The COVID-19 pandemic has brought neighbourhoods alive as people have stuck close to home: Local parks are being heavily used by small groups gathering for a beer or picnic; shoppers visit local stores as they try to avoid crowds and no longer get their groceries or supplies as part of a work commute.
The change in behaviours has meant the local convenience stores embedded in residential areas have registered an uptick in sales, according to U.S. and Canadian reports from industry associations.
That’s all adding an extra push to a little urban movement percolating in planning circles: the idea of bringing corner grocery stores back to neighbourhoods.
In Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton, the concept is part of major re-writes of city plans, which are focused on an underlying philosophy of creating a “15-minute city” – an increasingly popular urban-planning concept that got a huge boost when Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo made it her priority – where people can get to services and shopping within a 15-minute walk or bike ride of their homes.
“COVID has sped up what we were trying to do already,” says Lisa Kahn, Calgary’s co-ordinator for its land-use team. “But there’s also a big change in how people are living in communities.”
In each city, planners are experimenting with ideas to reintroduce small retail in areas where there are shopping deserts or where new waves of housing are producing a crop of residents likely to want even more shops nearby.
Calgary has worked with a local group this summer to allow pop-up food markets in the downtown Central Memorial Park and at light-rail stations.
The park site is popular with those living in the nearby apartments and condos, said Jodi Gunn with YYC Growers, an organization that has created a system to sell food – everything from meat to vegetables to honey – on behalf of about 20 farmers.
“They don’t want to go far from home and they don’t always want to put on a mask to go into Walmart,” said Ms. Gunn.
In Edmonton, the city put some resources a few years ago into helping revive a small strip mall in the Ritchie neighbourhood south of downtown, now home to a butcher, a coffee shop, a brewpub, a bakery and a restaurant.
Planners want to see more of that, along with a whole new way of looking at how to integrate shopping and services into changing neighbourhoods.
“We are thinking about how we can double our population without having to annex new land, so we want to emphasize more development and infill but where we can get what we need close to where we are. We need to think about how we bring back the corner store,” said Kalen Anderson, the director of Edmonton’s city-plan process.
In Vancouver, where there is a steady flow of new construction in many areas, planners are looking at how to ensure that one or more small shops get built into the ground floor of smaller projects that might be developed along inner streets of residential neighbourhoods.
“We are seeing holes in neighbourhoods,” said Susan Haid, the deputy director of strategic and long-range planning who is working on Vancouver’s big city-wide planning process.
Her team put together a map recently showing where residents had easy access to services and shops in keeping with the 15-minute city concept and it showed some surprising wastelands.
Large swaths of west-side neighbourhoods between Granville and Arbutus and in the southwest corner had almost nothing available nearby. There were also areas in the southeast corner and a small central section devoid of corner stores or services.
Vancouver, like many other cities in the North American west, has most of its commercial activity crammed onto its high-traffic main streets in the suburban-style areas outside its core, often resulting in neighbourhoods that are vast tracts of nothing but single-detached houses.
Ms. Haid said that as churches or seniors’ homes look at redevelopment in the centres of those big residential quadrants, those sites could become places that support small local retail.
It’s improbable that anyone with a single-family house on a corner lot would decide to build a convenience store and run it, but there are some vestigial remnants of old corner stores that exist around Vancouver – long ago converted to residential space – and city regulators could develop ways to allow those to convert back to commercial, Ms. Haid said.
Vancouver used to have 250 corner stores in the 1920s. The number is now closer to 150, after decades where the city enforced strict separation of uses through zoning.
A few of those have been converted in recent years to more hip-style grocery stores: places such as the Wilder Snail in Strathcona, the Federal Store in Mount Pleasant, Marché St. George in Riley Park and Caffé La Tana on Commercial Drive.
It was Caffé La Tana’s tribulations that prompted one city councillor, Sarah Kirby-Yung, to advocate recently for the whole corner-store concept.
The owners of the café, a side business of popular Pepino’s restaurant next door, wanted to take what had been a standard old-style convenience store and bring it into the 21st-century.
But that required an entire rezoning in order to get a liquor licence – something Paul Grunberg saw as essential to make it profitable enough to survive.
He ended up hiring one of the city’s most powerful development consulting firms, Pooni Group, to get through the convoluted and unfamiliar system, which cost him thousands a month in fees for several months. (La Tana’s rezoning was approved unanimously in May after an 18-month application and hearing process.)
Mr. Grunberg, who says he would never do it again knowing what he does now, hopes the city will look for a way to make life easier for small stores like his by allowing them to do and sell more – critical in an era where retail is struggling and a corner-store owner can’t make rent on Popsicles, chips and the odd loaf of bread.
So the hardest part of this new effort might not be getting residents to accept the idea of retail clusters in new places. It could be the finances and the time lost to bureaucracy.
Ms. Haid noted that, while many residents say they want the city to support local stores, there needs to be a customer base around a small convenience or corner store to make it work economically, along with some flexibility from the city in the range of goods and services those stores can provide.
The corner stores that did exist in an older Vancouver served neighbourhoods that had big, dense populations, with many more people per household than is now the norm and more adults at home during the day.
Now, with COVID-19, there’s been a kind of return to those conditions, with many 20-somethings coming home to parents’ houses and a lot more shopping close to home. That could give cities the push they need.
Early conversations with key Vancouver neighbourhoods have shown that residents want to support local shopping, as they hunker down in their neighbourhoods, said Ms. Haid. “We could see a lot of heart during COVID to keep that rolling.”
We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.