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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

End of a Caffeinated Era: Robson’s Original Starbucks Shuts Its Doors

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Baristas from around Vancouver bid farewell to the iconic cafe with a dancing flashmob. (Photo: Brendan Hurley)

The third, and singularly most iconic branded coffee shop in Vancouver has shut its doors. It may seem silly to some, but the Starbucks at Robson and Thurlow was a special place to many in the city. In a number of respects, it helped produce a contemporary identity to the downtown itself. With its passing and other recent vacancies on Vancouver’s undisputed shopping street, we come to a juncture in the city’s development, where now even the banner-bearers of gentrification are being driven out by increasing property value.

100- 1100 Robson was the third franchise of the Cappuccino Titan to invade the city from Seattle. In 1987, the company made its first foray internationally with a still-running kiosk in Waterfront Station. The Robson location first set up shop in 1988. Surprisingly only a year after that, a smaller location showed up across the street at the base corner of the 1908 Manhattan Co-Op. For a long time the ‘duelling’ Starbucks were a running joke about the city’s downtown-oriented latte sipping yuppie culture, yet they marked a significant trend toward a growing retail importance of the street. Even with this loss, there are still at least 7 Starbucks locations directly on or adjacent to Robson Street.

In recent years, the neighbouring cafés have epitomized the corporate and franchised dominance on Robson’s and even downtown Vancouver’s retail. For a number of consecutive censuses, the intersection has been the peak land value intersection of the region, commanding the highest rents. Rents that, until today, seemed like only a corporate giant like Starbucks could afford. But, it is not so, and due to a failure to renegotiate an effective lease within the last few weeks the location bid its farewells, had a party, and by 7pm Monday evening was papered up.

The Robson Landmark is losing some of its key tenants. Corporate entities are being squeezed out of what has been known as Robson's priciest corner. (Photo: Brendan Hurley)

The two neighbouring character franchises held a symbiotic relationship. Each Starbucks acted as an extension to the other. One was more of an internally focused reading room and ‘homey’ café, while the other was modern and oriented to the street, having the café seating spilling onto both Robson and Thurlow sidewalks. The patioed café became a downtown gathering place for motorbike enthusiasts, who would line the Thurlow curb with a mix of choppers, crotch-rockets, and even scooters. The café was important as a valued “third place” where social interaction was made informal in the most urbane of the city’s contexts.

Without a patio element to create an outdoor component to this third space, there will be renewed pressures on the Starbucks under the Manhattan Co-Op. The retail unit already has high rent, no storage, no patio, and new pressure of filling the demand once held by both cafés. In the ’90s, a patio was introduced into the Manhattan courtyard, but the noise of customers traveled up the small space and made life very difficult for the some 18 central units of the Housing Co-Op above.

Before Starbucks became symbolic of corporate industrialization of hand crafted food, the ‘McDonalds of coffee’ was something fresh, and downright cosmopolitan. The Drive’s Little Italy –where I grew up– was one of the few enclaves that had a preexisting cappuccino coffee culture. Starbucks, however, was –as stated above– the banner-bearer of the new urban professional culture of Vancouver.

Final patrons wave past the closure notice from inside the cafe. (Photo: Brendan Hurley)

So much can be written about the café proliferation in Vancouver. The city has matured with a pallet and homegrown roasters that have fostered a strong west coast coffee culture. Vancouver of the 1990s was the only Canadian metropolis without a donut shop in the civic core or next to City Hall. But where the city lacked a cup of joe or even Timmy’s, one could throw a stone and hit an espresso machine. The Robson and Thurlow location was for many years in Vancouver the urban embodiment of that movement.

It is no wonder that so many came out to experience the End. A party atmosphere was presented and drinks were served by donation to the Dr. Peters Centre to surprised and some openly mourning regular customers. It was a party atmosphere where DJs spun records to a milling crowd inside. There was a remembrance wall scrawled in languages from Japanese to Arabic with statements of thanks, and remembered dates. Baristas from around the downtown came down, donned aprons, and danced as a flash-mob to the remix of “Time of My Life” shortly before closing the location forever.

Starbucks is not the only tenant packing up. The Whitespot Triple O’s dinner on Thurlow suspended operation on Sunday. Other tenants, like the Dynamite and Aritzia clothing stores and the second storey Red Robin Restaurant don’t show any indication of closing or moving, so one would assume they have signed on for a renewal.

There was a party atmosphere inside, but emotional nature of the loss could be felt by those present. (Photo: Brendan Hurley)
A wall of remembrance shows a small amount of the profound impact that even a corporate place can have on people. (Photo: Brendan Hurley)
Contention in the lease was based on a number of factors—few of which seem to be more than rumours at this stage—but mainly seem to be associated with two major points: an increase in rents and a loss of stable control over the unit.

First and foremost is a supposed “demolition clause” in the new lease that stipulates the owners maintain the right to terminate the lease with a months notice in the case of sale or redevelopment.

For a character retail business like Starbucks, the capital investment involved in renovating is too much to risk. There had just been a renovation at the Manhattan location, wherein the Landmark held the brunt of customers. Custom redesigns for some of these outlets –especially a flagship location– can be rather costly. With little guarantee of control over that investment, it looks like Starbucks balked.

Secondly, it sounds as though there may have also been a significant increase in the rental rates for the units in the new lease. Robson retail rental rates, while being outrageously high, are often still within reason for what such locations could pull in for customers – the highest foot traffic in the region is recorded on these blocks. Time will tell what will sprout next on this corner, or if redevelopment is what the owner has in mind.

The increase in rents seem to have compounded in recent years. With luxury towers, like Living Shangri-La being built a block to the North, more and more investment—and subsequent increases to assessment values—have been attributed to the street and its retail. We may be seeing a crisis in affordability in retail in a similar vein as seen in residentially throughout the city. In this case, however, those squeezed out are the undisputed gentrifiers of yesteryear, and still unquestioned juggernauts of today.

Robson is seeing a surprising shift. Many assume that the proliferation of corporate retail chains was the final product of increased value in the street. However, this year has seen an unprecedented number of vacancies, especially key retail icons and anchors. It begs the question: if the street is not being over-valued due to neighbouring luxury developments, what then is the next logical progression? Conversely, what happens when prices outstrip the strongest and most iconic retail on such a street?

A lot of conflicting economic issues tower over this corner. If the chief symbol of gentrification is pushed out, what happens next? (Photo: Brendan Hurley)

It feels awkward to write such sentiment about a corporate outlet, but I remind myself that that despite the brand, this café still played a large part in the life and times of the city, its culture, and its people. Remember, this was the centre of the 1994 Stanley Cup Riots – the windows smashed were here.  Countless public and intimately personal moments have happened at this spot. It is one location, and there are countless other coffee shops, but it feels too similar to the closing of old carhop drive-ins that defined another era of urban development.

In truth, reactions to the closing reveal the importance of collective ‘third places’, especially in the thick of downtown. The dueling Starbucks had that rare value as both icon and personal refuge that makes urban spaces so special. There may be different, and hopefully even better ways to achieve this sense of place –and it’s not fully gone– but never-the-less, as a few regulars were overheard saying: “It just won’t be the same.”


Brendan Hurley is a local urban designer who focuses on planning for adaptive neighbourhood change. His recent work has been internationally focused, but is strongly rooted in his native Vancouver. Living and working out of the heart of downtown, he remains keenly focused on the region’s development and history. Brendan is a regular contributor to Spacing Vancouver, but also consults as director of the UrbanCondition design collective.



One comment

  1. I find it hard to commiserate with the closing of a Starbucks outlet.  I still remember a Vancouver “coffee culture” that pre-dates the Americanization of coffee consumption in this city.  Even though Vancouver “coffee culture” largely revolved around Commercial Drive there were outlets in the Downtown core.  

    Also, that corner of Robson and Thurlow had been a thoroughly hip, though undoubtedly, “alternative” centre of street culture up until the late 1980s early 1990s.  I remember that incarnation with fondness as it was not international corporate culture but local, homegrown and innovative culture.  Starbucks will not be missed by me.