Why Are There So Many Empty Stores on Our Biggest Shopping Streets?

Our City Informer elaborates on the current retail real estate crisis.

If you have ever been in the market for luxury baby footwear, or a cashmere sweater to wear as you hold your luxury baby, you know that South Granville is the place to go. People come from miles around to enjoy everything “The Baby Shoe District” has to offer, but as of late, tiny Italian sneakers aren’t the only things this neighbourhood has in abundance—“For Lease” signs are pretty hot, too.SoGra (are we calling it that?) is currently facing a 10 percent retail vacancy rate. Vancouver’s other main drags are also looking sparse these days: the West End’s BIA reports 12 percent vacancy. Compare that to a healthy rate of about four percent—a turnover just high enough to keep retail districts fun and fresh without upsetting those of us who come from broken homes and have developed a crippling resistance to change—and you would be right to conclude we have a bit of a retail real estate crisis on our hands. Business licences throughout the city dropped 3.5 percent between 2010 and 2015.

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It’s only natural that businesses come and go (R.I.P., Freddy Pant Room), but it’s strange that these places are staying empty, considering how in-demand Vancouver real estate is. And with so much retail space up for rent, shouldn’t everyone be trying to woo Pottery Barn Teen with competitive pricing to self-correct this influx of availability? If I were a retail landlord (as I am in my latest self-published fantasy novel), I would rather have some monthly income than nothing.Sure, there’s really only so low landlords can go with the rent once they factor in the crazy-high property tax (like the $100K bill charged to one restaurant on 14th Avenue)…but it also turns out there are limits to the laws of supply and demand. According to Sharon Townsend, executive director of the South Granville BIA, a lot of commercial landlords don’t care about rental income at all. Retail buildings are increasingly owned by developers focused on a long-term vision, she says—people with deep pockets who are happy to squat on a place for decades, with or without renters, to await the sweet returns of future redevelopment. For these retail barons, the actual “retail” part isn’t important. So cherish your Pretty Woman-style shopping sprees while you can before our main drags go full-on ghost town.

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