The threat of the closure of a local neighbourhood grocery store at St. George Street and East 28th Avenue generated a public outcry late in 2015. Vancouver City Council is now looking to amend zoning bylaws to allow for a local grocery store to also operate as a café and to serve prepared foods.
Le Marché St. George in the Riley Park neighbourhood was operating with a licence to sell food, and has done so for over 5 years. The CBC reported that bylaw inspectors were looking at shutting down the establishment because it was also operating as a café (Le Marché St. George: Vancouver community rallies to save beloved corner store, Dec 8, 2015). The CBC article quoted a co-owner of the establishment as saying:“The city licenses brothels, they license pot shops, and I’m going to get closed down because I’m selling quiche.”
The good news is that in this instance, the City did back down on their plans. Voices of reason and common sense prevailed. Changes to the zoning regulations that govern Neighbourhood Grocery Stores have been included in a Policy Report that was referred to a future Public Hearing by Council (April 5, 2016 is the next available date for a Public Hearing). The basic overview of the proposed zoning change is as follows:
The proposed change will look at restricting indoor and outdoor seating to a maximum of 16 spaces. An open question is whether 16 spaces are enough. Should a more realistic limit be in the 20-25 seat range in order to accommodate summer peak hours? It is important the get the details right in order to avoid future conflicts with bylaw officers; the 16 seat limit might just be a little shy of realistic needs of a corner store and café.
The staff policy report notes that there are “19 neighbourhood grocery stores operating in single-family and duplex zones and 18 in multi-family apartment zones”; these establishments would also be covered by the zoning change:
The proposed zoning change in the policy report is a clear sign that public mobilization can make a difference.
In this case, many people in the community enjoyed the shop’s products and services and wanted it to stay open. But there are other aspects of this story. On one hand we initially saw a bureaucratic attempt by the municipal government to enforce bylaws strictly to the letter of the law. The response by activist-oriented persons with the savvy, time, and skills to take on City Hall resulted in a discussion, the allocation of City staff resources, and some flexibility at City Hall. It looks like everyone will be happy with the result. But how often does the City ruthlessly and unsympathetically enforce a minor bylaw infraction, in which the “violator” lacks the resources (language or communication skills, time, social media, knowledge of City Hall, etc.) to fight back, resulting in negative implications for individuals, businesses, or communities? Or conversely, how often does the City quietly look the other way, permitting major violations to continue (at considerable cost to taxpayers). There are examples of all of these.
Perhaps the lesson is that citizens and neighbourhoods need to be active, engaged, and aware of issues and know how their municipal government operates, in order to get the best possible outcomes for all. Left to operate without adequate accountability and scrutiny, a government can become oppressive and unreasonable.
Le Marché St. George is located at 495 East 28th Avenue, one block west of Fraser Street (at the northwest corner of St. George Street and East 28th).