June 1, 2020

Post Pandemic Trends~The Return of the Corner Store


Remember the corner store in your neighbourhood?

Coming out of the pandemic is the need to access goods right in your neighbourhood. The local corner store used to fill this role, with shopkeepers knowing everyone in the neighbourhood, and providing a place where locals can buy milk, cheese, some staples and hear the local goings on and gossip.

In an article written last Fall by Jesse Johnston with the CBC there were 226 business licences for Vancouver convenience stores in 2018, 86 less than ten years ago. Many used to be run by new immigrants as a way to learn the language and to work independently in a new place. But rising property taxes and the fact that residential zoning does not allow the use of corner stores as an outright use makes it difficult for these family owned convenience stores to continue.

Corner grocery stores are existing non conforming uses in residential areas. Stop running a corner store in the premises for six months, and a new lessee cannot receive permission to reopen the store, no matter how compelling the case.

But as civic historian and former City of Vancouver staffer John Atkin observes, corner stores are “community meeting places”  where people can gather. Quebec Street’s Federal Store is an example of a convenience store that has remorphed into a cafe, as has Keefer Street’s Wilder Snail which also provides fresh baking and groceries.

Vancouver still has some of the localized neighbourhood market fabric in existence on the west side at Mackenzie Street and 33rd Avenue an on the east side at Nanaimo and Charles.  These are grandfathered in businesses from a time fifty years ago when the car was king, and driving  to shop at big malls with plentiful parking was a “thing”.

This returning trend  of neighbourhood level  convenience shopping that can be accessed by walking or by bike is described in this article by Architect Toon Dreessen who talks about the “popsicle test”. Can your kid go out by themself to a store safely to purchase a popsicle and return home before it melts? “And is there even a corner store for them to shop at?”

While we talk about the missing middle and supporting growth, local grocery stores are an amenity in residential “food deserts”.  Loneliness and the lack of human connection can take a toll during this pandemic. But local corner stores reinforce a walkable connected community, provide interaction and local community resilience.

We need to bring corner stores back, so that every neighbourhood can safely do the popsicle test with their kids. Below is CBC’s short documentary on Harry Mah’s McGill Grocery and Vernon Drive Grocery while it was owned by Floyd Wong.


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  1. If corner stores “come back”, I’m curious to know how or if cities will choose to apply the parking minimum bylaws for new establishments. It’ one of the sad ironies of modern life that many of the local-scale neighbourhood amenities we claim to love would in fact be illegal to build today with zoning and parking bylaw restrictions. Common sense says any city would completely forego on-site parking requirements for small retail establishments like this – for a number of reasons – but we don’t always live in that world. Maybe we will see.

    1. But we do see massive changes in parking regulations already. Many (most in Vancouver?) new buildings have less than one space per unit – unheard of a decade ago. A proposed 10+ storey residential building on the same block as my office has four spaces (for car share only). And perhaps the biggest change of all, considering that parking was the main excuse to deny basement suites in the past: You can have a house, a secondary suite and a laneway house with only one on-site parking space. There is no requirement that it be near transit or amenities.

      I worked on a project in Kits with three full sized units in the main building plus a coach house with no on-site parking at all.

      The whole point of any revival of neighbourhood groceries or similar businesses is that everybody would walk there. I think the city recognizes that much.

      1. Agreed, but “the revival of neighbourhood groceries or similar businesses” is not part of any bylaw. Parking spaces per square meter is. It takes staffers, councilors, and neighbours to all be cool with zero parking. This is what needs to play out. It’s doable, but won’t happen just because we think it’s sensible.

        1. Do you guys drive? I wouldn’t want zero parking to be a thing. There should still be some parking bylaws, but perhaps to a lesser degree than it is now.

  2. Aging in place in my community..

    I grew up a 5 min walk from McGill Grocery in the 1950’s & 60’s. There were actually three small grocery stores close by, the closest to me was also on McGill, a block west of the McGill Grocery at Penticton.

    Having a grocery store on our North side of busy McGill street, meant that my mother could sent me to get milk, or the odd item of food, or frequently used household supplies. I could also go there when I walked home from school, or when my friends and I were free.

    My mother walked or took the bus everywhere. She did most of her shopping on Hastings St., unless she caught the bus on McGill St to go to Woodwards downtown.

    In her later years, my mother relied heavily on McGill grocery. Access to that store helped her to ‘age in place’.

    I feel badly for parents who can’t walk to neighbourhood services as I did, who don’t know most of the people they get their supplies from, and often don’t even know their neighbours.

    Now I live in West Point Grey. We moved here because it enabled my father-in-law to live with us. Here he could walk to the Safeway, and to the shops on 10th Ave a few blocks away.

    However Safeway has now closed, and many other shops on 10th Ave have closed. Without those shops, I fear aging in place will be more difficult for us.

    I hope the experiences with Covid-19 will increase the efforts increase the viability of grocery stores and other local shops. They help create the more walkable city we need.

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