At the corner of Abbott and Cordova streets in Vancouver stands a furniture boutique with the hushed and rarefied atmosphere of a sacred temple. Bulthaup, the city's first outlet of the prestigious German kitchen outfitters, was brought into Gastown by Inform Interiors, the area's long-standing mother ship of retail design. An impossibly well-equipped kitchen-tool cabinet is "focused on practical requirements," according to Bulthaup's lush monograph/catalogue - although to anyone who can ingest the $18,000 price tag, practicality might not be the primary criterion.
To market watchers, the emergence of what might be called extreme design is a harbinger of revitalization for the rest of the 'hood. "Everyone keeps on saying that I'm crazy to do this," says Inform head Niels Bendtsen. "But when I do it and it works, they say, 'Oh, how wonderful!'"
For players such as Inform, who have made the area their professional homes as well as the home of their retail outlets, it also brands their core design business, and enhances their property investment. Inform principal Niels Bendtsen convinced the Bulthaup reps to locate in Gastown rather than pursuing their original preference for the glittery, high-traffic, higher-priced Robson-Thurlow area. It made sense for both their businesses, says Bendtsen.
"It still takes guts to start something here, even today," says Bendtsen. But he's unflappable - and he's doing all right. He reports that, among other products, Bulthaup has sold six full kitchens since it opened in May. That doesn't sound like a bonanza until you take into account that the kitchens run around $150,000.
Bounded by the CPR tracks, Hastings, Columbia and Cambie streets, Gastown is Vancouver's original downtown. Founded in 1867 when steamboat captain (Gassy) Jack Deighton opened the Lower Mainland's first saloon there, it had foundered in recent decades as restrictive zoning and an infusion of tacky tourist shops rendered it an unfashionable backwater. But Gastown has been gentrifying for several years now, as residential zoning has become more flexible, enabling a renovation of its century-old brick office buildings and warehouses.
But just in the last year, the area has assumed the enhanced role of archi-town: both a go-to enclave for architects and designers looking to source products; and a place for them to set up shop. Retailers like Koolhaas, Nood and p + a furniture have moved into the neighbourhood, joining the handful of homesteader design firms that include Propeller and Solus, which had originally moved there for the cheap rent.
"Gastown has become the design epicentre of the city," says Robert Fung, of the Salient Group, one of the main developers in the district. "There's a growing attitude that this area is where all the talent and creative energy of the city lie."
And where creative talents go, higher property values soon follow. While much of Vancouver's condo market has yet to recover from last year's meltdown, Gastown condos have jumped to an average of $440,000 per unit in 2009 - a swift recovery from $380,000 last year, and a notch above the previous high of $439,000 in 2007, according to the Greater Vancouver Real Estate Board.
"Gastown, 10 or 15 years ago - there wasn't much product," says realtor Ed Gramauskas of loftsvancouver.com, who specializes in the neighbourhood. Now, with the Taylor Building, Greenshields, Koret and Woodward's properties on stream, the younger, artsier crowd is moving in.
"The majority of loft buyers aren't shopping at Inform," says Gramauskas, because Inform's price points are usually out of their league. Still, this is the sort of crowd that's attracted to the mere presence of design studios and boutiques. "It's got that cachet of cool now," says Gramauskas.
"The people who are moving into this area have a design aesthetic," adds Royal Lepage realtor Sebastian Albrecht, who is now focusing on selling units from the new Woodward's tower at Abbott and Cordova. "They aren't going to be moving into the West End, for example."
And that other edgy loft-lovers' mecca, Yaletown, has already renovated or built out its existing stock, notes Albrecht. Plus, Yaletown - for better or worse, depending on your perspective - is homogenizing into a polished enclave of well-groomed metrosexuals, much of its erstwhile industrial grime polished away.
Gastown, by contrast, is still overtly gritty - which appeals to both edge seekers and to those who figure they're getting in on the ground floor. "There are two camps," notes Albrecht, "some who like the grit, and others who hope it's going to go away."
"I don't think it's gentrification in the negative sense," says Fung. "It's more about finding the balance." Not only is the neighbourhood maintaining housing stock for a diversity of income groups, he notes, it's also maintaining a "homegrown" design initiative, driven by locally based designers such as shoe designer John Fluevog, who opened his new flagship store across the street from Inform; and renowned interior designer Shelley Penner, who recently opened a studio-cum-retail outlet - p + a furniture - on the area's southwestern periphery.
Earlier this year, Penner made the leap from a home office to a prominent setting in the restored Flack Block at Hastings and Cambie streets, prompted by the growing influx of other design outlets in the area. "Gastown has become a real furniture hub for the city," notes Penner. "I opened p + a to offer not just furniture, but also home and personal accessories, with a sustainability theme." Crucially, p + a addresses that lust for sustainable cool at all points of the price spectrum, offering everything from $3,000 eucalyptus king-size headboards to $31 aromatic soy-wax candles.
Inform Projects partner Harvey Rehal adds that Gastown is becoming a design epicentre far beyond the Lower Mainland. "We're not just talking local," says Rehal. "We're talking about Alberta, Quebec, areas of the United States, all coming down here to see what's there.
Now that the A & D community is digging in its heels, says Rehal, it's enhancing the rest of the neighbourhood as well. "The real-estate value is increasing because people are coming out and opening up really good shops. … It's no longer just us, with a T-shirt shop and a bad coffee shop next door."
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