Alberni Street’s Ritzy Evolution

The buzz and clank and bang of construction clatters at the corner of Alberni and Thurlow streets where the innards of a building stand exposed. What once housed a ratty 7-Eleven is now a skeleton, the concrete bones of a luxe future shepherded by Concord Pacific. Marquee names such as diamond purveyor De Beers and women’s goods seller Tory Burch are already enlisted to fill the space-the developer is staking its cash on the transformation of the once-ragged stretch of Alberni into a flowering of Vancouver’s luxury row.

It’s not yet quite there, more like a gangly teenager pocked by acne. Amid the beacons of wealth on a one-block stretch-note the Bentleys, Ferraris, Lamborghinis outside Coast and Black + Blue restaurants on Friday night-stand the likes of Michaels arts and crafts store and a buy-crap-cheap Dollar Tree. Though not fully formed, the street is doubtless in thrall.

The money, say all those with a stake in Alberni, is a local and international infusion, from Asia, and particularly China-the nouveau riche. It’s not tourists. It’s locals, part-time and otherwise. It’s the primary reason De Beers, whose focus is Asia, chose Vancouver to launch into Canada. And the trend reverberates down the block. At Tiffany & Co., customers of Asian heritage and local residence have, in the past several years, marked “a significant change and a significant part of our business,” says Rob Ferguson, group director of Tiffany’s operations in Western Canada.

Seven years ago, Hermès set up shop on the corner of Alberni and Burrard across from Louis Vuitton in the Hotel Vancouver. Tiffany soon followed on the opposite corner. “A golden triangle,” says broker Mario Negris of CBRE, who did the Tiffany deal and others on the street, including the new Concord Pacific project. The emergence of a nexus of luxury is a standard template. On Fifth Avenue in New York, Tiffany is directly across from Louis Vuitton, much like on the Magnificent Mile in Chicago and Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills.

But Alberni is none of those three famed names, neither purpose built for luxury retailers nor likely to be fully dominated by them. Restaurateur Emad Yacoub, of the Glowbal restaurant group, remembers what the street looked like when he opened his first room on the block, Italian Kitchen, after the arrival of Tiffany. “A bowling alley,” he calls it, sitting on his new $2-million rooftop patio at Black + Blue where he pays more than $1 million annually in rent. If Alberni is to flourish, it can’t all be impossibly priced retail. Shops like the locally owned Blubird, both he and Ferguson at Tiffany agree, are essential. “The scales are delicate,” Yacoub says. “You could lose the charm. But I wouldn’t invest if I didn’t see where the street is going.”

Ian Gillespie sees the same, and broader. The Westbank co-developer of Shangri-La, where Burberry took a gamble to establish itself four years ago, speaks about a broader square-West Georgia to Robson, Burrard to Thurlow, and maybe as far as Bute. Gillespie believes the opening of Victoria’s Secret at Robson and Burrard will radiate across the burgeoning downtown pocket. “Everyone just assumes it’s Robson Street, Robson Street, Robson Street,” says Gillespie, at his Coal Harbour office in a black Armani zip-up sweater and charcoal Prada pants. “The new tenants are sending a different message.”


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