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Maxed Out

Christophe Pinquet lives in a top-floor apartment on the Champs-Élysées.

Christophe Pinquet lives in a top-floor apartment on the Champs-Élysées. Among the benefits of living on the busiest boulevard in Paris are breathtaking views of the Eiffel Tower, Place de la Concorde and the Arc de Triomphe he enjoys from his terrace.

In a story in last week’s New York Times about the City of Lights’ efforts to stem the ‘banalization’ of the Champs-Élysées, Messr. Pinquet is quoted as saying, “The battle shouldn’t be to keep H&M out. It should be to make sure it’s (the Champs-Élysées) fabulous.”

The backstory to this observation is a decision made in December by local government to not allow Swedish clothing giant H&M to open a megastore on the storied avenue. Not that there’s anything wrong with H&M. Just seems the line had to be drawn somewhere and it wasn’t drawn when Gap, Nike, Virgin Records, Benneton, Disney and other multinational world brands opened their stores.

Seems that since the Champs has become safer, cleaner and an even more desirable place for tourists to stroll and shop — some half-a million visitors a day — it has become the third most expensive place in the world, in terms of commercial rents. The Times piece reports rents as high as US$1.2 million per year for a 1,000 square foot store.

Those rents have all but run mom & pop shops, jazz clubs, art theatres and other tenants off the boulevard, leaving it a stroll of multinationals with deep pockets, glitzy car dealerships and high-volume, prosaic fastfood joints.

The Champs-Élysées, one might say, has lost its mojo. Traded funk for familiar. Become yet another World Mall Experience. Same-old, same-old.

Were Gertrude Stein alive today, she might be heard to mutter, “A Starbucks is a Starbucks is a Starbucks.” And she’d be right.

Messr. Pinquet’s wise observation resonates in Whistler’s seemingly never-ending, soul-searching struggle to answer what should have been a simple question: Should we rezone Larco’s underground space, paving the way for London Drugs to open their store in Little Seattle, or should we not?

We seem to have lost sight — or at least a sizable percentage of the local and semilocal population seem to have lost sight — of what should be the overriding question. The battle, to borrow from Messr. Pinquet, isn’t about keeping London Drugs out. It’s about making sure Whistler is fabulous.

If it isn’t, our collective goose is cooked. And, for those of you addicted to out-of-town shopping, here’s breaking news from the village front: It isn’t!

And it’s getting worse. In addition to the other ubiquitous, soul-deadening shopping experiences, we’re about to get our own Nike store. Hip-hip-hooray. It’ll be the battle of the Swish vs. the Swoosh. Can’t wait for the Disney store to come so I can deck myself out head to toe in instantly recognizable logos.

For those who might have been pinning their hopes for the future on enlightenment in the form of Whistler’s Sustainable Retail Strategy, well, there’s good news and there’s bad news.

The good news comes in the form of recommendations to jazz up the village experience. Greater visibility, better signage and way-finding, increased amount and variety of outdoor seating and eating, non-commercial interactive features, promotion of buy-local programs, no new commercial space and maximum retail and restaurant size guidelines among them.

The bad news unfortunately comprises, more or less, the core of the study’s recommendations: the creation of distinct nodal positioning strategies. That core strategy amounts to cutting Whistler into definable retail zones, or nodes, from Nesters to Creekside and “positioning” or themeing the nodes to create a sweeping shopping and dining experience. Call it the malling — or mauling — of Whistler. The details of each node’s strategy are, to be truthful, both cookie-cutter and shotgun in their recommendations. At least one person I consider knowledgeable in fashioning retail experiences suggested these particulars might well have appeared in a strategy for malls from Alabama to Abu Dhabi .

Whatever. Unless we begin to “manage” Whistler as an integrated shopping mall, they won’t get off the ground. And given the disparate ownership of the real estate involved, and the almost godlike deference paid to property rights, we won’t be doing that any time soon.

But the real failure of the strategy, indeed, the failure of the entire debate to date, lies in its continuing to ignore the elephant in the parlour: retail rents.

Unsustainable retail rent — at least unsustainable for any but the deep-pocketed — is the driving force behind Paris’s despair over the banalization of the Champs-Élysées. It is, of course, Whistler’s cross to bear as well. The retail strategy touches on this intractable problem but touches it lightly. Among the strategy’s findings are an “imbalance” of retail sales to rent, higher than average common area maintenance costs and a leveling off of rents over the past few years. This last finding is interesting, if not exactly hope inducing. If, in fact, rents have leveled off, they’ve leveled off at an unsustainably high level. And we haven’t really begun to feel the effects of Olympic™ escalation yet.

If the findings don’t shed much light on the elephant, the recommendations shed even less. It is recommended the municipality “consider using existing undeveloped retail zoning on Lot 1/9 as a ‘demonstration project’ whereby the Municipality becomes the landlord and can act as an incubator for local independent businesses and for setting the bar for new rent levels….”

The idea of the municipality becoming landlord and incubator for below-market rent independent businesses is, I suspect, enough to make certain commercial landlords apoplectic. I don’t suspect many of the independent businesses in town currently paying market rents would cozy up to the idea either.

And whatever credibility the recommendation may have had was undermined by the suggestion this Lot 1/9 experience be modeled along the lines of Granville Island. Nice as it is, Granville Island is an urban experience. It relies on an urban reality — numbers of people and a high local-to-tourist mix of shoppers — to sustain it. That is simply not the Lot 1/9 reality… now or in the future.

In case no one’s noticed, Lot 1/9 is an outlier. It is off the beaten path and not within the high foot traffic zone. Don’t think so? Stand outside one of the shops facing Lot 1/9 and do a pedestrian count. Do the same thing at, say, Citta’s.

Any sustainable retail strategy for Whistler is going to have to address commercial rents that are too high to attract and keep local businesses. It’s going to have to deal with absentee, institutional landlords — Ontario muni employees and teachers pension funds for example — who have no investment in the sustainable success of this town. It’s going to have to deal with rapacious local commercial landlords.

The tools it has to deal with them are zoning, licensing and moral suasion.

If it can’t deal with Larco’s rezoning, even at the expense of having a London Drugs in town, it doesn’t have a chance in hell of dealing with the bigger issues.