With the rollout of the Greenest City strategy and its separated bike lanes component, Downtown Vancouver retailers are resisting changes to their local streetscapes.
Upon examining this phenomenon, conclusions could be speculated including a natural resistance by retailers to any change, which is not either generated internally by a retailer, or collectively with their associations. This is not unlike how business prefers to operate unless forced to change by outside elements, by market place changes, by bank managers, or by impending bankruptcy. Another hypothesis may be a preference for the “status quo” while business continues to migrate to the suburbs. Also, it may be conjured that retail businesses owners, property owners, and property mangers as a group have not bought into the Greenest City strategy and its favourable local economic impacts, which come with that strategy.
In Europe, cities and downtown merchants have realized the benefits to their business emanating from traffic-calmed streets. These cities have turned over some streets to people walking and cycling. Car and commercial vehicle access has been limited to hours when people are not on the streets shopping or enjoying eateries. Stores migrate to outdoor merchandising. Big boxes, chain stores, and specialized local stores all benefit. These businesses are attracted to these streets. People are also attracted from the neighbouring region to these downtown streets. Merchants clamor for the expansion of their people street network.
Lessons from Downtown Denver, Colorado
A stay in Denver on a Labour Day weekend, highlighted the attraction of such streets with a milieu of people enjoying stores, eateries, and the vibrant atmosphere. People took time to sit in outdoor restaurants. People took time to sit on street furniture, the chairs, benches, and sitting blocks located in the
boulevard down the middle of the street. People were absorbed in conversations. Some sat in front of pianos and played to their hearts’ content. 16th Street has been reconfigured from a conventional arterial road, most probably a one-way street. Now there are two narrow bus-only lanes, flanked by wide sidewalks with outdoor eating spaces. Cyclists and buses seem to share the space. Sometimes the sidewalks on each side of the street are of the same width. Sometimes the sunnier side is wider, sometimes by almost fifty percent. Sometimes there is a wide median located in between the bus lanes decorated with trees, sitting areas, and space for selling or entertaining. Buses travel constantly with headspace of a block or two or so. Speed is slow. These buses are purpose-built with drivers on the curbside and with four doors for quick, highly efficient loading. On this street, the ride is free. Police park their cars, take their bikes off the rear racks, and patrol the street by cycling, having time to talk to pedestrians. It may be surmised that there may have been some careful store location planning to keep the street lively.
Downtown Vancouver –Lagging Behind with Car-Oriented 1960-1970′s Retail Models
Meantime, Downtown Vancouver retailers prefer to keep their street the same way they were in the 1960’ s and 1970’s – car-oriented. Meanwhile their customer base has changed. No longer is this area a regional destination. People no longer have any compelling reasons to come downtown to shop or to eat. In the past, the big box stores, department stores, and locally owned, specialized stores were only located downtown. Now, the big box stores have moved to the suburbs, sometimes with stores and merchandise lines larger than downtown. Restaurants have moved and popped up in the suburbs, as well. Only the concentration of bars in the downtown area keeps people coming. It is not unusual to hear unsolicited comments that people have stopped going downtown, since they can shop locally. For instance, Chinatown has effectively moved to Richmond and expanded there, leaving only an older, local shopping component behind in downtown.
In Step with Recent Residential Population Growth in Downtown?
During all this time, there have been changes in the downtown peninsula. Resident population has grown significantly. However, retailers have not shifted their focus to this new market, which has been developing since the 1990’s. Instead, the owners, developers, and property managers have focused on big boxes, forcing specialty stores to look to the suburbs. Has this strategy really worked or has it resulted in regional customers shopping more locally? Has this strategy even worked for the downtown peninsula dwellers? Where do they go to shop, south of False Creek?
Vancouver has seen a resurgence in farmers’ markets. Have the downtown retailers taken advantage of this trend to attract more people to shop there? Have streets been closed downtown for such a market?
The basis of free economics has not prevailed downtown. Supply and demand is supposed to set the prices for rent. Downtown retail rents keep rising, while retailers are complaining of hard times and looking for assistance from the city’s residents through their municipal Council, in one form or another, including provision of on-street parking. There is a case to be made that this is a form of city subsidy to the retailers, when full cost accounting techniques are applied. Rent prices keep locally based specialty store operators out of downtown.
While residents in European cities from small to large populations are flocking to their downtown people streets, while farmers’ and other markets are held in their downtown streets, downtown Vancouver retailers are going in the opposite direction, by continuing on with their retailing habits of the ’60’s.
Arguments have been put forth that now may be time for downtown retailers, developers, and landowners to embrace what Europe has learned many decades ago. Are we really different than Europe, contrary to the standard rhetoric that is thrown out when change is not embraced? Are we really
different than other global places where use of city streets is given to first to shopping? The reality is that most of us in Vancouver come from Europe, Asia, or from other lands, either as first, second, or third generation Canadians. So, is there a big difference, which would prevail against people streets? Did the Olympics not demonstrate an appetite for people streets?
Arguments against people streets and against Greenest City streets with separated bike lanes are sometimes based on the expectation that people have of being able to find parking right in front of their destination retail stores. On the other hand, reality tends to be that people may have to park farther away and walk back three or four blocks or so. Then, is there a real argument against providing short-term parking in car garages within this catchment area?
Arguments are made that people prefer to park on streets than in parking lots. Would the free market pricing argument not prevail that the market determines parking prices for on-street parking and that these premium, desired parking spots should be priced at premium rates? Would the elasticity of pricing then be such that motorists would seek out lower-cost, off-street parking? By using free market pricing principles, on-street parking should be priced at a premium to the level that free market pricing demands for event parking downtown, at sometimes ten and twenty times more than the going rate for off-road parking outside of an event parking catchment area.
Maybe it is time for downtown retailers to seriously reconsider their retailing direction and embrace and work with Vancouverites in transforming some streets to people streets, to Greenest City streets, to Livable Communities streets.