson historically has one of the highest turnover rates in the city. Mr. Haziza did note, however, that the number of vacant units right now appears higher than normal.

The shopping district is far from Robson's only intriguing area. A number of Asian restaurants have sprung up on the west side, a result of the language-school students who live in the area. The east side is sure to change drastically as Telus develops its new office tower.

David Goldman, owner of Boys' Co., said he doesn't believe Robson has grown stale. He said it's gone through a transition that manifested in some empty stores.

"If anything," he said, "Robson's about to embark on a resurgence."

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