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Boyd Thomson, left, owner of The Wilder Snail, chats with regular customer Keith Jardine as Thomson’s dog Fern walks outside his coffee shop in the Strathcona neighbourhood. (DARRYL DYCK for the globe and mail)
Boyd Thomson, left, owner of The Wilder Snail, chats with regular customer Keith Jardine as Thomson’s dog Fern walks outside his coffee shop in the Strathcona neighbourhood. (DARRYL DYCK for the globe and mail)

Corner stores mean solid neighbourhoods Add to ...

Last week a group of about 50 people gathered inside a downtown Simon Fraser University classroom to learn about the chances of survival for an independent coffee shop and corner store in Vancouver.

We might not give much thought to these oases in the urban desert, but their existence can improve a neighbourhood and raise property values. Because they succeed best in areas with diverse incomes and urban density, they represent an equilibrium, the happy existence of a multi-layered community. There is a correlation between the corner store and affordable housing. They go together.

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Andy Yan, an urban planner for Bing Thom Architects, led the discussion. He showed all independent stores plotted on a map of the city, in areas with C-1 zoning, which allows for small-scale neighbourhood retail. There was a notable lack on the city’s west side – not too surprising, because in Vancouver, they’ve mostly been an east side feature.

“The fact of the matter is that corner groceries in the City of Vancouver have a distinct and historic pattern of being located in blue-collar, middle- to working-class, family-oriented neighbourhoods, with a good dose of immigration,” Mr. Yan said later in an interview.

But the corner stores are disappearing from neighbourhoods, with 82 per cent in non-residential areas, according to city data.

“The corner store is a sign that things are in balance,” says Jake Fry, a director of non-profit Small Housing B.C. “There is something about income and the corner store and population — they have to be balanced properly. It really is the biggest telling thing of a dynamic neighbourhood. It’s like the canary in the coal mine.”

Mr. Fry is an advocate for more housing options designed to re-populate our neighbourhoods, and that includes the independent store. He sees the loss of the store as directly related to the loss of rental or affordable housing stock.

“It refers to how much rental stock and affordable housing we’ve lost, because the corner store is about having a kinetic mass in your neighbourhood that needs to go out for milk or butter or whatever,” he says.

It’s about having bodies on the streets, as opposed to loners sitting in their cars.

His laneway house company, Smallworks, has projects all over the city with the exception of Shaughnessy, where single-family houses on large lots predominate. About one-third of Smallworks’ little houses are used for rental. The rest are occupied either by retirees who are downsizing and renting out their main home for income, or parents whose kids need a home without breaking the bank, says Mr. Fry.

“We’re just trying to recreate that dynamic – to repopulate the neighbourhood and make it affordable and humane,” he says. “That’s always been the thing about the small houses and corner stores. Why can’t we start bringing some of that cottage industry into the neighbourhoods?”

In terms of property values, the corner store is good for business, too. Boyd Thomson, owner and operator of The Wilder Snail in Strathcona, says his corner store/coffee bar is such a central neighbourhood feature, he’s been asked to participate in promotional materials for condo developers. The Wilder Snail is the proverbial water cooler for the neighbourhood, where residents routinely gather and share news. Mr. Thomson knows all his customers and he sponsors community events. To promote sustainability, he’s installed pedal-powered workstations for laptop users.

“Someone said my store has contributed in a small amount to the real estate boom in Strathcona neighbourhood,” says Mr. Thomson, who was also on the SFU panel. He gave up his job as an engineer who worked on alternative energy to own and operate The Wilder Snail on Keefer Street. About half his business is his coffee bar, he says, which enables him to survive.

He figures he makes about one quarter of what he made as an engineer, but he’s happier having a direct impact on the community. Stores like The Wilder Snail move into diverse neighbourhoods where rents are lower and their mere presence improves the street. There are seven rental units in the building.

“My first summer in 2009, I probably called 911 about 50 times,” says Mr. Thomson, an Ottawa native. “About 95 per cent of those calls were about drunken violence, in and around the park across the street. … This summer, I’ve called maybe three times.”

“But the question has become, can the corner store and coffee house return to residential neighbourhoods?” Mr. Yan asked his SFU audience.

His figures show how tough a job it is being the neighbourhood mom and pop.

The median tax for a corner store in a C-1 zone, for example, is $23,000 a year. Of 338 buildings in Vancouver, the average assessed value is $1.9-million.

That’s a lot of bread and milk to cover the rent and taxes. And considering the median household income is $47,299, according to the last census figures, a lot of people are doing their shopping at places like Costco and Buy Low.

Part of the reason the ones on the west side are dying, suggests Mr. Fry, is that so many of the houses on the west side are empty. Although the evidence at this point is largely anecdotal – Mr. Yan has done an empty condo study but has yet to do an empty house study – west side neighbourhoods appear under populated.

“There are a lot of [small stores] closing on Dunbar. We build around there a lot, and I can think of two corner milk stores gone in the last year,” says Mr. Fry. “I bring it back to the construction happening there right now, and those homes tend to be more investment homes. If you drive along any of those blocks, I’d say it’s not an exaggeration that every block has two to three construction projects. Right there, that is a drop in population.”

Mr. Thomson is a little worried that he might see a similar lack of diversity affect his business as Strathcona increases in wealth.

“The first year I was here, people were coming in with posters for apartments for rent. Now, I see none of that. Definitely, lots of people are asking if I know of anything to rent in the neighbourhood but there’s probably less turnover and rents are going up. And some rental houses that were shared by five or six friends are being purchased and renovated for a single family. They put in a suite, but it will rent for a lot more than before.

“It’s probably a nicer place, but it has less diversity, which is a key strength to this neighbourhood,” he says. “In five to 10 years, will it lose its charm and become a wealthy enclave?

“I don’t know. It does worry me a little bit.”

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