Gastown struggles under COVID-19 restrictions

Loss of cruise industry this year has hit historic Vancouver neighbourhood hard

Gastown’s Army and Navy store was an early casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic. Roughly two dozen businesses have closed in the area since the beginning of 2020  | Nelson Bennett

Gastown is Vancouver’s oldest commercial district and consistently ranks as one of the city’s top must-see attractions in tourist guides.

Not surprisingly, then, Gastown businesses were hit hard this year by COVID-19 pandemic travel restrictions.

Many Gastown businesses were forced to close for two months in the spring, and by the time they reopened, international travel restrictions had resulted in a drastic drop in business, most notably from the cruise industry.

“There was a visible change in our streets in the summer due to that,” said Walley Wargolet, owner of Dutil Denim and director for the Gastown Business Improvement Society (BIS). “When you come down you’ll see there’s a change in the vibrancy of our neighbourhood now due to COVID.”

Wargolet said business at his Dutil Denim store has been down 30% to 60% since reopening in June.

Anyone familiar with Gastown can’t help but note all the empty street-level shops these days, although Wargolet points out that several empty storefronts are from businesses that closed or moved before the pandemic.

And it looked at lot worse in April and May, when most storefronts were boarded up. Like so many Gastown businesses, Kimprints boarded up its windows while it was shut down.

“It just looked horrible down here,” said store owner Kim Briscoe, who hired local artists to paint a mural of provincial and federal public health officers Bonnie Henry and Theresa Tam on the plywood covering her store windows. The idea caught fire, and became the Murals of Gratitude project, which paid tribute to public health officials and frontline workers. About 70 businesses had artists paint storefronts that had been boarded up.

There are currently more than half a dozen empty storefronts in a single block along Water Street. Some are under renovation and will reopen with new tenants.

Three of those storefronts are in a single building – 155 Water Street – that had been vacated well before the pandemic. Low Tide Properties is redeveloping the property into a seven-storey commercial building. Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq:MSFT) is reported be one of the office building’s future tenants.

“Some of those closures are COVID related,” Wargolet said. “The others would be businesses that I know personally that were leaving even before COVID for a variety of reasons.”

He estimates 20 businesses in Gastown have gone out of business or moved since the pandemic hit. About half appear to be direct casualties of the pandemic.

The first and most noteworthy casualty may have been the century-old Army and Navy store on West Cordova Street, which closed March 18 in the pandemic lockdown.

Phase 1 lockdown restrictions may have been the final nail in the coffin for the Army and Navy. In May, the chain’s owner announced that the Cordova Street store and four other Army and Navy stores in Canada would permanently close.

Stefanie Schulz, executive director of the Gastown Business Improvement Society, said of the 24 business that have closed or moved since the beginning of 2020, 23 new tenants have been found, though some have not yet occupied their offices or storefronts. Some of the empty street-level stores are being used temporarily as pop-up stores; others sport signs of new businesses planning to open in Gastown.

There are 500 small businesses in Gastown. The most visible are the street-level bars, cafes, souvenir shops, art galleries and high-end retail stores.

But there are also many service oriented businesses – architects, high-tech companies, film and TV production companies – that occupy the upper levels of Gastown’s commercial buildings. Many of those offices are either empty or running with skeleton crews, as most of their employees work from home.

That, too, has taken a toll on local restaurants and coffee shops.

Majid Shekarchi, owner of the World Wrap Place  donair shop, said business from local employees who work in Gastown businesses is down 90%. Overall, business is down about 70%, he said.

Wargolet said provincial and federal supports have helped keep many business in Gastown afloat. A federal rent subsidy to small businesses is particularly welcome.

But the pandemic underscored a problem in the City of Vancouver’s official community plan for the Downtown Eastside: limits on residential development.

Unlike other commercial districts in Vancouver, there are lower residential densities in Gastown, Wargolet said, and that is by design. Having more people living in Gastown would have helped during the pandemic, because it would have provided more built-in customers for restaurants and other shops. •