Jacqui Cohen has big dreams for the Downtown Eastside, and it's not as another Yaletown.
Jacqui Cohen has been on the vanguard of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside renaissance, investing in the troubled area for over a decade when everybody else told her to walk away. Now, with the planned redevelopment of her flagship Army & Navy store, Cohen has even bigger dreams for the city’s historic core.
There was a story the newspapers used to tell about Army & Navy. It showed up a number of times during the late ’70s and early ’80s. It involved pointing out what was then considered to be a central irony about the company. That is, the fact that the iconic Vancouver discount department store – opened on Hastings Street in 1919 by Samuel Cohen and still owned at that time by his fashionable, sports car driving, glamorously good-looking descendants – was in fact run and controlled by a teetotalling Baptist counting pennies in a dingy converted stockroom in Regina.
That old story is easy enough to parse today. The implication was that selling seconded clothing and fishing tackle might make you very rich but that the very rich themselves (certainly two generations later) didn’t have the right mental culture to sustain their wealth by the same method. To actually take care of business, to think strategically about the future, to be engaged with the here and now, they needed to bring in a man with a discount frame of mind. They needed that penny-counting Baptist in his poorly lit Regina stockroom.
That man’s name, incidentally, was Garth Kennedy, and he’d worked his way up to president over a 50-year career that started in the warehouse. And as distant as he might be from the company today (he died of a heart attack 12 years ago), he’s on my mind as I stand in the Coal Harbour studio of Shaw Television, watching the current president and CEO of Army & Navy going through her paces. The current president, who came on after Kennedy’s death and who is familiar to many Vancouverites from her high-profile charity work, is Samuel Cohen’s surviving granddaughter, Jacqui Cohen.
To think of Garth Kennedy while watching Jacqui Cohen is to hold two very different things in your head simultaneously. Cohen, to state it mildly, doesn’t have a teetotalling Baptist air about her. She is effusive, enthusiastic. She has a hearty laugh and likes to touch the arm of the person she’s talking to when making a point. Just now, in fact, she’s doing something one suspects Kennedy would not have been able to pull off: she’s sitting with Michael Eckford and Fiona Forbes, hosts of Shaw’s Urban Rush, talking about shoes.
Enjoying it too, it’s easy to see. From the darkness behind the cameras, I watch the three of them kibitz about which celebrity wears which pair or why exactly Eckford seems unwilling to let go of a leathery studded shoe the straps of which go high up a woman’s calf.
“You’ve picked out a sexy one there, I see,” Cohen says to him, deadpan. Then, to Forbes: “You’re freshly pedicured.”
So they talk about pedicures for a while. And then, because it’s television, they swirl through several other topics – Cohen’s Face the World Foundation (which gives to a wide range of non-profits in the Vancouver area), the recent involvement of Cohen’s daughter Kasondra in the family business – before landing on the more critical issue of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and its restoration.
Here Cohen’s demeanour noticeably shifts. She’s still on television. There’s still an aura of self-awareness about her, that quality in camera-ready people to present a good angle, to shape their words with a listener in mind. But it’s clear that for Cohen this matter is serious: how we might restore what was once the social, cultural and commercial heart of Vancouver, saving it from a destitution and pessimism that many of us saw entrench over the early 2000s. And for a person whose business has been anchored in the neighbourhood for almost a hundred years, it’s also a personal matter.
“I fed birds in Pigeon Park with my grandfather when I was a little girl,” the 57-year-old Cohen tells Eckford and Forbes. “And I just want to say that gentrification is not my thing. On Welfare Wednesday, those people come to my store. And I think it’s great, because it’s their neighbourhood too.”
Shortly thereafter, the discussion returns to shoes. (Cohen is promoting Army & Navy’s annual shoe sale, after all.) And shortly after that, the show is over and we’re out in the April sunshine driving in Cohen’s black convertible Bentley toward the Army & Navy offices at the corner of West Cordova and Abbott streets. We’re talking about how glam the area around the Shaw studios has become with the green-roofed Convention Centre and the new Fairmont Pacific Rim. But down the Cordova corridor ahead of us, I can already see the newly lit Woodward’s sign spinning and sparkling at the heart of that complicated neighbourhood where the Cohen family has been operating for so long.
And Garth Kennedy comes again to mind. I’m thinking that however emblematic he was of Army & Navy in former years, he would not be able to represent the company now. As Vancouver contemplates a new beginning for the Downtown Eastside, the fate of the neighbourhood’s oldest retailer – and the only surviving commercial employer of the area’s heydey – is clearly a live concern. And no matter how good Kennedy ultimately was for the company once, a Regina-based accountant would not be the best choice to navigate the company’s transition today. To take care of that business, to think strategically about that future, to be engaged with this particular here and now, success will depend on someone who is plugged in, who knows the neighbourhood, who is vested.
The Cohen Clan
Jacqui (second from left) with her parents and two siblings in the 1970s.
Jacqui with her daughter, Kasondra, and mother, Marlene.
Someone, that is, like Jacqui Cohen.
You wouldn’t have always guessed that Jacqui Cohen and the Army & Navy brand would grow so strongly identified with each other that Army & Navy’s director of operations Debbie Elliott (a person Cohen describes as her “right hand”) would say to me, “Army & Navy is Jacqui Cohen, yes. But Jacqui Cohen also is Army & Navy.” Cohen may have worked in the children’s clothing department as a girl. She may have fed pigeons with Grandpa Sam. And she may still quote Grandpa Sam in conversation, demonstrating that she learned at the knee of the master. But her route to the presidency was anything but ordained.
Cohen’s father Jack might have been the successor after Sam Cohen’s death in 1966, were it not for his limited mobility due to multiple sclerosis. Instead, Sam Cohen had chosen Jack’s son Jeffrey as his next-in-line, bequeathing him 40 per cent of the company to facilitate his control when he reached the right age and maturity. Another 40 per cent – held in trust for Jack in connection with the settlement of some gambling debts – was effectively controlled by non-family members on the Army & Navy board. The remaining 20 per cent of company ownership was split evenly between the sisters, Jacqui and Karen.
Jeffrey never did take over from Garth Kennedy, however. He had struggled with drug addiction throughout his early 20s and was relentlessly in the public eye. A staggering 94 articles ran in local papers about the young man from his first adult drug conviction in 1974 until April 1978 when, aged 26, he died after taking heroin in his suite at the Hotel Vancouver. And while one such tragedy would be epic for any family, just four years later Jacqui’s sister Karen also died. It was August 1982, two weeks after her fiancé had been stabbed to death in a Cornwall Avenue apartment by a man who reportedly owed him money, and Karen lost control of her Ferrari on the Stanley Park causeway, driving into oncoming traffic. She was pronounced dead at St. Paul’s Hospital. She was 28.
Jacqui Cohen herself had been living in Los Angeles during these years, going through what she describes now as her “university of life” phase. (Which would involve hanging out with Hugh Hefner and later marrying Chicago businessman Hershel Herrendorf, from whom she separated in 1991.) She doesn’t speak much about the family tragedy of these years, only stressing how it changed her. In her office – pictures of Samuel, Jack, Jeffrey and Karen Cohen hanging high on the wall behind her – she says to me, “Certainly you could say that destiny, which included losing my brother and sister, ended up making me who I am.”
Friends in All Places
With Senator Larry Campbell.
With author Jackie Collins.
With former Army & Navy president Garth Kennedy.
With artist Bill Reid.
But not immediately, it should be noted. Fortunes at Army & Navy were in a skid during these years. Sales that had topped $100 million in the late ’70s were in freefall during the ’80s as Wal-Mart and Costco took over discount retail. In 1985 Cohen sued to oust Garth Kennedy and return control of the company to her family via a partnership with another retailer.
“I was thinking at the time that 50 per cent of something would be better than 100 per cent of nothing,” Cohen says about the dispute. Still, Cohen’s group lost. Kennedy had the power, acting as part of the trust that controlled 90 per cent of the company’s voting shares: the 40 per cent held in trust for Jack as well as Jeffrey’s and Karen’s share, which had been left to their father and gone into the same trust structure after their deaths.
When Cohen returned to Vancouver in 1991, the company’s sales base continued to erode, falling as low as $50 million. But there was little Cohen could do about it. “I was involved, but I wasn’t running anything,” she says. Interviewed that same year, just after launching Face the World (which now gives over a million dollars a year to local causes), Cohen’s choice of words was telling when she described herself as having been “looking for something to do.”
Something to do, other than charitable work, wouldn’t be long in coming, however. Two seismic shifts were on their way. In 1995 Jack Cohen died. With his death, the holding trust fell away and, as Jack’s beneficiary, Jacqui Cohen suddenly found herself in control of the company. When Garth Kennedy then died in 1998 of a heart attack, the transition from old regime to new was complete.
“Kip Woodward told me, ‘It’s grown-up time,’” she remembers, speaking of the longtime friend whose grandfather founded the Woodward’s department store. “And though I didn’t take over as president right away, there came a point where I decided that if somebody was going to make mistakes, it might as well be me.”
Were there many detractors when she announced she was assuming direct control? Cohen laughs her trademark laugh at the question, then quips, “I didn’t have any pro-tractors.” Then she corrects herself. She had at least one supporter: Jane Kahzen, who would become Cohen’s operations manager in the early years, wrote Cohen a supportive, encouraging letter that is framed on the wall behind her desk.
“That meant a lot,” Cohen says, reading the letter and touching a finger to the good-luck shamrock affixed to the surface. But then, in the next breath, Cohen names old family friends – recognizable Vancouver names, including Woodward, Joe Segal and Sam Belzberg – who told her to sell. Get out of the decaying Downtown Eastside. She didn’t need the headaches. And of course she didn’t, but Cohen had also heard her father’s lament after Jeffrey’s death: “I remember it clearly. He said out loud that it was the end of the Cohen legacy. And that got to me.”
So it was a family matter, a legacy matter, a matter of pride: to save Army & Navy. And having made her decision to assume the presidency in 1998, Cohen’s impact was immediate. She closed three stores in Saskatchewan. She streamlined staff from 800 to just over 500. She hired new buyers and centralized that function, shifting away from the buying of distress merchandise that had always defined Army & Navy and looking instead to discounted brand-name merchandise. She also undertook a major rebranding exercise in 1999, readopting the logo Grandpa Sam had used and launching an ad campaign embracing the retro-chic irony of a discount store to appeal to younger buyers.
“I did a lot of things fast,” she says, remembering the pace of change in those days. “But we had to. We weren’t getting in the kids!”
The rebranding was a success. An article published just a few months after the ad campaign was launched noted that Army & Navy bags could now occasionally be spotted even on trendy Fourth Avenue. And at the time of writing this article, I couldn’t help but notice the same thing – young people with Army & Navy bags – in the Gastown area.
But perhaps the best indication of Cohen’s approach and impact during these years, and what the future may hold for the company, would be the Langley store, which opened in 2001: a 60,000-square-foot one-level store in the Langley Mall that all the focus groups told her she’d be crazy to open. Wal-Mart and Linens ’n Things were already in the area, they said. Plus, the newer and fancier Willowbrook Mall was less than a kilometre away.
Cohen didn’t listen. “Everyone wants bargains!” she exclaims. So she went ahead and bought the mall outright and opened an Army & Navy where a Zellers had been. “And we’ve never looked back,” she says. With good demographics for both discount fashion and fishing gear in the area, it’s now the highest-grossing store in the six-store chain at $13 million in sales, just ahead of downtown.
“I love my old ladies,” Cohen says, using her pet name for the aged facilities in downtown Vancouver and New Westminster. “But Langley is my vision for the future.”
As in, a redevelopment of her downtown block along the lines of Woodward’s with a new Army & Navy that’s cleaner, more modern but still discount?
Cohen smiles coyly. She says, “Where’d you hear about that?”
Well, you might say it has become inevitable. Because there’s been at least one other seismic shift in the Cohens’ business landscape. Real estate has always meant something in Vancouver. But when Grandpa Sam bought five hectares in Port Coquitlam 60 years ago, to illustrate, he did it to reserve the space so he could put up an Army & Navy sign.
Not very many people would do that anymore. Real estate has become decidedly more important in our era, and by any standard Jacqui Cohen has a lot of it. She owns significant properties in Vancouver, including most of the block of Cordova where Army & Navy is located plus the Dominion Building a few blocks east. She also owns parcels in Edmonton, Calgary, Coquitlam and New Westminster (not Langley, where she sold after negotiating a “very long-term, very favourable” lease). But the Cordova property has become a focal point like never before. There’s the fact of the family’s investment in the area for almost a hundred years, but there’s also the growing sense that there may be no neighbourhood in Vancouver that will see more critical development pressure in the coming years.
“The area is the front line for redevelopment in the core of the city,” former co-director of planning for the City of Vancouver Larry Beasley tells me, “because there’s not a lot of redevelopment potential left in other parts of the core.”
But planning is needed, Beasley stresses. Not just any development will do. “This is an area to which we hold a very deep and long responsibility to manage carefully,” he says. “The area is historic. But it’s also physically and socially fragile.”
The right kind of development, in Beasley’s view, has to honour the heritage of the area, provide for multiple uses and, most importantly, work to preserve the social mix. Bob Rennie agrees. The high-profile real estate marketer and art patron, who recently moved his own headquarters into the Downtown Eastside, explains that his sense of the balance required between different uses and different incomes in the neighbourhood was exactly why the Woodward’s District project was marketed as an “intellectual property.”
“It’s because we’re talking about people living there who have a brain and a consciousness to understand that the future lies in a diversified community,” Rennie says.
Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean that Cohen would be well equipped to lead the redevelopment of her own site. She has relatively little real estate experience, after all. But Rennie thinks that personally she has exactly the qualities required. “One thing I know is that Jacqui would develop sensitively, because she’s in the neighbourhood.”
Rennie is pointing out that it took unusual commitment to stay in the area given that from the time Cohen took control of Army & Navy in 1998 until at least the beginning of the Woodward’s development, the situation at street level was actually getting worse.
Cohen remembers this period all too well. “Those were the days nobody would come down here,” she says. “Those were the years of the Pickton farm. Women were getting snatched off of Hastings. Anywhere in North America you turned on the news, you were hearing that the worst postal code in North America was, guess where? My neighbourhood.”
“Jacqui Cohen has had to do some very difficult work in her life to stay afloat down there,” says former city councillor and longtime Downtown Eastside advocate Jim Green. “But she’s smart, she’s tough and she really does seem to care.”
Meaning, she hunkered down and kept the lights on. And she continued to invest in her flagship store: in security, in cleaning, in getting rid of product lines that contributed to crime and drug use such as lighters and razor blades.
“She didn’t just keep the faith,” Rennie tells me; “she protected the family asset. She put shutters on the windows. But she stayed. And my hat’s off to her. I have a lot of respect for survivors.”
In the meantime, Cohen is looking at concept drawings for a development on the site of the existing Army & Navy but is tight-lipped about details. At least one concept includes residential towers, but all involve commercial and residential uses combined with market and social housing. Which returns us to the comment Cohen made on Urban Rush about opposing gentrification. Of course she means the kind where high-income people drive out low-income people. And she’s passionate in her resistance to that.
“Half my customers are welfare recipients or on fixed income,” Cohen tells me. “And many of those people have real pride of ownership. I totally love the fact that our neighbourhood is mixed. I mean, look at Yaletown. Everybody is gorgeous and thin and young and they all look the same. But excuse me, it just doesn’t have the pulse of the Downtown Eastside. And what makes that pulse is a mix of people. The old-timers that have been around since Grandpa opened the store, combined with young people moving in. That’s what could make this place into a SoHo . . . but we definitely need another name.”
She pauses in the rush of words. And then, more slowly, she reminds me and perhaps herself too that “I’m in no rush. I have the luxury of time. I don’t have to make decisions tomorrow.”
No rush on the real estate front anyway. Other matters need dealing with just like they need dealing with every day. So I follow Cohen around for a while. I watch her discussing bed linen suppliers with Debbie Elliott and reviewing media plans for the shoe sale. I watch her greeting staff by name in the downtown store. Roger, the security guy who’s been with her 11 years. Anita, who used to run the snack bar and is now assistant store manager. Caleb, the store manager at only 26 years of age who started his Army & Navy career on the ground floor in the grocery department out in Langley (shades of Garth Kennedy). Then we walk downstairs and into the camping and fishing section. Cohen is describing how they’ve opened up the layout, made the aisles wider and tried to keep the inventory very lean, strictly the stuff that’s moving. But I can tell that something has caught her eye. It’s a gas barbecue that isn’t sporting a sign saying how much it would cost at an uptown non-discount store.
“Tim?” she calls out to the guy working the section. “Can you post the compare-at price on these barbecues?”
Tim scratches his head. He says, “I’m not sure if there is a compare-at price on these units.”
Cohen doesn’t need to think about that one. She smiles. She says, “Sure there is. We wouldn’t have bought them if there wasn’t a compare-at price.”
And off we go, through the tunnel, under the stuffed tyee salmon that Grandpa Sam caught and into the room where the shoe sale is held – where a camera is waiting. Another television show. Someone else who wants to talk about shoes.
I head upstairs and out into the neighbourhood. And the first thing I see leaving Army & Navy is the Woodward’s sign turning. An emblem of history. An emblem of change. And just at that moment, I think of leaving the Shaw studios earlier and seeing the sign from that uptown perspective and how hard it was not to imagine a future when the distance between the two neighbourhoods would be narrowed, when the Downtown Eastside would become a fully integrated part of the city again.
Jacqui Cohen might have been reading my mind, because she said, “The Downtown Eastside has been out in the cold for such a long, long time.”
Too long. Although if Cohen has a hand in things, perhaps not for much longer.