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Gastown, Chinatown re-emerging from COVID economic malaise

Optimism up for merchants, businesses in Vancouver’s hard-hit historic neighbourhoods
Chinatown is recovering after struggling with a visible decline in shoppers during the pandemic that further discouraged visitors and pedestrian traffic in the neighbourhood | Chung Chow

For downtown’s two most distinctly historic neighbourhoods, the pandemic and the resulting decline in office-worker numbers, retail foot traffic and tourists have seriously dented business in the past year.

Both Gastown and Chinatown, however, are poised to rebound. Officials confirmed that, with restaurants now reopened and COVID caseloads dropping quickly, both neighbourhoods are already seeing the return of consumers and are eagerly awaiting the return of more office workers to further boost business prospects into 2022.

“Everyone I’m talking to is seeing a jump in terms of traffic in the last couple of weeks,” said Walley Wargolet, executive director of the Gastown Business Improvement Association. “There’s a real high sense of optimism. We have a couple of high-profile pop-ups coming here in the next little while, and they chose us because this is a good shopping place – even if it’s for the short term.

“We are happy to welcome people back.”

Wargolet confirmed that Gastown, like other downtown neighbourhoods, endured a tough stretch in 2020 and early 2021 in losing 35 businesses to the pandemic-related economic malaise. But he added that the neighbourhood also saw the opening of 30 shops during that time, which mitigated the overall impact of the closures. Another big boost has been the return of local tourists – people from within the Lower Mainland and Fraser Valley – in the last month.

“The beauty of Gastown is that it really is a community,” he said. “There’s a tonne of independent businesses, and we shouldered everything together … while staying focused on the positives. We have amazing restaurants and more than 33 patios and 500 seats, so it’s true 2020 was a challenge, but Gastown is intact.”

For nearby Chinatown, the pandemic struggle has equally abated with the end of the circuit-breaker health regulations.

Jordan Eng, president of the Chinatown Business Improvement Association, said June’s stretch of warm weather has brought a surprising number of patrons out to the neighbourhood’s restaurants and bars – especially in the early evenings.

“I did an interview on TV on a Tuesday night, and Keefer Street was hopping,” Eng said. “People were out on the patios. It reflects how much Chinatown has evolved as a destination; we have 60 food-services-related businesses in Chinatown, and about 20 were opened within the last 10 years. It’s not cheap Chinese food; we have some of the top restaurants and bars in the city.”

But the pandemic did open eyes for both Eng and Wargolet – especially to challenges that were magnified by the pandemic. In Chinatown, for example, the lack of consumer foot traffic and the community’s proximity to Downtown Eastside led to a migration of drug use, mental health problems and homelessness into the neighbourhood.

That, in turn, discouraged the community’s sizable elderly population from leaving their homes, Eng said. The result was a vicious circle where fewer consumers on the streets led to the closure of more businesses, which in turn further limited the number of shoppers in the area.

“So there’s two levels of fear at play here in the neighbourhood: the fear of COVID and the fear of safety and cleanliness,” Eng said, adding that graffiti “is a big part of that,” because it affects how people perceive the neighbourhood.

“What we found is that stores were opening for short hours because of the foot traffic, and that snowballs into itself because if you aren’t open, people won’t come down. That has been the biggest struggle – and continues to be the biggest struggle.”

Eng added that the City of Vancouver has been better in helping this month, sending more street cleanup crews to maintain the neighbourhood. But he urges municipal officials to continue such efforts and not “forget about Chinatown” or lump it in with nearby communities when managing the city’s planning and resources.

“As a community, we are easy to set aside because we haven’t been as vocal as some others,” Eng said, noting the BIA met with council in 2019 to speak on the issue. “The key is sustainability. You can do it one day, and the people would return and mark things up again. If you can’t do the cleaning regularly, then you really haven’t done your job. We have a pretty high tolerance point in Chinatown, but it has really hit a tipping point this past year.”

In Gastown, Wargolet said, the municipal cleanup has been flawless – the neighbourhood has maintained its attractiveness without too much trouble. The issue for the neighbourhood, he said, was that there were few people to see it. Without tourists and office workers in 2020, the community had to lean on its own 4,000 residents for business – something that can improve with better planning, he said.

“We want to talk to the city about more development of housing. One thing the pandemic taught us is that other neighbourhoods weren’t as impacted because they had larger communities living there to support local businesses. We don’t have a lot of housing here … and with the overall need for housing in our city, there are things we can look at and change.

“We have a small footprint, so one of our messages to the city is that we have amazing laneways that really link the neighbourhoods together,” he added. “Blood Alley is one example … and we would like to see more interconnectivity in these lanes and activate spaces that are now just used for garbage cans.”

Wargolet said the BIA’s Gastown Tomorrow initiative will play a big role. The BIA released an urban design study as part of the initiative, and Wargolet said it is now up to people to engage and let the BIA know what they envision for the future growth of Gastown as a community. He added that a public forum is planned for the fall to help organizers fine-tune the vision for a better Gastown, which will in turn be sent to the city in 2022.

In the meantime, the return of some office workers and the patio nights and live music festivities in Gastown have already lifted the neighbourhood significantly. The key concern now, Wargolet said, is the third piece of the foot-traffic equation: international tourists, specifically those who arrive on cruise ships.

“We are very concerned about the cruise ship industry,” he said, noting recent news that U.S. legislators are promoting legislation to bypass Vancouver as a port. “We are working with officials from other BIAs to meet with MLAs in our district.… If the land borders are open, then our ports should be open to let folks in. If the U.S. law does pass, there’s a belief we will see a significant loss of ships in our port.… We really can’t leave that to chance.”

As for Chinatown, Eng said the BIA is planning a “grand reopening” of some sort in the fall. Meanwhile, the group is partnering with local organizations to support the legacy businesses in the neighbourhood as downtown consumers slowly return.

Eng said the marketing direction of the BIA has shifted to “demystifying Chinatown” – changing its image to a destination retail neighbourhood rather than the low-cost model traditionally borne by the community to draw more business from within Metro Vancouver.

“You can’t just sit around and wait for the future,” Eng said. “So we’ve been pivoting towards local markets; we are active on social media in targeting certain demographics within a certain distance of Chinatown, and it has been fairly effective.

And as more office workers return, many who live in Strathcona will resume their walking commutes to and from downtown, Eng said. That would be the key in bringing back a renewed sense of vitality to Chinatown that had been a signature for the neighbourhood prior to the pandemic.

“I think people may be itching to get out, so I have to say I’m hopeful for more people to return to our retail stretch on Pender Street,” he said. “That’s the heart of Chinatown. If you can get that revitalized, then the elderly will return because they are comfortable – and they are the face of Chinatown. And once the school at the Chinese Cultural Centre returns, it would really start to bring people back.” •