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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Renewed life for Gastown : an economic case study and evaluation of commercial rehabilitation in the old Granville Townsite, Vancouver, B.C. Sommers, Michael James

Abstract

Rather than aging gracefully, the majority of the cities of North America have been assailed by a chronic disease which has produced deterioration, decay, and obsolescence of portions of their central core. In most cases, the centre of this decay has been the oldest, historic sections of the city. Many of these cities have reacted to the premature death of these areas with harsh and disruptive methods --the offending buildings have been torn down to be replaced by dismal public housing developments, or impersonal glass and steel skyscrapers. However, a counter-reaction has gained force in recent years, and has succeeded in some cities in slowing and even completely halting the spread of "bulldozer renewal." This new philosophy maintains that the charm and uniqueness of the old sections of the city must be preserved in order to maintain the diversity and vitality of the downtown. The most successful method of saving these districts and individual structures has been to renovate and revitalize them so that they are again economically and structurally sound. This process is known as commercial rehabilitation. Vancouver, British Columbia, has felt the influence of both of these forces—decay of its oldest districts and commercial rehabilitation. Gastown (the Old Townsite), the birth place of the city and the site of its oldest structures, has been neglected and allowed to decay to such an extent that, by 1940, it had become the centre of the city's skid road. However, since 1968 various groups have undertaken the rehabilitation of the area and have turned it into a rapidly expanding commercial district. The basic objective of the thesis is to examine in detail the economic situation in Gastown in order to isolate the trends and forces which have shaped its development, particularly as related to commercial and real estate investment in the district. Based upon these findings, implications for the future of the Old Townsite are then suggested. The assumption upon which the investigation is based is that Gastown will be able to expand and prosper as a commercial district in which customer appeal is based upon historic charm. In order to test this, two hypotheses are formulated: 1. The area defined herein as "Gastown will be economically viable as a retail-entertainment-restaurant district in which customer attraction is based upon the unique appeal created by historic and commercial rehabilitation activities; and 2. Gastown, as a retail-entertainment-restaurant district,will not be merely a short-term phenomena, but rather, the functional changes presently taking place will survive and prosper over the long run. . Three major research techniques are employed. First, an extensive literature search is used to determine the theory and practice of commercial rehabilitation and to obtain a limited amount of data about the economic situation in Gastown. Second, a questionnaire study is conducted to produce information about the operating results of those retail firms located in the study area that are considered to be compatible with the character of an historic district. This data is evaluated in relation to comparable industry standards in order to determine the economic health of these firms and is also employed as a basis for prediction of future trends in Gastown. Finally, an unstructured personal interview technique is employed to obtain economic data from persons generally recognized as leaders of the business community in the Old Townsite. With one exception, the research findings are found to be supportive of the hypotheses. It is determined that pronounced changes in land use have occurred over the past give years but that the major functional changes related to rehabilitation activities have taken place only since October 1969. Total sales volume for all businesses adjudged to be compatible with the character of a rejuvenated Gastown is estimated to be $5.5 million in 1970 and $11.6 million in 1971. However, there is a disportionate number of very small merchants operating in the Old Townsite with, the result that 12 percent of the businesses account for 80 percent of total sales volume in the area. In general, only the large-scale, experienced operators are attaining a reasonable return on investment. The prediction is made that a high proportion of business failures will occur among the small retailers and that future additions to the Gastown business-mix will consist almost entirely of large-scale firms. The analysis suggests that the opportunity exists for a reasonable rate of return on both speculative and long term investment in Gastown real estate. Even though one of the supporting criteria to the retail-entertainment-restaurant definition is found to be unsound, the hypotheses are considered to be valid.

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