July 7, 2022

The Return of the Corner Store?

Ah, the romance of the corner store.   Like the Wilder Snail in Strathcona:


Or Le Marche in Mt. Pleasant:


Or the many little groceries in Kitsilano and even the West End:


I say its romantic because the local residents who value them aren’t thinking they could be replaced by a 7-11 or even a Starbucks.  And they likely won’t; the economics are dubious.  The corner stores when I was growing up were called ‘Chinese groceries’ because that was the immigrant group who would sacrifice the long hours to make them work as a family endeavor.

But the Vancouver Plan suggests it’s time to at least make them legally possible again, since the current ones would revert to the underlying zoning – typically residential – if they stopped being functional businesses.  Dan Fumano features a glossy vision of the Wilder Snail in his Sun story to illustrate the break with the past that the planners intend.


But there is a problem here – one that explains the reason they’re not legal or economically possible at the moment.   Regular reader Dean observes: “Not one car shown in renderings!”  More revealing is the absence of parking: none in an attached or adjacent lot, none underneath, none even on the street.

“None needed” would respond a Strathcona resident who walks there, but that’s not likely to be the sentiment in the many neighbourhoods of homogenous residential housing where the residents are particularly territorial when it comes to parking.

It helps to understand a city’s past to understand the differences in the present.

A city’s urban form is shaped at the time a particular transportation technology dominated when its initial expansion and boom occurred.  In Vancouver’s case it was the electric streetcar.  Commercial development typically occurred along the streetcar lines or within a few blocks.

But because the streetcar made developable land abundant and cheap, we jumped over the forms of density that appeared in the pre-Motordom era – namely whole districts of apartments, even townhouses or duplexes.  We went straight to single-lot housing, from the West End to Strathcona to all the neighbourhoods around False Creek.  Which is why so many corner stores, and even streets like Davie (right) in the West End were initially conversions of single-lot houses.

Then Motordom.  Car domination required parking for every use.  And hence the end of the corner store, unless a strip mall would be an acceptable substitute because most of the site was asphalt.

The Vancouver Plan makes the assumption throughout that we are or should be at the end of Motordom, and so the need for parking for every use, even on some of our residential streets or for rental apartment blocks and social housing, can be erased. We can recreate the patterns of our past for our future vision.

And maybe we can.  But I suspect the iteration of the Vancouver plan into an actual development bylaw will still require a rezoning or neighbourhood approval before we see too many more Wilder Snails slinking into our ‘hoods.


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  1. When we updated Portland’s zoning code following our new Comp Plan update we included a zone for small-scale retail in the middle of residential areas. I can’t say it’s seen much uptake, but it did at least take some old non-conforming uses and make them conforming. Economics are probably the driver on uptake as suggested in the article.

  2. You could add on the economic front. A grocery store used to fulfill patrons needs with 100-1000 references product. Nowadays with all the diet ideologies, new allergies
    .. all these savantly cultivated by the very corner store idealist… then even with the parking, the typical corner store floorplate is just not enough to accomodate the 1000-10,000 references to make a basic grocery store economically viable.

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