By Craig Patterson
Vancouver’s popular Robson Street has been in transition over the past several years, with some theorizing that empty storefronts represented a street that is struggling. It’s a narrative not being shared among brokers doing deals on the street as well as the BIA, however — Robson Street is hot again, and several new deals are expected to have the street roaring back with an encore, according to multiple sources.
Several international retailers recently moved onto the street. Most recently, minimalist Japanese retailer MUJI opened its largest store outside of Asia at 1125 Robson Street — curious shoppers lined-up to see the new store, which features a dramatic barrel vault glass ceiling that was once part of a small shopping galleria. A few doors down last year, French baker Ladurée opened its first Canadian location and, again, there were lineups every day for weeks just to get in. Both of these openings were on Robson Street’s 1100 block, that some had written off as being past its prime.
That’s certainly not true, according to CBRE Vancouver Associate Vice President Martin Moriarty, who continues to be in talks with international retailers seeking spaces along Robson Street’s 1000 and 1100 blocks. Due to confidentiality, Mr. Moriarty wouldn’t disclose what’s in the works, though he pointed out several recent openings that he was involved with as broker — besides the MUJI and Ladurée deals that he helped coordinate, Mr. Moriarty secured Aussie eyewear retailer Bailey Nelson’s first Canadian corporate location on the strip, as well as Nike and several other popular brands.
Over on the 1000 block (located between Burrard and Thurlow Streets), Canadian ‘cultural department store’ retailer Indigo recently announced that it would move into the former Forever 21 space at 1033 Robson Street, in a sublease deal that will see Indigo occupy a two-level, 29,000 square foot space. Indigo stores tend to be open late and its presence is expected to further draw people into the area — Indigo closed a nearby 53,000 square foot store in June of 2015, with the intention of eventually returning to the area.
Chris Wood, Northwest Atlantic Principal for Western Canada, represented Indigo in the deal and explained how Robson Street is seeing a resurgence along its stretch between the 900 and 1100 blocks — or roughly between Hornby Street and Bute Street. The 1000 block, where Indigo will be located, along with the 900 block, are currently the strongest he said— though the 1100 block is on the upswing, and its slightly lower rents will attract new tenants. Mr. Wood also noted that there could be some redevelopment plays on the street in the coming years, as land prices go up and buildings devalue as they age.
After Nordstrom opened at 799 Robson Street in September of 2015, the vibe on Robson Street began to change — crowds increasingly congregated near Nordstrom’s CF Pacific Centre store, which is a top performer (Northwest Atlantic acted on behalf of Nordstrom for the deal). Though footfall may have been reduced slightly on the westward stretch of Robson Street near the corner of Bute Street, things have more recently picked up with the addition of Ladurée and MUJI and on the 1200 block of Robson Street, Canada’s first location for French pastry retailer L’Eclaire de Genie debuted in the spring of 2017.
Other recent additions include Japanese-themed variety retailer Miniso, Montreal-based Frank & Oak (which opened a women’s store on a 12-month trial basis), and one of several recent store expansions on the street includes LUSH, which more than doubled the size of its store in the 1000 block. Vancouver-based fashion retailer Reigning Champ is about to open a store on Robson Street’s 1100 block, and Canada’s first location for beauty brand Bellami will debut this spring at 1168 Robson Street, in a retail space formerly occupied by fashion retailer Guess.
Constantly in flux, Robson Street will see some more changes in 2018 and beyond. On the 1000 block between Sephora and the Manhattan building, a new multi-level commercial building is proposed that could house one or more major retailers. Plans show the potential for a two-level 13,500 square foot space or three-level 20,000+ square foot space. CBRE is marketing the property.
Robson Street’s 1100 block could see some very significant changes in the years to come, particularly to the commercial block currently anchored by London Drugs at 1185 Robson Street. One only has to look at the recently updated BC Assessment to see that a redevelopment play is likely — the property is assessed at $75.8 million and upon closer inspection, that’s almost entirely land value — the current buildings on the site have been assessed at $89,800, making them almost worthless in comparison.
While current zoning wouldn’t allow for skyscrapers along the main Robson Street shopping stretch, multi-level commercial is allowed with height and density restrictions, and increasing rents could be enough to justify some redevelopment opportunities. Examining BC Assessment’s latest numbers, there are other properties on Robson Street that appear to have a land value that is substantially higher than on-site buildings. And while that of itself isn’t an indication that a site will be redeveloped, a cursory look at some of the dated, relatively low-density buildings on the strip provide indication that some properties are ripe for demolition — under the right circumstances, that is, with a goal of securing high-paying commercial tenants with prime street-level space housing retailers that can afford rents that may approach and even exceed $200 per square foot, annually.
Northwest Atlantic’s Chris Wood noted that the adjacent John Robson Place at 1151 Robson Street is expected to see changes to its ground level retail base — a listing shows an attractive updated facade to the building, which currently has a 1,817 square foot recap space for lease.
Teri Smith, Executive Director of the Robson Street Business Association, noted that good things are in store for Robson Street in 2018 — streetscape improvements are on the way that will include street furniture, upgraded tree wells and, at some point in the future, mid-block crossings on the 1000 and 1100 blocks. There’s an overall feeling of optimism as more people, including families from the Lower Mainland, descend into the area to see what’s new.
Robson Street’s tenant mix is generally one for mid-priced and to some degree, ‘aspirational luxury’ — at one time, there were several luxury retailers on the street, with Salvatore Ferragamo still occupying 918 Robson Street where it’s been for decades. If a ‘trickle-down’ theory were relevant here, Robson Street stands to gain from impressive growth seen a block north in the city’s burgeoning ‘Luxury Zone’, which continues to add mono-brand luxury stores that are said to be among the top performers in their respective chains, globally. In theory, those wealthy shoppers descending into the area seeking Louis Vuitton bags and Van Cleef & Arpels jewellery may also pay a visit to Robson Street for something a bit more affordable — these days, consumers often tend to shop ‘high-and-low’, though that doesn’t appear to have helped Forever 21 remain in the area. Luxury brands are now encroaching on the periphery of the Robson Street BIA, so there’s tremendous proximity — Versace, Brunello Cucinelli, Saint Laurent, Escada and Moncler are all located on the 700 block of Thurlow Street just north of Robson Street and, soon, luxury streetwear brand Off-White will open a licensed location in the restored alleyway between Robson and Alberni Streets’ 1000 blocks.
The street continues to find its place with a renewed identity, which is being helped by public-realm improvements such as a recent decision to make a temporary parkette on Bute Street permanent — a half-block stretch of Bute Street south of Robson Street was closed off to cars on a trial basis over the summer, with overwhelmingly positive feedback. The plan is to make the plaza a permanent fixture, which will include an investment to make it as people friendly as possible, according to Teri Smith of the Robson Street BIA.
There continues to be optimism in regards to Robson Street, which appears to be having a resurgence as Vancouver’s primary outdoor commercial high street. New retailers, as well as the eventual redevelopment of some properties, will continue to solidify Robson Street as an important retail address. We’ll follow up periodically and provide further updates, as we’re told that there will be several significant retail tenant announcements for Robson Street in the coming months.