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Christina DeMarco, left, and Jean Baird, members of Friends of Point Grey Village, at the former Safeway site on West 10th Avenue in Vancouver, on March 14.Jennifer Gauthier/The Globe and Mail

Major developments, such as big box grocery stores, can make or break a neighbourhood. If they disappear, they can throw a neighbourhood off balance. Vancouverites saw that happen when the iconic Woodward’s department store shuttered its downtown location.

For decades, a Safeway store had anchored Vancouver’s Point Grey Village retail district at 4545 West 10th Ave., but in 2018 the three-acre site was sold off and the store demolished. It has been a vacant lot ever since, awaiting redevelopment by the new owner, international development and investment company BentallGreenOak. Whatever happens at that site will be crucial to restoring vitality to the neighbourhood.

After Safeway left, more shops moved out and much of the street stayed empty, resulting in a current retail vacancy rate in the area of 14.3 per cent, far higher than the 7 per cent or 8 per cent considered healthy.

Reasons for the emptying out of high streets are similar in most urban centres: property tax increases, competition from e-commerce and high real estate values. Point Grey Village has the added complication of a decreased population and competition from nearby University of B.C.’s newer shopping district. With increased property values, it also generally started to make more sense for landowners in urban centres to hold onto empty stores as assets rather than tie them up with businesses that could afford the rents.

A city-commissioned study of six Vancouver retail districts between 2012 and 2019 showed a 71-per-cent increase in property ownership by developers and numbered companies and a 29-per-cent decrease in individual ownership. There was also a 40-per-cent increase in vacancies over several years, and this was prepandemic.

Resident Jean Baird can recite a long list of shops that have cleared out in the past few years, including a Vancity branch and theatre. Her group, Friends of Point Grey Village, is advocating for the former Safeway site to live up to city policies for a livable, village-friendly development, rich with public amenities that would reinvigorate the street and fill the empty spaces and add a more interesting retail component.

Ms. Baird dreams of an outdoor space that takes inspiration from Toronto’s successful Berczy Park or Love Park, which have whimsical water features and ample public seating, as well as a mix of housing types, including rental, condos and co-ops, to fulfill the needs of renters and downsizers who want to stay in the neighbourhood.

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A sign posted by the Friends of Point Grey Village.Jennifer Gauthier/The Globe and Mail

However, the developer has different plans: a large high-rise all-rental complex that consists of a 17-storey and 19-storey tower with six-storey podium fronting 10th Avenue, two six-storey buildings to the north of the site and a 37,000-square-foot grocery store that fronts the ground level. Of the 569 units, 114 units are at rents that are 20 per cent below the citywide average – part of the Moderate-Income Rental Housing Pilot Program. Units include 327 one-bedroom units, 29 studios, 174 two-bedrooms and 39 three-bedroom units.

The rezoning proposal does not include child care, and the public outdoor area is between two buildings that appears to be partly in shadow in the animation posted on the City of Vancouver’s Shape Your City website. The large development also appears to have little setback from the street, although BGO disagrees. Residents argue that it’s an imposing, generic, fortress-like design without enough public amenities. The Urban Design Panel, which advises city staff, also had criticisms about the design.

“There is deep, deep concern in the community,” says Ms. Baird, who founded Friends for Point Grey Village with other residents four years ago. “The potential for that Safeway site is enormous as far as revitalizing the community – but with what is currently on the table, that opportunity is being squandered.”

The developer is asking for considerably more density than the current zoning allows, which is up to six storeys of rental plus a floor of retail space. Under the MIRHPP, up to 14 storeys is allowed, but only at a major intersection.

Vancouver needs livable neighbourhood centres, particularly if it’s going to achieve the vision set out in the citywide Vancouver Plan, says Christina DeMarco, former city of Vancouver senior planner and former head planner for Metro Vancouver. She’s also a local resident of Point Grey and member of Friends of Point Grey Village, and she says the proposal falls short of several city policies and concerns.

For example, city policy requires some form of public park space for large developments. The Vancouver Plan calls for village-like shopping centres. As well, last year the city acknowledged a shortfall of at least 15,000 licensed child-care spaces.

The trade-off for giving the developer significantly more density should be more community amenities, says Ms. DeMarco. Last year, city council reduced the subsidy required by the developer for the below-market units. That should mean there is more money available for child care or a public library, or to simply reduce the density on site so it’s more in keeping with the village scale. Also, she argues that a massive store that takes up the entire ground level is old-fashioned and monotonous.

As is, she says, the proposal feels more like a financial undertaking than the heart of a community.

“We had this wonderful image of how the three acres would transform the village,” says Ms. DeMarco.

“We had always dreamed of a housing mix, because we knew the uplift from condos, in particular, creates all kinds of community amenity. So, condos for empty nesters who want to own; rental for a variety of people; and co-ops that are below market, and lots of amenities.”

The city responded by e-mail that the applicant did not add child care to its proposal, and it had not been a requirement.

“Staff are aware of both neighbourhood and city-wide demand for child care facilities, and will review the financial performance of this project, to determine if the project can support any additional public amenities beyond the provision of below-market rental housing units,” said the city response.

City staff will also be reviewing height, density, the overall form of the proposal, the public plaza, impact on neighbours and contribution to retail and affordable housing, said the spokesperson.

Retail expert and planner Lewis Silberberg has been inventorying Vancouver neighbourhoods for more than 20 years. He initiated the city’s work on storefront vacancy rates and contributed to the retail study.

To “reposition” West 10th Ave. as a thriving neighbourhood, he’d consider future development in nearby Jericho Lands, at UBC, as well as the impact of future rapid transit and the future population growth. He says the grocery store anchor will be key because interesting, successful neighbourhoods have a hierarchy of retail.

“There is a hierarchy of uses in terms of tenant mix that contributes to the health and vitality and if you look at the top of the pyramid, it’s the retail grocery store or equivalent,” he says.

Not all major grocers are the same, and a unique grocer anchor at the BGO site could draw shoppers from outside the area, he says. And that grocer also has the potential to compete with smaller retailers or complement them, which is key.

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Renderings of the project proposed by builder BentallGreenOak for the site of a former Safeway grocery store.BentallGreenOak

BGO vice-president, development, David Roche, responded in an e-mail that the plaza will be 6,000 square feet and include three retail shops, with landscaping. The building setback will exceed the city requirements and will allow for public seating. He couldn’t yet say the anchor grocery tenant, but he said they’d received significant interest from many retailers.

“This development will have the effect of stitching the neighbourhood together architecturally and socially to enhance this entire neighbourhood block and to complete the existing community,” said Mr. Roche.

“Our team’s hope is that the grocery will serve not only the roughly 1,000 new residents that will live in this development, but that it will attract neighbours throughout Point Grey and other nearby areas of the west side of Vancouver to help West 10th return to the active and thriving retail strip that it was before Safeway and many other retailers closed their doors in recent years.

“BGO understands how important this site is to the community,” he said, referring to presentations and open houses in the past two years.

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