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Vancouver's downtown core places 54th in pandemic recovery rankings

A nearly empty Granville Street entertainment district is seen just before 10 p.m. on St. Patrick's Day in downtown Vancouver, on Wednesday, March 17, 2021. (Darryl Dyck / THE CANADIAN PRESS) A nearly empty Granville Street entertainment district is seen just before 10 p.m. on St. Patrick's Day in downtown Vancouver, on Wednesday, March 17, 2021. (Darryl Dyck / THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Far fewer people are spending time in downtown Vancouver than they were prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a study measuring cellphone activity – and researchers believe major changes are required to help the city fully rebound.

The study, conducted out of the University of Toronto's School of Cities, measures the number of cellphones being used in downtowns across North America, comparing those numbers to pre-pandemic cellphone use and ranking the level of recovery between municipalities.

Researchers found cellphone activity in downtown Vancouver between March and May of this year was just 46 per cent what it was over the same period in 2019 – placing the city at 54th out of 63 cities included in the ranking.

Montreal and Toronto fared similarly, placing 52nd and 58th, respectively.

Karen Chapple, director of the School of Cities, told CTV News all three of the cities have placed near "the very bottom" of the rankings since the study began, faring far worse than many U.S. cities that have rebounded to 80 or even 90 per cent of their pre-pandemic activity levels.

"If you're one of these cities that's at 80 per cent of what you were, that's fine – you're going to survive and you're not going to have a huge drop in commercial property tax revenue," Chapple said.

"But if you're where Toronto and Montreal and Vancouver are, you really want to think about, how do I make (downtown) a 24/7 kind of place? How do I make it a weeknight haven and a weekend haven?"

Revitalizing the downtown core is already an identified priority for Vancouver's municipal government, which has set up a survey seeking feedback on ways to breathe new life into the Granville Entertainment District. 

Bringing people back has been less of a challenge for many U.S. cities, including Salt Lake City and El Paso, which have already exceeded the amount of pre-pandemic activity, at 139 per cent and 107 per cent, respectively.

Chapple pointed to differences in government and corporate COVID-19 policies – including how many workers have been allowed to continue working from home – as one factor that could explain the different recovery levels between major municipalities in Canada and the U.S., but stressed that there are several factors at play.

American cities are more likely to have universities, hospitals and manufacturing plants located in their downtown core than Canadian cities, she said, which bring a vast array of activity to a neighbourhood.

The availability of single-family housing close to downtown also played a role, as many families fled cramped quarters in dense neighbourhoods during the pandemic.

"We have a lot of residential towers in our downtowns in Canada, but they may not be as fully occupied as some of the other places," Chapple said. "A lot people got tired of apartment living or condo living and they wanted to have a little space. And part of it was practical because you had two kids on Zoom plus mom and dad – you needed four Zooms going in the house and it just didn't work in a two-bedroom apartment anymore."

Cities with a higher stock of single-family homes near the downtown core tended to bounce back quicker than those without, Chapple said.

As officials look for ways to draw people back and revitalize downtown areas, Chapple said it's important that they stop viewing the problem through a 20th Century lens.

"That's going to be really important for these cities to think about because that 9-to-5 office district? That's gone. That came into being around 1920 with the new skyscrapers and new transit systems, and it was wonderful … but we're in a different place now, so we need our cities to reflect that," she said.

View the full downtown recovery rankings on the study's website Top Stories

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