Land Values: Vancouver nonprofit CIRES is redefining how businesses can work with neighbourhoods

CIRES wants to make sure that businesses in Gastown addresss community needs.

Twinlens Photography

Credit: Twinlens Photography

CIRES wants to make sure that businesses in Gastown addresss community needs

The row of businesses along Carrall Street on the edge of Vancouver’s Gastown neighbourhood looks not that much different from the eclectic mix on other streets nearby. East Van Roasters, the coffee-roasting and chocolate shop. Nelson the Seagull, a bakery and café. The Community Thrift & Vintage Frock Shoppe. Di Beppe restaurant, home to rich pasta dishes and a combination wine bar/ café. All on the ground floor of the historic Rainier Hotel.

But there’s something different here. These four spaces, along with 46 others throughout Gastown, the Downtown Eastside and a few other spots in the downtown peninsula, are curated and managed by a nonprofit group called Community Impact Real Estate Society, or CIRES for short. Some of those spaces are occupied by rent-paying regular businesses, like Nelson and Di Beppe. Others are nonprofits that are providing services or employment for people who live in the area. Women who live in supportive housing in the Rainier Hotel work at East Van Roasters, while the thrift shop provides both jobs and a source for cheap clothing.

There’s a purpose to what CIRES does as it manages these spaces. Just like a major mall owner (or a group of business owners concentrated in an area like South Granville) will curate the businesses on its property to create a particular feel—upscale or 20-something-oriented or festival-like or as varied as an outdoor commercial street with restaurants and yoga studios in the mix—CIRES curates the blend of businesses and nonprofits with a certain end in mind.

“Our criteria is totally different than a commercial owner’s,” says Steve Johnston, the group’s executive director. “We make sure that storefronts are vibrant and activated, but they have to contribute to the quality of life here. We look at what is missing from the community, what fits the community needs.”

CIRES is the legacy of former BC Housing CEO Shayne Ramsay, who turned over some of the commercial space in its social-housing buildings to be managed by what was a new nonprofit five years ago.

So far, the group has managed only BC Housing properties. But that could change as private property owners get familiar with the model and as CIRES looks to expand beyond a single client.

Recently, the group signed a memorandum of understanding with Onni Group to potentially manage a commercial space in one of two new buildings that the major developer has proposed for the Hastings and Clark area. Johnston talks optimistically about possibly expanding services to Chinatown, an area beset with challenges—empty storefronts among them.

The idea for Onni, says the company’s chief of staff, Duncan Wlodarczak, is to provide a social benefit to the neighbourhood that, for once, isn’t only subsidized housing. The proposal on Hastings is for two towers at 210 feet, with 152 condos across the two buildings and 55 social-housing apartments as part of the mix on a nearby lot on Raymur Avenue.

“We wanted to offer more than just affordable housing. If we turn over one commercial unit, one part of the retail, that’s one way for us to contribute,” he says. “It’s an opportunity as a private developer for us to contribute to the economic needs of the neighbourhood.”

It’s a novel model. No other city has an agency quite like this (though CIRES is currently talking to a Toronto group that wants to start something similar). It’s one that many should be paying attention to as everyone tries to figure out how to keep Vancouver functioning as a real city, not just a manicured enclave for the super-rich.

For the most part, politicians and activists have tended to focus here and elsewhere on the need for housing to serve people who are at different places on the economic ladder. Their constant refrain is that the city needs to make living room for not just the wealthiest, but also for everyone who makes it run: restaurant cooks and bus drivers, yoga teachers and nurses, record-store operators and dental assistants.

What gets a lot less attention is how a functioning city also needs to have a mix of businesses that operate at different economic levels. A football stadium’s worth of reports from the last two decades spells out in extensive, repetitive detail how important small businesses are to a city. They employ locals at a significant rate. The money spent there stays in the community. They are the connective tissue of neighbourhoods. They provide a sense of character and life to a city that no large corporate chain has figured out how to reproduce.

But it’s largely been left up to the business operators to find a way to survive in Vancouver, especially under a system where they are generally required to pay their share of the taxes on any building where they rent. That’s been a punishing system, as the assessed values (and therefore the taxes) of many buildings have soared because they’ve been rezoned for much higher densities. It doesn’t matter if there’s nothing but a one-storey shop there—the assessed value and the taxes are based on the zoning, not the reality.

Other cities have struggled to figure out a way to protect these businesses. In San Francisco, businesses that qualify as “legacy” operations can get help (marketing, advice, direct grants) from the city. The National League of Cities has documented many other efforts. Detroit has created BizGrid, a central spot for information on everything from empty spaces to leases to programs aimed at helping small businesses. In El Paso, the mayor’s office has developed special initiatives to connect small-business owners (particularly those from the Hispanic community) to places where they can get financing.

In Vancouver, there’s been a lot of hand-wringing but little action. An operation like CIRES shows the value of support. When the effects of the pandemic hit Vancouver businesses, CIRES made sure all of its renters knew they were being looked out for.

“Honestly, they’ve been fantastic, especially during the pandemic,” says Jonathan Snelgar, the co-owner and operator of Nelson the Seagull, noting that CIRES gave the eatery rent relief.

He also appreciates how CIRES works with commercial tenants like him to encourage support for the community. As part of its lease agreement, Nelson provides free meal vouchers to the women living above it at the Rainier. Last month, they handed out 26 meals. (They also, on their own, have a “pay it forward” coffee program, where people leave money to pay for others’ coffees. That works out to about two coffees a day.)

“It’s quite a good feeling that some of my rent is going to a nonprofit,” says Snelgar, who started Nelson 12 years ago with his sister shortly after the two of them landed in Canada from South Africa.

It’s that kind of relationship and that kind of attention to small business that has made Onni’s Wlodarczak interested in what CIRES does. (So interested that he joined the group’s board after the memorandum of understanding was negotiated.)

“I think it’s a really good model,” he says. “There’s a lot of conversation about afford- able housing, but we need that same conversation for commercial real estate.”