Land Values: Vancouver’s antiquated rules around city planning are making things hard for local entrepreneurs

Policies aimed at making Vancouver a more livable city might be doing the opposite.

Policies aimed at making the city more livable might be doing the opposite

The little shop at the corner of Victoria Drive and Grant Street had been a favourite stop of mine for years, a place to pick up an obscure spice or a poblano pepper without having to trek through the carnival crowds at Granville Island.

But when South China Seas Trading Company closed a few months ago, I didn’t just lose a local shopping outlet. Knowing city policies as well as I do, I was very aware that the space needed to re-open with another commercial operation soon, or it would lose its grandfathered status as a permitted retail site in the middle of a mostly residential neighbourhood. Like many other former small neighbourhood convenience stores, it would be relegated back to residential use only, never to return.

As it turns out, someone had the space on their radar: Colin Sinclair, who runs Del Ray Barber Shop, currently on East 4th Avenue just off Commercial Drive.

The new location for his operation would have been a pleasant and different addition to the small collection of shops and businesses already strung out sporadically along Victoria Drive: a housewares boutique, an Italian deli, a vintage shop, a garden-supply store.

“I thought it was a good fit because my hours are better than other types of businesses,” says Sinclair.

But it was not to be. City staff told Sinclair that the place needed to be a grocery. He offered to have some cold drinks or something packaged and grocery-like on site, a work-around that other businesses in these kinds of spaces have used. But then they said it had to be 50 percent groceries. And then they sent him off to Vancouver Coastal Health, where he got a raft of questions asking why he was selling food in a hair-cutting establishment. “I just got stuck in this loop.”

Eventually, Sinclair and the owner of the shop and the house attached to it, Derek Belton, came to the reluctant conclusion that Sinclair was never going to be able to untangle the Gordian knot of city processes.

Belton moved on to trying to rent the spot to someone else, though others ran into the same “you must be a grocery shop” issues. So the final outcome is still up in the air.

“It’s unfortunate. We really took a shine to Colin,” says Belton, who also owns the house and shop a couple of blocks away at Charles and Victoria, where Tanya McLean runs The Coast Goods. (She gets to be a non-grocer because of the store’s history.)

But it was all an object lesson in one of the frustrating aspects of Vancouver city planning that contributes to making things slightly less livable while supposedly intending to make things more livable.

That frustrating aspect is the extreme fear that seems to prevail at city hall of deviating a millimetre from some set policy, even when it’s well known that everyone wants to change that policy in the near future and that the policy’s restrictions are doing nothing for the quality of life in Vancouver.

There was supposed to be a relaxation of the rules around these little neighbourhood retail spots, as people have become more interested in the concept of the 15-minute city. (And, also, some of those little cafe?/grocery store/deli/pottery shop combos have become wildly popular. Le Marche? St. George, The Mighty Oak, Mercato di Luigi and Federal Store in Vancouver’s Mount Pleasant and Riley Park ‘hoods attract swarms of local residents. Wilder Snail in Strathcona and Windermere Market in Hastings-Sunrise are other hot spots.)

A staff report from three years ago outlined how much interest there was. Vancouver wanted these little neighbourhood places back. There used to be 260 of them scattered around the city in the 1920s. Only 88 were left when the report was completed, with about 40 percent of them convenience/grocery stores and the rest a mix of different kinds of businesses.

But there is currently no momentum to act on the report, which would eliminate some of the restrictions, like the 180-day rule that says it reverts to residential if not used as commercial for six months, or to expand the allowable uses. And there’s also no new policy to allow for additional small retail, as the report mentioned as a possibility.

According to the official communications channel at city hall, the initiative now needs to be “aligned” with the full Vancouver Plan. That means waiting at least three more years, while the official version of Vancouver’s mega-plan for its future goes through the policy and bylaw-writing meat grinder at 12th and Cambie.

So, no barbershop on Victoria and no deviation from any existing policy until that distant date, due to a kind of terror at city hall that lurks under every decision. The terror is that if someone is allowed to bend a rule even slightly, even as a one-off test run, some sort of world-ending anarchy and chaos will descend upon Vancouver. Let a barbershop into a retail space that has previously been strictly designated for “grocery store only” and who knows what might happen next: pig-slaughtering factories in the spare bedrooms of Commercial Drive condos, steel fabrication in a Joyce-Collingwood Vancouver Special, truck repair in garages in Kerrisdale.

The intense anxiety from staffers, and even from some councillors, about allowing retail off the main streets is even more perplexing when you know how many people in Vancouver are already running businesses out of their houses. I’m not talking about the writers and software programmers and game designers working quietly at their laptops. There are hairdressers, jewellery-makers, mechanics, mini take-out restaurants and every other thing sprinkled all over the city.

In the meantime, except for the few remaining precious for- mer convenience stores, pretty much everything a person might want to do in a city like Vancouver—shop for a pair of pants or a coffee mug or a candle, go for a drink, get a haircut or an ear-piercing, have a meal, run out for some sugar and an ice-cream bar—is jammed onto Vancouver’s traffic-heavy, loud, major arterials, while the big residential quadrants in the city continue to be vast landscapes of boring, monotone houses and lawns.

That contrasts with, say, a city like Portland, which has preserved and even encourages clusters of small businesses in residential areas (see Clinton and 26th, for example).

In Los Angeles’ Boyle Heights, a neighbourhood east of downtown that’s been predominantly Hispanic forever, there was a lot of wrangling a couple of years ago over a new plan for the area, with people worried about gentrification and changes to its overall feel.

A key priority for the community? Preservation of a place for “tienditas”—the little stores (and bars and hairdressers and gas stations and other businesses) in the area that were a lifeline for many people during COVID-19 lockdowns.

Writer Cesar Hernandez talked about the importance of those little stores for a story in the LAist: “Tienditas remain an anchor in communities of color, keeping families fed and stocked even during a worldwide pandemic.”