Business & Economy
July 7, 2020

Shipping Container becomes Temporary Parklet in City of North Vancouver

We have had the City of Vancouver and other municipalities develop streamlined approval processes for businesses that want to build “pandemic patios” either on adjacent rights of way or in parking spaces.

The City of North Vancouver is going one step further in paying $20,000 to convert an existing 40 foot container bought by the City for $20 into a covered respite, a mobile “parklet” intended for central Lonsdale.

As Jane Seyd in the North Shore News writes:
“The idea is to convert the container into an outside seating area with lighting and a roof that will fit into curbside parking zones. The “parklet” will provide a public place to sit for customers of businesses that can’t expand patios into the public realm, according to staff, who hope it will be in place this month.”

The concept is to provide a place for people to sit and to eat meals bought from Lonsdale businesses. The upscaled container can be transported to different parking spaces to serve different businesses, and the City may expand the project after evaluating the effectiveness of this first installation.

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The Globe and Mail’s Marcus Gee asks: If the Romans knew that public toilets were an essential part of urban civilization, why don’t we?

If you have ventured out of your house or apartment to take transit or go anywhere in downtown Vancouver, you’ve been thinking about where you can use a public washroom and of course if that public washroom is safe to use. Of course the issue of the availability and accessibility of public washrooms are not top of mind these days and I have been writing relentlessly that everyone needs to go.

I wrote  last month about a walk on the south shore of False Creek planned because there was a council report from 2016 saying that a $400,000 accessible washroom was going to be built in Charleson Park. Sadly, for me, it’s not there. Yet. Maybe in the future. Maybe in another four years.

Mr. Gee observes that “Public washrooms have been around since the clever Romans designed a version with holes in a bench over a channel of running water. They put them in busy public places such as markets and theatres. In Victorian England, public washrooms were palatial affairs with grand entrances, stained-glass windows and marble counters. Paris had its pissoirs, simple urinals surrounded by a barrier to provide a minimum of privacy. Montreal had camilliennes. They were named after its Depression-era mayor, Camillien Houde, who joked that building them would give the city’s jobless residents “two kinds of relief.”

The truth is that when public facilities such as libraries and community centres close down there is no substitute, and the lack of public washrooms really does impede the mobility of the population. If you need people to come back and shop in commercial areas and feel comfortable spending extended amounts of time there, you need public washrooms.

Lezlie Lowe  wrote her  book No Place to Go: How Public Toilets Fail Our Private Needs in 2018.  She argues for an international push to insist on clean accessible “environmentally responsible” public toilets. Somehow in the design of the North American city quick, clean access to public washrooms was seen as something to be provided by private corporations, with municipalities not taking on civic responsibilities.

Ms . Lowe is pretty blunt about it. “Planners and committee chairs sound off about the livable, walkable, healthy, age-friendly city. But, somehow, providing a comprehensive network of public bathrooms, in the way cities create spiderwebs of bus routes, parks, and playgrounds, isn’t part of that conversation.” 

There’s been an array of things tried in the public realm including the fancy Decaux  automated toilets which may be costly and challenging to maintain, and too tech forward for many users.

I have also written about Portland’s Loo which costs $90,000 USD to install and has been very popular, designed to be functional without being too comfortable.

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Another Beacon Heights/East Hastings gem is Platform 7 in the 2300 block of East Hastings Street just a mere block away from the Roundel Cafe. Based upon a Victorian London train station, the business has clearly delineated where you can be/and where you cannot be during the Covid pandemic’s time of physical distancing with the required two meters. While you can enjoy the interior, it is the back exit of the cafe that provides the true hidden secret, absolutely perfect for conversations during Covid times.

 

There’s a plant oasis at the back of the cafe, enabling people to have coffee and talk  outside safely on what would normally be a couple of parking spaces. Those vehicular spaces have been gravelled over, with lattice and benches providing a form of enclosure for some superb west coast plantings.

And there is the opportunity~imagine the creative reuse of other similar back lane spaces behind commercial streets, extending the use of retail space or providing places where people can physically distance and socialize. There are still two parking spaces attached to the cafe for deliveries and for patrons, but the creative adaptation of the rest of the parking into a hidden garden is genius.

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Kudos to the Roundel Cafe located on the 2400 block of East Hastings street in the emerging “Beacon Heights” area.  During the first stage of the Covid Pandemic they have been working with theStaff Meal Initiative adding a two dollar donation to the Food Bank on every order that was placed online. They also have asked that should anyone need a “nourishing meal” that they DM the cafe on their Instagram account.

It is no wonder that that this locally owned breakfast and lunch venue also found a unique way to ensure physical distancing as they opened up the restaurant for sit down customers. Using full body and torso mannequins artfully arranged in “no go” zones they have found a playful way to indicate where you can sit~and where you better not.

And they are having fun with it. As the CBC reports ” Candy got her start in a lingerie store, but now she stretches out across three bar stools at the café, wearing a vintage frock from the 1950s and dangling a matching apricot purse made of ostrich leather.”


Restaurant owner Dena Sananin selected the mannequins which are on loan from the Angels vintage store. She picked the ones the ones that she thought looked like they should be in a restaurant.

And the owner of Angels vintage store likes seeing the mannequins repurposed this way.

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Jeff Leigh of HUB reports:

My wife and I rode Stanley Park last Monday, and stopped in at the Prospect Point Café.  We spoke with the staff at the concession, who advised they had been very busy serving people on bikes through the weekend.

We typically do not stop at the top of the hill, but head right on down.  Now we have a reason to stop.

Jeff and his wife haven’t been alone.  Here’s the scene last Sunday:

Here’s the line-up just for ice cream:

Prospect Point Cafe was literally surrounded by bikes and riders – most of whom looked to be in the demographic that any restaurant would find rather attractive.  And since these were all Vancouver residents (no tourists, remember), they’re also the ones who, when out-of-town guests return, will be looking for a good place to take them, whether for ice cream or sit-down meals, whether by bike, car or bus.

Honestly, what it is going to take for businesses people to catch on?  Who can they turn to for advice?

Oh yeah, HUB.  Jeff again:

HUB Cycling is already working on promoting businesses in the park.

HUB has a program called Bike Friendly Business,  which has just the type of offerings that businesses new to dealing with people cycling can use, from Business Development services, to certification, to marketing to people who cycle.  If you have a business and want to talk, please reach out.

There are other HUB Cycling programs and events that can help businesses with marketing to people on bikes as well.  Bike to Shop comes up later in the summer.  Volunteers lead group rides to participating businesses, helping those new to transportation cycling learn how to bike to shops, restaurants, and so on.

It is important that businesses who believe their business is solely dependent on motor-vehicle traffic see that there is a whole community of people who cycle for transportation, and who spend money at local businesses.

 

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*Mockup by Andrew Walsh

 

Peter Ladner knows how to help restaurants and businesses in Stanley Park thrive in these disrupted times.  He describes his idea in detail in this open letter to Nancy Stibbard, owner of the Prospect Point Café.

Dear Nancy:

You may recall our conversation a couple of weeks ago. You and your management team were surveying the financial wreckage at your Prospect Point Café; I and my fellow pensioner cycling friends were commiserating with you at the top of the Stanley Park Hill. I was recalling my son and daughter-in-law’s similar fate of owning restaurants forced to close but the bills keep coming and the future looks bleak. You looked shaken, uncertain, but with time and curiosity enough to chat with us.

You and your team’s three vehicles were parked outside, and I imagined how, for you and your team, access to your restaurant without a car would just not be possible or practical. The same at Capilano Suspension Bridge.

You said your restaurant would have no hope if the tour buses couldn’t get there, and if cars were backed up in gridlock, which you predicted. You since joined up with 13 other Stanley Park businesses and associations to persuade the Vancouver Park Board—unsuccessfully- to reopen the park to two lanes of motorized traffic.

Your organization’s spokesperson, Nigel Malkin, then told News1130: “Accessibility to Prospect Point for anyone will basically be near zero… You’d have to park across the road…” Malkin, in case you haven’t picked this up by now, has a disturbing aversion to facts and cyclists. It’s not a good look to have a spokesperson who describes the 350,000 cyclists over the first 67 days of the lockdown as “near zero”. That’s around six times the number of cars that used to drive by during the same two months last year.

He also predicted, like you, contrary to traffic engineers’ data, “It’s inevitable you end up with severe traffic issues.” I am reminded of the old quip attributed to Yogi Berra: “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

According to a CBC report, he foresees “a bicycle lane that’s a velodrome for beyond seasoned cyclists… It’s not being inclusive, this is not something where families and children are going to be able to ride around.”

 

Now that we’re stuck with the six-month bike lane trial and near zero foreign tourists, let me propose another approach: turn those fighting words into a warm embrace.

You have six months to seize an amazing opportunity that has just backed into you.

You sit atop what could be the next new tourist sensation in Metro Vancouver: the Stanley Park Hill.

Just as you learned how to milk the natural splendour of the Capilano Suspension Bridge to attract and please tourists, you could do the same here.

Think about it: this is a hill that’s a 15-minute bike ride from downtown, within 10 km of hundreds of thousands of people. It is just steep enough to be a big sweaty challenge for a lot of people, but easy enough that my five-year-old grandson goes up it with me on his clunky bike, without a rest, past the people pushing their bikes, and is bursting with pride and excitement at the top. Not to mention anticipation of the heart-thumping big downhill ahead.

People in cars don’t notice hills like this, but for cyclists, trust me, it’s a big deal.

This hill could be turned into the cycling equivalent of the Grouse Grind, only way more accessible. It fits into a very manageable 10 km cycling loop of the park. It weaves through the heart of the towering forests of Stanley Park, breaking out into the clifftop vistas of mountains, the Lion’s Gate Bridge, the entrance to our working harbour, views you know so well from your restaurant. It already has a public washroom where many people stop. (I’m including cyclists and hikers when I say people.)

So I am going to offer some gratuitous marketing advice. Now is the time to embrace the hundreds of thousands of cyclists that will be riding past your site. Welcome them, encourage them, love them. They are your new customers who just might save your business.

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During Covid Times it’s interesting to walk through neighbourhood streets. Add in a bit of rain and you are guaranteed to have the sidewalk to yourself. Here, at the site of the old gas station on the north east corner of 41st Avenue and Larch there’s a long hoarding covering a chain link fence, suggesting there’s flowers and a field behind it.

But no. Here’s the sign indicating it’s represented by someone who can help you with commercial business financing.

And on the entry from Larch Street, a surprise. There’s a so-called “temporary park” on the site of the former gas station.  Inside that space, there’s really no formal planting or any indication of what kind of activities are expected on top of a former gas station site.

This is not any “normal” park. This is part of a tax loophole available to developers to temporarily pay lower property taxes on land that is used for offices and retail by reclassifying it for park or community garden use. The land owner pays substantially less taxes while they work out the best deal for the land. It is an opportunity for potential temporary park or garden users, but  Andy Yan, Director of the City Program at Simon Fraser University calls it something else: We are rewarding land hoarding and subsidizing it through these community gardens. We are losing tax money to subsidize this thing that looks good—and all we’re getting in return are really expensive taxpayer-subsidized tomatoes. ”

There’s no community garden in this barren space but there  is a token park bench of sorts, and it is not screwed down or affixed in any way. This is the end game of the previous gas station use  where soils have to be remediated on site. There’s no internet presence for the park, no recognition of it on the business association internet site.

 

The change of gas station  activity is documented in this thesis completed at the University of British Columbia by Alexandre Man-Bourdon on “Old Gas Stations~New Fuel for Environmental Awareness”.  Man-Bourdon documents the “LUST” cleaning process~that stands for “Leaking Underground Storage Tanks”~and proposes public art and safe park space usage during remediation. One of the concepts proposed is illustrated below:  a prepared park site on top of a remediated gas station site, with markers indicating the locations of other gas station sites also being repurposed.

In 2017, the City of Vancouver has fifteen commercial properties that converted from Property Tax Class 6 (office and retail) to Class 8 (temporary park or community gardens). With an assessed value of $1919.7 million, those commercial property owners paid 1.5 million dollars less by using the loophole.  Last year another four properties assessed at 95.3 million dollars  did the same thing, paying $300,000 less in taxes while holding the land. 

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Over the weekend I had an article published at Fortune.com that explores how North Shore property developers are adapting their businesses to survive a District of North Vancouver council that has refused to approve any multi-unit housing of any sort.  What I didn’t expect was that the story would wind up putting a human face on people who are usually presented as big bad faceless corporate monsters.

Included in the article is Oliver Webbe, president of the Darwin Group, who started the development side of their family business specifically to build projects on the North Shore, and who is now sitting on several pieces of land that he can’t touch. His approach is to just wait out the current council until they either change, or at least change their minds.

“In all honesty, it hasn’t changed our direction or what our vision is for our projects,” he says. “We’re staying the course. The reality is when you’ve got a considerably new council, it’s going to take a bit of time for them to get up to speed with policies that had already been in place for 10 years before they were elected.”

The other person that I talked to was Robert Brown, vice-president of the non-profit Catalyst Community Developments Society.  Catalyst had been invited by the previous District council to develop a six story subsidized housing project with senior’s respite facility on land owned by the District.  After several rounds of approvals and public meetings the near final plan was rejected wholesale by the council elected in 2018.  Brown explained to me that this rejection cost his organization several hundred thousand dollars – not an insignificant sum for a non-profit. His big frustration though was that he’d heard nothing from the District since the vote to shut the Catalyst project down.

“The strangest thing about this is that we went through that process, it got turned down, and we have never received a single phone call or correspondence from anybody at the district to say, ‘Would you like to discuss this? Would you like to revamp the proposal?’”

The thing that really struck me while reporting this was the genuine frustration that both Brown and Webbe felt. They believe that they have played by the rules, have done everything that was asked of them, and that they have acted in good faith.  Both of them strived to build below-market housing, to preserve or add more rental housing, and to build projects that will enhance the communities around them.

Those members of council who responded to requests for comments (Lisa Muri, who famously described meetings with Darwin as “keep your enemies close,” had nothing to say.) consistently talked about “traffic, environmental degradation in the form of forest devastation, and a general sense by residents that the project was out of step with their vision of their local community.”  The other notable response was from first-time council member and Deep Cove resident Megan Curren who wouldn’t comment on development questions, but instead chose to criticize Fortune for celebrating capitalism.

At the end of all of this, I walk away with a reminder that finger-pointing and name-calling do not build strong communities. Instead, it is critical that all of us, and especially the politicians that we elect to represent us, need to remember that inside every corporation or non-profit group are living, breathing human beings, and that decisions which may look politically savvy do have repercussions on people, businesses, and on individuals far removed from the vocal community associations that tend to dominate these discussions.

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Price Tags Reader Ray read my  post on the Return of the Corner Store and reinforces the importance of the neighbourhood store for convenience, independence, and aging in place.

Ray says: 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 Street 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.”

Images: Fred Herzog & GlobalNews

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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?”

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