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Dying Downtown Victoria BC

If downtown Victoria BC storefronts were teeth, this city would need a new bridge.

…Oh, wait. That’s a bad joke (see posts tagged with Johnson Street Bridge)… We are getting a new bridge. But as the following photos will show, what we really need is economic revitalization.

This afternoon, I was walking down Fort Street to Monk’s at Fort and Blanshard. I passed one empty storefront after another – just on one side of the street, just on one street, just on three-and-a-half blocks.

This is what many parts of downtown Victoria look like.

We start at Fort and Cook Streets, the northeast corner, before we head east on Fort St. (we’re traveling on the north side of the street).


We see 1090 Fort St, and there isn’t just one empty storefront, but two.

This is Kona Coffee Shop - or rather: was. Now gone.


Next up, same building:

This used to be a hair salon. Even a hair salon can't survive here?


Next up, in a small, low building a few doors down:


Charles Baird Antiques - closed


The next one’s demise (just a few doors down) was new-to-me:

Plenty Epicurean Pantry will be closing next. 🙁


Nearly next-door to Plenty (ironic name) is the Korean specialty clothing boutique that closed earlier this year. The sign claims that someone new is taking over, but I’ll believe it when I see it. Right now, the place is empty and bereft:


Specialty knits boutique - closed earlier this year.


Ok, we’re still in the same block (1000s), and here’s another place that has been sitting empty for months and months:


This used to be a niche home decor store. Has been empty for months. No new takers.


Ok, we now come to the 800 block of Fort St. (The 900 block on the north side of Fort is mostly surface parking lots – next to Lund’s – and a grassy trash-lot in front of View Towers. So, there are only a few stores in that block anyway…)


Seeing that this one is closing was a shocker: it's a Korean grocer, next to a French butcher. Why is it closing?


A couple of doors down, there’s the carpet place, which recently started claiming that it was closing. Probably just a ploy, but I thought I’d include this to replace Marvan (in the 1100 block of Fort, on the south side), which is closing, sadly:

I'm guessing this store isn't really closing. It's just a cheap ploy to convince rubes there are deals to be had.

The alleged going-out-of-business carpet store did take over (in a most unattractive manner) an empty storefront next door – yes, another one, and it has been empty for …what?, years now?

The ex-Miroirs home furnishings store, an empty storefront for months upon months, currently being used by the carpet store two doors up (the carpet store that's claiming to go out of business, too)...


Now we’re in the 700 block of Fort. I can’t even remember what this store used to be – but it’s empty, and will probably stay that way for ages…

Empty storefront in 700 block of Fort St.


And next door to the above, the former Cairo Coffee Merchants, defunct:

Cairo Coffee Merchants, closed, empty, ...for how long?

Ok, that was depressing.

It never fails to amaze me that Victoria is full of attractive neighborhoods, bounded by gorgeous scenery that’s unparalleled.

But go downtown, and you have to wonder why Victorians hate their city so much that they let it die.

Note: this post is the first of a series of three – it just kind of happened that way. Part 2 is here and part 3 is here.


  1. Great post, thanks for taking the time to articulate it. Perhaps its an opportunity for landlords to re-think lease rates and terms. Perhaps its an opportunity for entrepreneurial innovation and creativity to sprout. Perhaps its an opportunity for consumers to re-evaluate the meaning and importance of community, value and commitment. Perhaps its an opportunity for everyone to reflect then appreciate that which we so often take for granted. Thank you for showing us these wonderful opportunities!

    Comment by Murray — March 21, 2011 #

  2. Thanks for commenting, Murray. I agree there’s definitely room for landlords to re-think lease rates and terms. Ballet Victoria recently left their digs at the Truth Centre (of all places) because the landlord (influenced by Colliers, according to some) increased BV’s rent from ~$2.5K monthly to – get this – $8K. Where do people come up with these figures? Now the space is empty, and likely will be for months to come. It’s not so bad for the neighborhood because it’s a residential neighborhood, but if this were on a commercial street front, it would be another big gap.
    PS Ballet Victoria found new accommodation in St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church (Broughton & Douglas), but if they hadn’t found a church to take them, who knows where they would have ended up.

    Comment by Yule — March 21, 2011 #

  3. Blame it on the GFC! But yes, when the recovery comes (if ever) will it come to your town? A lot of people must be wondering about that right now.

    Comment by melanie — March 22, 2011 #

  4. ^ We have some idiotic policies in place, Melanie, mostly having to do with preservation. It’s a stranglehold on healthy economic development, sadly.

    Comment by Yule — March 22, 2011 #

  5. This post generated a lot of comment on my and on a friend’s Facebook pages, so I grabbed screen shots and posted these as a separate blog post, here. Click through to read what other people in Victoria had to say.

    Comment by Yule — March 22, 2011 #

  6. There is certainly no shortage of eager, creative and motivated entrepreneurs in Victoria. If they can deal with the impossible rents, along with the fact that the City is inherently anti-small business (zoning, permits, etc), they may have a chance. There is one more thing, though. The public needs to put their money where their mouth is. People often embrace local, interesting shops. They get voted “best of” and get frequent mentions in magazines and blogs. Plenty is (was) one of them, one that I will certainly miss. It sounds like many people will. And when was the last time anyone shopped there?

    Comment by Elizabeth — March 23, 2011 #

  7. Thanks for commenting, Elizabeth. I know that a storefront one building up (similar in quality and size to Plenty’s) rents for over $5K per month. Now, I’m not a small biz owner, but I figure you’d need to sell an awful lot of spices and specialty condiments to make that kind of rent and earn a profit…
    In the Facebook comments thread, you’ll see a comment from someone who shopped there regularly. But like I said, how much can you buy to keep the business going if the business is being gouged in rent?
    Probably one of the smartest things Munro’s Books ever did is buy its building. If it were an indie bookstore on a lease, I bet it would, sadly, be gone by now.

    Comment by Yule — March 23, 2011 #

  8. My family and I used to have a shop right off of Fort and Blanshard. Rising costs to rent the space, constant rezoning and inspectors making us do alterations to the building out of our own pockets were only part of the reason for the demise.

    We’re seeing big box industry utterly destroy local business. For the majority of consumers, it’s so much easier to just get it all at one-shop-fits-all like Walmart and now that they’ve combined Walmart with a bunch of other giant stores, people are just flocking there. These stores buy in bulk and it is impossible to keep up with them for pricing. Once again, this is just one part of many problems plaguing the downtown core.

    Traffic is heavy, a veritable nightmare to contend with. I avoid the core at all costs for this reason alone. On top of that, you have to contend with high parking costs, limited parking availability and parking patrol officers who will give you a ticket while you are putting money in the new machines to pay for your parking, circling like hawks. You can also expect to be harassed by rude and often aggressive panhandlers at least several times on your journey.

    Communities like Oak Bay and Fernwood tend to stay within their sphere of influence and avoid downtown. Bus travel is mediocre at best to get in and out of the core and depending on what community you live in, and service can be irregular.

    Spending money isn’t going to make it prettier and bring more people until the conscious idea gets into the head of the public that the loss of these stores is also the end of the ability to create a free market for yourself. People have become too complacent on cheap disposable items that wear out quickly and almost no one even cares for quality anymore. The community of downtown Victoria itself has much to answer for when they systematically remove other members by essentially forcing them out of business by choosing to shop at the mall or Walmart. But should also be ashamed at their lackluster performance in supporting their community.

    Comment by John — March 29, 2011 #

  9. Hi Yule, Thanks for putting this together. Sadly, last week we were joined by another business on the block. Creme de la Creme at 1016 Fort Street has put their closing sign up.

    I have been perplexed that while we saw a recession start in 2009 retail rents continued to rise right through it as though there was nothing happening. Clearly many landlords in town have the good fortune to be oblivious to such things. I think there is bound to be an adjustment in lease rates soon – too late for many though.

    There are a few excellent landlords (including some on Fort Street). We considered waiting for a space that would allow us to expand without overextending ourselves on rent or renovations. The buildings with reasonable lease rates, that are up to code (when the plumbing and electrical are not to code it can get very expensive for tenants in Victoria to attempt to plug-in a refrigerator or add a sink), and well maintained are few and, not surprisingly, tend to have low turnover.

    Our energy and enthusiasm has been waning and ultimately we decided not to let it slide while waiting for a better location.

    I think that it is interesting to see what the City of Victoria is (not) doing with their own retail spaces – specifically in the Crystal Garden and across the street at the conference centre. These have been sitting empty for years. Perhaps they are also asking too much for them? This area is the first impression that many visitors have of Victoria. Although perhaps not ideally configured for a permanent public market the spaces in the Crystal Garden could be offered on a trial basis to start one – better than the papered over windows there now. How about the Children’s Museum in the empty units at the conference centre? It would be wonderful if residents had reason to go back to that area and if visitors were able to witness some type of life and vitality there.

    I am encouraged that there are a number (three by my count) of proposals for a public market in town. That won’t fix downtown’s larger woes but I believe it would help. Outside of the ‘Design District’ Victoria lacks cohesive areas where there is a synergy among businesses. Often there seems to be a resistance to see this happen – fear of competition. For us, it would make sense to be closer to other small specialty food retailers and producers – where together we could be a one-stop destination yet each maintain individual focuses / niches.

    Ideally a market is also a business incubator where a person can test an idea or product with a weekly table and progress to a permanent stall and then perhaps a storefront. Victoria also has a shortage of smaller (Smoking Lilly) and mid-sized retail spaces.

    Obviously, I hope that we will see a permanent public market happen sometime in the next few years and I’d love to be a part of it. However, I am concerned about the nature of what is being proposed and hope that it is in a location that is conducive to being a place where residents and visitors will rub shoulders. Somewhere not too touristy yet easily accessible to visitors.

    Anyway, I’ve written much more than I’d intended. Thank-you for highlighting the current state of downtown Victoria. I hope that it is a conversation that will continue and result in some efforts to reinvigorate the core.

    Comment by Trevor — March 29, 2011 #

  10. Great comments, John and Trevor – thank you for taking the time to write.
    Trevor, I found your observations really interesting: I hadn’t fully considered that the City is itself a landlord, and its properties stand empty, too. That is, I’ve frequently complained about the fugly empty spaces at the Convention Centre and the unimaginative generic stuff that went into the Crystal Gardens – and it’s empty again?, the drug store left? – but it didn’t really click that the City is the landlord. Seems the Jawls are doing more, single-handedly, to ensure interesting and independent, local retail in the new Atrium Building than what the City has been able to muster. Sad, that is.
    I hope that you will be able to re-open Plenty in a more suitable and expanded location.
    I love what you’re saying about needing a market space and that it needs to be a business incubator. Bang on.
    And, yes, when I walked down Fort St yesterday I saw that Creme de la Creme has its closing-the-store sign in the window. I didn’t have time to stop to take a picture, but will do so in the next couple of days.
    One glimmer of good news: the Korean clothing boutique in your block of buildings will re-open next month. If I understood the friend who told me this correctly, the woman who owns “Scala” on Humboldt is taking over the lease, renaming the Fort St store “One.” I’m not sure what exactly she’ll be carrying at One, but Scala is a high-end women’s clothing boutique. I hope they do well on Fort. For “balance,” Amos & Andes (mid-range) across the street is closing…

    Comment by Yule — March 29, 2011 #

  11. Thanks Yule,

    Just one more quick note – the City should also be held to account for the number of empty parking lots (including those on the harbour) that they own – they really aren’t setting the best example for other landowners nor are they doing as much as they could with their holdings to invigorate downtown.

    Comment by Trevor — March 29, 2011 #

  12. ^ @Trevor: absolutely! Those parking lots suck the life out of the streets.
    I guess they’re considered “heritage” parking lots by now… 😉

    Comment by Yule — March 29, 2011 #

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