Vancouver Sun: Vancouver’s boom spurs Victoria commercial renaissance

From the Vancouver Sun
Published on: April 19, 2016 | Last Updated: April 19, 2016 2:42 PM PDT

Downtown Victoria showing Forst Street, centre, with Abstract Development's new Black and White condo project higlighted. [PNG Merlin Archive]
Downtown Victoria showing Fort Street, centre, with Abstract Development’s new Black and White condo project highlighted.

Victoria’s Upper Fort Street is going through a commercial renaissance that local businesspeople and real estate experts say is linked to the skyrocketing cost of commercial and residential real estate in Metro Vancouver.

Located on the edge of Victoria’s downtown core, upper Fort Street had long been associated more with antique auction houses and dealers than with interesting places to eat and shop. But that’s now changing, said Suzanne Bradbury, the co-owner of Fort Properties and co-chair of the Fort Street Business District.

“In the last four years what we’ve really seen is improvement in the quality and variety and strength in the businesses that have popped up in that area,” she said in a recent interview.

“Fort Street used to be known as Antique Row and I would say a lot of the businesses were geared toward the tourist population,” Bradbury said. “That has totally changed.”

Some of the antique dealers remain, “but the majority of the businesses have really come awake to the existing residential and working-class population that lives in the downtown core,” she said.

Six months ago former Vancouverite Willow Hillard opened a women’s clothing shop called Folk Apparel at the corner of Fort and Blanshard streets. “What brought me here was the changing dynamic,” she told the Sun, noting she operated a store previously on Cook Street. “I wanted to be closer to the downtown.”

She agreed that the flavour of the street has changed in the last few years. “It has gone from an afterthought part of town to a destination.”

Hillard said her business is targeted at career women in their 30s and 40s who come into the store on their lunch breaks from downtown offices. “I’ve heard from several customers who come in that they’ve just moved from Vancouver and are getting to know the city,” said the mother of five.

Hillard said typical feedback she gets from Vancouver transplants is that life and business in Vancouver had become too expensive. “I moved here six years ago for exactly those reasons,” she said. “I started having kids and I even had a store in Vancouver and I just didn’t see it to be affordable or sustainable as I wanted it to be, so I moved here.”

Victoria-based Abstract Developments recently relocated their head office to the corner of Fort and Cook streets, in a space previously leased by the provincial government.

“We were in sort of deep Victoria-Oak Bay before, but our staff really liked what the (Upper Fort) area had to offer,” said Abstract CEO and founder Mike Miller.

He said the staff like being able to eat and shop on the street while still being just outside of the “hustle and bustle” of the downtown core.

Miller said many residents from Vancouver are taking a serious interest in Victoria’s Upper Fort area. Next week, the sales launch for Abstract’s new condo development, Black and White, which will be erected kitty-corner to their new office on Fort Street.

He said about 15 per cent of their pre-sale registrations have been from Vancouver residents keen to either cash-out by selling their big-city home, or escape the city’s big costs.

“We’ve seen a few trickles (of people relocating from Vancouver) before in the last 12 months, but really since the New Year there’s been a massive trend of people from Vancouver coming here,” he said. “You have the people who are retiring, who are leaving their west-side (Vancouver) home, cashing in for a lot of money and saying … I’m either going to go to Squamish or Kelowna or Victoria.”

He said they’ve also seen interest from millennials seeking jobs in Victoria’s growing technology industry.

“The tech sector in Victoria now … is reported to be a $4-billion industry,” said Dave Ganong, the managing director of Colliers International, Victoria. “That industry then ranks as our Number 1 industry, above tourism.”

He said there about 27,000 people working in Victoria’s tech sector, with most of them concentrated in “brick-and-beam” B- and C-class buildings in the downtown core that been vacated in a wave of relocations to newer buildings by provincial government tenants.

In the last five years more firms from Silicon Valley are seeing Victoria as a cheaper alternative to Northern California, Seattle and Vancouver, Ganong said.

“In Yaletown you’re looking at probably anywhere from 50-per-cent to 75-per-cent more expensive (commercial rents) … than you would be in Victoria,” he said, adding that the tech sector in downtown Victoria has helped nearby Upper Fort to blossom into a “trendier” district.

Victoria’s residential market is feeling the side effects of Vancouver’s costly surge. “There is a major move by people in Vancouver that are looking at selling their house in the west side that they’ve been in for 20 to 25 years for more money than they could have ever imagined,” Ganong said. “We’re finding a lot of those people are now coming over to Victoria.”

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