From the Daily Scot:
I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Founder and Co-Executive Director of LOCO BC Amy Robinson for quite a few years now through my sister.  Amy and her team are passionate about all things great about local businesses, their under-appreciated economic contributions, how they support local jobs and communities, and all the great sustainability aspects that come with supporting people in your own backyard.  
Amy and her team put together the following article.  Please also check out what LOCO BC does by visiting their website:


Will Densification Bring an End to Independent Business in Vancouver?

by Amy Robinson


Our unique neighbourhoods and local business community are at risk of gentrification in the race to densify our housing stock without including better planning for ground floor retail spaces.
Ground floor retail businesses influence how we interact with our city, whether walking, cycling, driving or on transit. Development along commercial corridors is increasingly creating a gentrified retail environment and Vancouver risks losing the unique character of its neighbourhoods.
Residents feel the change when new condos bring lifeless, large format retail spaces to their communities. When Shopper’s Drug Mart set up shop on Main Street at the corner of 18th, residents appealed to the company to make more of an effort to fit into the neighbourhood.


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Residents are asking that new retail on the street better reflect the historic and eclectic character of one of the city’s oldest streets. “We can’t stop development, and that’s fine, but they are one of the first, not big box, but chain kind of stores to go in on Main Street, so they will have a big influence on how future ones might think that they’re going to develop there.”[1]
The company replied to community efforts by saying they were simply leasing a space in a development whose design was approved by the city.
Amy 1Ironically, one independent business that attempted to make another commercial condo space further down Main Street more unique was taken to task by the city. Popular independent restaurant East is East (Chai Gallery Restaurant) erected a wooden awning to reflect their business concept, one “built on using natural, sustainable materials in all aspects of the restaurant – in both design and cuisine”. The company was denied an occupancy permit that delayed opening. The restaurant refused, saying the city was “forcing us to change our nature-inspired design and use non-organic materials compromises the heart of what East is East stands for…[we are] building a new and expanded venue to bring world-class music, art and culture to Main St. However, the city planning department is demanding that we change our façade and outdoor patio to match their sterile vision of Main St.”[2]
Chai Gallery’s sign may not be your thing, but it represents a fight to save the independence and spirit of local business in the city. In Hastings Sunrise, Dunbar, Marpole, South Main Street, Strathcona and other parts of the City, entire City blocks of local, independent retailers are being evicted to make room for new developments that provide increased housing density. That loss means that unique independent businesses are often being replaced with chain stores that leak wealth from our local economy.
Local businesses contribute more to our economy because their ownership is here (circulating profits), their management is here (circulating wages from good jobs), and they more often use local suppliers (circulating their purchasing dollars). Big chains have dispersed shareholders, corporate head offices elsewhere, and centralized supply chains that don’t support local suppliers for their marketing, web development, office supply, banking and other needs. The vast majority of dollars that flow into multi-national chain stores flows right back out of our community. Research shows that when consumers spend $1 with a chain, only 18c stays in the community, versus 45c for independent business. That’s 2.6x more local recirculation of dollars by local businesses!
Another example of the fight for unique, independent retail is being fought on West Broadway. Block after block of vibrant local businesses are being replaced with four and five story developments. Popular locally owned stores like Kids Books are being forced to move in order to make way for new development. One only has to look at similar developments east and west of that block for an example of what’s coming. These developments are filled with Shopper’s Drug Mark, McDonald’s, Tim Horton’s and the like. The convenience of these types of stores comes at the cost of local economic development as well as neighbourhood character.

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Some of the constraints to local businesses relocating to these new developments are:

  • The floor plates are designed for larger format chain stores who can afford large lease contracts
  • Developers require proof that the tenant has several years worth of rental income in the bank
  • Rents are too high in newly developed properties

How do we create opportunities for local economic development as we grow our cities? We’d like to see Cities need to search for best practices, and also engage residents and businesses into a conversation about what kind of planning is needed to keep independent businesses in our communities. Without this effort we risk losing them and the ways they create wealth, forever.
[1] Vancouver Courier. 2012. Vancouver resident wants Shoppers to adopt Main Street feel. Accessed 22-Jan-2016 from – See more here.
[2] Vancity Buzz. 2012. East is East Fights to Save Organic Signage


  1. Thanks for raising what I think is an important issue. Incubator sites for small businesses (such as those that used to exist in multiplicity along Main Street and the businesses they fostered that ultimately made Main Street an attractive place to be…) are vanishing. The City can mandate street front retail all it likes, but the reality is most of it sits empty for a long, long time or is leased by large companies – drugs stores, grocery stores, banks, etc. See Kingsway & Knight condo development and the Eldorado at Nanaimo & Kingsway for good examples of this – lots of empty storefronts years after construction is completed.

  2. How? you build lots of new buildings so that there’s lots of aging buildings going downmarket in the future for independent businesses to occupy at more competitive rents.
    It would probably also help if there was more commercial space zoned on arterials than was allowed for by Harland Bartholomew in 1929. From an cursory inspection of the various zoning maps, it actually appears that in many neighborhoods the commercial zone is *smaller* than it was under the original zoning plan. But when city planners talk about densification along currently residential arterials, they seem to be talking as often about town homes, while it’s commercial uses that would actually realize more value from the ground-level space.
    Take a stroll up Hastings-Sunrise some time, and you might note that the vast majority of businesses in the last twenty years of building are not bland chains.

    1. Very good points. Short of a San Francisco-style ban on chain operators, this is a mmore practical solution.

  3. There are a few factors at play:
    – New vs old – New construction is expensive/valuable so rents/property taxes will be higher. The property taxes on highly assessed commercial spaces is probably one of the reasons for high vacancy rates for older existing buildings on Robson St. and Denman St.
    – Design – Retail space is subject to design constraints on exterior appearance. The City could relax restrictions, and/or architects and the Urban Design Panel could allow facades that easily allow tenant modifications (i.e. flat facades, removable individual awnings instead of continuous awnings). I think the biggest culprit is the continuous awning – the uniformity deprives the retail frontages of individual character, and prevents the installation of unique signage.
    Despite East is East’s experience, I note that the Dublin Gate Pub on Main St. in the new Central office block has a “personalized” façade (though I think it looks out of place on the modern building!)
    – WRT large versus small spaces, I think that the majority of retail spaces under condo builds are small, awkward spaces unfit for large retail tenants (unless originally designed for them, such as L’Hermitage). That’s because of all the services/common areas for the condo building eating into the ground level floorplate. That’s also why you hear of people complaining that condo retail is littered with hairdressers and nail salons (which are often independent businesses!).
    – Tenant mix is also tied to ownership structure – retail spaces that remain corporately owned by the developer tend to be more successful on retail mix – because it’s like a mall and the landlord can control the mix to make the project attractive to the community (i.e. drug store, grocer, coffee shop). The classic local example is Pacific Boulevard. The retail units on the north side were sold to small independent businesses as strata units (largely immigrant investors). For the first 10 years or so, the mix of “small businesses” was disappointing (including a button store). The retail on the south side was retained by Concord Pacific as landlord and more reputable “anchor” businesses such as Urban Fare and HSBC opened up.
    It’s really an evolving environment. West Fourth probably used to be a lot cheaper than it is now – in both old and new buildings. There have even been a number of one storey retail buildings rebuilt as modern one storey retail buildings on that street. The incubator zones have moved to Main St. and Fraser St. from West 4th and Cambie (or even Granville). Gastown used to be an incubator area, but has taken off in recent years too.
    For older buildings, I guess the bottom line is that you can’t pay incubator rent in a very popular area, and the popularity of different areas changes over time, and with the general trend of increasing population, more areas are becoming popular (and higher rent comes with that).
    For new buildings, the high construction costs (translated to higher base rent) and the newly improved premises (translated to high property taxes (additional rent)) means that the space may sit vacant for some time until a tenant able or willing to pay the rent comes along.

  4. Contrary to the false choice implied by the article’s title, the loss of retail diversity is not caused by densification. It’s caused by capitalism, which can be steered, but will generally price things towards what either a seller or buyer think it’s worth – whoever yields more power. In the current case of space, the seller has more power and sets the price. A mom-and-pop trinket store can be priced out of an existing building as easily as a new one. If the City wants to keep retail diversity, it can cap commercial rental units like it does affordable rental rates and limit floor area for commercial units. Of course this means fewer mixed use use buildings constructed, because who builds these things to lose money on quirky retail?

  5. It is idiotic to confine the wide topic of small business to be solved by gov’t planning or some sort of built form. Erecting a sign that’s funky when new with material which rots & crumbles from lack of maintenance over time is not on the radar. Small business has never overly suffered from a ‘design’ problem. The Number One issue currently facing retailers – of all sizes and in many locations – is retail expenditures by households. They’re down. Half the people in the province are living paycheque-to-paycheque, and many don’t even have the benefit of a paycheque. When people are spending 60, 70, 80% of monthly income on housing, shopping sprees and gift-buying gets cut.
    Doesn’t matter what a business has for costs – product, labour, space, taxes – if the phone isn’t ringing and people ain’t coming in the door, it’s lights out. Lots of businesses have shut down even though there costs have not changed significantly over the last decade in relation to inflation. They’ve been killed on cash flow, which – if you know anything beyond regs and facades – is an important thingy.

  6. Regarding the Shoppers Drug Mart on Main x 17th, the original complaint in the Courier by a nearby resident was a confused mis-focus on the outward appearance of the retail business, (notably the glaring interior flourescent lighting so visible through large plate glass windows) when in fact it was an architectural issue. Shoppers did not hire the architect. But it does provide a vital service to those of us who regularly use its services and believe its addition, along with the new TD branch, to the growing array of neighbourhood amenities is well worth it. This is how you build complete communities with a high walk score.
    The resident knew full well that the building replaced the Coastal Ford block that bounced glaring light up into the sky and perfectly illuminated its large heritage parking lot. The advantages of the new building included closing a slip street and adding the road allowance space to a newly developed parkette in front, a net community and pedestrian benefit. Sure, the architecture wasn’t “heritage”, and the parkette missed the boat with respect to plaza programming, placement and circulation (both the architect and landscape architect are otherwise widely respected). Both have immature and rather cheesy references to the old Palm Dairies that was there before the car lot. In addition, this is the site where the notorious poodle on a pole plop art landed under the direction of a Park Manager who completely disregarded the unanimous rejection of said poodle by local residents during the public consultation phase.
    Despite these fairly glaring deficiencies, I’ll take the current development any day of the week over the car lot eyesore that existed before … well, preferably sans poodle.

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