Grandview-Woodland plan merging development with Commercial Drive character
Vince Murdocco has worked on Vancouver’s Commercial Drive as long as he can remember.
His family owns Cafe Calabria, a well-known Vancouver coffee shop that, after 40 years in business, is probably the oldest cafe on The Drive.
“My dad’s business is The Drive,” Murdocco said. “A lot of people say (Francesco) is the mayor of Commercial Drive.”
The cafe is open 365 days a year, and Murdocco and his siblings work 11 hours a day, six days a week. The cafe employs only family. “We do have a shortage of staff. I only have three brothers,” jokes Murdocco, who makes all the panini.
The establishment started out as a “gentlemen’s club” back in the day, when immigrants from Calabria played cards at Cafe Calabria, paisans from Rome frequented the Roma bar, and Napoletani drank their coffee at the Napoli bar. Today, Cafe Calabria is a family-oriented place much loved by tourists and locals alike.
Commercial Drive, too, has changed over the years. Businesses may have come and gone, but one thing has remained constant — small business dominates. Locals worry how the new Grandview-Woodland Community Plan will change the character of one of Vancouver’s most vibrant and eclectic streets.
Vancouver still has “a fairly good network of independent streets,” said Kent Munro, the City of Vancouver’s assistant planning director responsible for the area. “You don’t see it to the same extent in Toronto. The fact that in Vancouver, the size we are, that we have 22 neighbourhood centres … is pretty unique for Canada.”
Many funky retail areas are being developed in the U.S. (and a few in Canada), but they tend to have a manufactured feel, Munro said. “It’s kind of a Disneyland, because it has the look of being a nice clean little street, but it’s run by a big corporation. When we’re talking about a shopping street in Vancouver, that’s something different.”
“In Vancouver, we shop in local areas. We don’t head to the big box grocery store or do it once a month,” Munro said.
City planners “even think about when we get a new grocery store going into the city,” Munro said. “We might require economic market studies to prove there’s enough people to support it and it’s not going to kill other businesses. I don’t know that there’s the same rigour in other places.”
And Vancouver shoppers vote with their wallets.
“Chains that have come (to the Commercial Drive neighbourhood) have not been successful. McDonald’s came on First and Commercial. It closed. Subway opened across from Grandview Park, and that didn’t do well,” said Carmen D’Onofrio, who is president of the Commercial Drive Business Society and whose family owns Kalena Shoes and Stile Wines on The Drive.
But current market forces aren’t helping small business, said Patrick Condon, chair of UBC’s Urban Design program.
“Currently, Vancouver developers and the entities that finance them are enamoured of the big project,” Condon said. “Why, they say, should I invest three years of my life to build a small project (less than 100,000 square feet) for an equally small profit when, for the same effort, I can build a huge project and get a huge payoff? Why indeed.”
The most-effective strategy for saving and expanding local business along streets such as Commercial Drive is limiting the frontage and height of buildings, and insisting on a continuous commercial base with many doorways to many commercial enterprises, Condon said.
The Grandview-Woodland Community Plan “incentivizes retention of older buildings, and encourages infill buildings on smaller lots” which are not suited for big box commercial enterprises, Condon said. “In sum, I think, on this topic, the plan is a good one.”
What Vancouver needs is a development-approval process that encourages small developers, Condon said. A city-wide plan that streamlines that process by changing the underlying zoning in anticipation of development would reduce length, risk, and cost, allowing smaller developers to participate and result in a city of “the same kind of small-scale (development) increments that make Commercial Drive so lively and diverse,” Condon said.
At the same time, requiring larger projects to provide multiple small commercial units will lead to an increased and therefore more-affordable supply for small business, Condon said.
While Commercial Drive appears to be flourishing, “just because there’s people on the street doesn’t mean they are using all the services and retail and beverage options,” said Nick Pogor, Commercial Drive Business Society’s executive director.
“The retail landscape in the City of Vancouver is very challenging,” Pogor said, pointing to property taxes that in some areas of the city have risen six-fold since 2011. “The retail sector is more challenged than the food and beverage,” due to pressures such as online shopping, Pogor said. The city needs to listen to these businesses to help them remain viable, he said.
Developers have a complex and “often unwitting” role in preserving unique commercial streets, says James Smerdon, Colliers International retail consulting director. “They require a certain scale of project to make a profit, and sometimes that scale is not achievable on the street itself. I believe that the Safeway on Broadway and the new No Frills-anchored project on Hastings have preserved the character of Commercial Drive immeasurably, by taking (redevelopment) pressure away from the area between them.”
The West End Community Plan, completed in 2013, is further along than the recently approved Grandview-Woodland concept. In both, city planners recommended preserving neighbourhood character by restricting residential developments in key retail areas, which helps keep commercial lease rates low and benefits smaller business.
In selecting new tenants, developers generally start by looking for what a neighbourhood is missing.
“We don’t necessarily go for the biggest rent or the biggest covenant (financial strength),” said Steve Horovitz, director of leasing at Reliance Properties. His company is developing several West End sites, including 1770 Davie St., which currently has a Milestones right at English Bay, and a residential building at Davie and Bidwell.
“You make up plans: ‘I think this should be a walk-in clinic because there isn’t one’,” Horovitz said. “You put it up for lease and you find you don’t get any inquiries from walk-in clinics, but get thousands of inquiries from pet food stores. Guess what’s meant to be in there? A pet food store.”
But ultimately, it’s the market that decides.
“If it’s the wrong thing, they’ll go bankrupt and that’s pretty much it,” Horovitz said. “Sometimes you hit it on the head, and sometimes you get it wrong. The market tells you.”
It helps when landowners collaborate.
Horovitz points to Gastown, where owners, including Reliance, agreed to a vision 10 years ago. “We’re not going to let 7-Eleven in. We’re not going to let Subway in. That’s not Gastown. It’s a unique space, so it needs unique retailers,” Horovitz said.
Landlords chose to accept smaller retailers with less financial strength but more innovative and creative entrepreneurial ideas, he said. “Look at the neighbourhood today. It’s one of the top retail areas in Canada.”
One thing is clear: businesses need density.
“We know there’s a relationship between healthy business districts and density,” said Randy Pekarski, the City of Vancouver’s acting assistant director for citywide planning. With Commercial Drive, “our choices were where to put that density. We chose to keep what was working there, working. We chose not to change the density on that street. It’s in the redevelopment of these sites where you start to see the loss of the independent business.
“In a city with property values that have gone up like they have, I think affordability has been mischaracterized as only a residential problem.”
Some landowners will reduce the monthly rent and take a percentage of an operator’s gross revenue, which helps a small business as it “gets the wheels rolling,” Ernst and Young real estate vice-president Stacy Kuiack said.
Landlord risks can “often” be mitigated by owner/operators’ commitment to community, resulting in lower tenancy turnover and a more desirable retail neighbourhood, Kuiack said.
“What I see in the West End is a really thoughtful plan that contemplates densification and growth in areas without losing the character,” which has been created in part by older-stock apartment buildings and smaller retail, leaning toward owner-operated footprints, and a walkable part of the city focused on the ocean, Kuiack said.
That said, “I don’t think it’s going to be a smooth ride for everybody. We’ve all seen retail and owner-operators who hang onto outdated customer service modes,” Kuiack said.
“From my point of view, one of the key factors is this variety. Another factor is having a population nearby to support it,” city planner Munro said. “The heart of Commercial Drive, Venables to First Ave. is pretty short and compact, so it’s focused,” whereas the West End, with retail on Davie, Denman and Robson Streets, is much more dispersed. “You might have a nice funky restaurant, but then there’s not another one for another block.”
A shopping mall has one owner, but in neighbourhoods like Commercial Drive, Gastown and Davie Village, “it’s everybody doing their own little part,” Munro said. “This is a valuable resource that Vancouver has. Don’t forget about it. If you value your independent shopping areas, then support them.”
“Communities and streets are like people — they have lives,” Munro said, noting that half of trips downtown are now by walking, biking or transit, whereas 20 or 30 years ago, 95 per cent of people drove.
“We’re trying not to encourage too rapid a change along the shopping streets,” said Munro who expects Grandview-Woodland to evolve at the pace it has for the last 10 to 20 years.
Meanwhile, Commercial Drive has changed drastically since Vince Murdocco of Cafe Calabria was a boy. “Before, it was all Italians. Now, it’s a melting pot. It’s got great colour and flavour and so much of everything, yet there is that hint of fine Italian in the middle.”
Cafe Calabria is still going strong, and Murdocco believes the fact that it is a family business is key to its success.
“My dad remembers people’s coffees (even if) they haven’t been here in three years,” Murdocco said. “Five years ago, you would have come here, and you come back to visit Vancouver, and you see the same person serving you. That is an automatic connection.”