Adi Bertacchi is happy that his Italian-made hat shop is open again Gastown and he is not surprised that the historic Vancouver neighbourhood is seeing a retail revival, despite a pandemic that has honed the neighbourhood’s gritty edge.
“I love this community,” said the owner and operator of Bertacchi Italian Hats, who re-opened in August at 131 Water Street, after moving from a former Gastown location that he shut down in February when his lease expired.
“We doubled down,” Bertacchi said, leasing 2,000 square feet for his new store, twice the size of his former Abbot Street outlet.
“I could have moved to Yaletown, to Robson Street, but there is no place in Vancouver like Gastown,” he said. “It is a real community here, a vibrant community.”
Since the pandemic hit in March, 23 retailers have closed in Gastown, according to Stefanie Schulz, executive director of the Gastown Business Improvement Association, but 21 new stores have opened in the same time, 16 of them since June.
Many retailers – such as the Tru Craft Kitchen, the Metropole pub and the Sardine Can restaurant – said they closed due to COVID-19 restrictions, but some said the increasing crime in the area was also to blame.
After three years in business, Matt Hamilton shuttered his Wallace Mercantile Shop in Gastown in March and moved to south Main Street. He said the final straw was his Gastown store windows being smashed for two days in a row during attempted break-ins.
“Unfortunately, Gastown has taken the brunt of the social problems in Vancouver since COVID began,” said Neil McAllister, a retail leasing agent with Lee & Associates.
He said the loss of cruise ship passengers, and the shutdown of conventions has hammered Gastown merchants.
“Gastown will certainly come back,” McAllister said, ”but that requires tourism and probably the end of [the pandemic].”
But Gastown’s image problem differs from the reality, new retailers in the area say.
An October survey done by Leger for the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) revealed that 9 per cent of Vancouver residents said they avoid Gastown due to fears of crime, the third-worse result in the city, behind the surrounding Downtown East Side, at 16 per cent, and nearby Chinatown, which 12 per cent of respondents said they shunned.
VPD crime stats show that, as of September, total crime in the city was down 15.9 per cent compared to a year earlier, property crime was down 19 per cent and violent crime had increased just 0.5 per cent, but the Leger surveyed found that 78 per cent of respondents believe that crime is increasing in the city.
Schultz said the negative perception of Gastown likely increased because of COVID-19.
“There are less tourists and more people working from home, so the homeless are more visible,” she explained.
Abbey Hopkins, manager of Gravity Pope, a high-end footwear retailer that opened June 16 at 73 Water Street, said the homeless situation or crime “has not been an issue” and said she appreciated what she called an “authentic community.”
“Gastown has been very welcoming,” said Hopkins.
That was echoed by Christina Michael, who opened Marigold Cannabis October 1 at 231 Abbot Street. She said the store has been very busy ever since. The shop is open seven days a week to 10 p.m. and she said her six full time and two part-time staff have not had a problem with street people. “It’s pretty harmless.”
Michael believes Gastown is not alone, or any worse than other areas in the city when it comes to perception of increasing grime and crime during the pandemic.
“This is not a Gastown issue, it Is an issue for the entire city,” she said,” Gastown is a fantastic neighbourhood.”