Reviving Vancouver’s Corner Stores

Corner grocery stores often feel like something out of Vancouver’s past life: small shops in the middle of quiet residential neighbourhoods, stocked with coffee, groceries, and a variety of miscellaneous essentials and treasures. If you’re lucky enough to live near one of these disappearing gems, like Le Marche St. George in Riley Park, the Wilder Snail in Strathcona, or the Mighty Oak in Mount Pleasant, you’re likely a big fan.

These stores aren’t just convenient shopping destinations, either—they often serve as informal gathering places for nearby residents. Corner stores can be significant contributors to that sometimes indescribable sense of community that’s so valuable when you’re looking for a new place to call home.

Corner Stores Now Disappearing
As Vancouver has changed over the years, though, these stores have become increasingly rare. Many neighbourhood stores, like Benny’s Market on Union St in Strathcona, are in heritage buildings and have been around for more than 100 years. However, newer corner stores have struggled to survive, and older ones that have been unable to pivot have faced sale or closure.

Rising local property taxes and zoning challenges made running an independent grocery store an almost impossible task. According to the city of Vancouver, the number of business licences issued to convenience stores fell dramatically over the last 10 years. The city issued 302 convenience store licenses in 2008 versus just 226 in 2018. There’s a local push to see this trend reversed, though.

Reprioritizing Community Spaces
In June, Vancouver City Council approved a motion submitted by councillor Sarah Kirby-Yung that directed City staff to look at reprioritizing neighbourhood gathering places like these corner stores. In the short term, the motion looks at developing zoning policies to allow for new small commercial retail spaces in residential neighbourhoods. Longer-term, the plan would incorporate reimagined corner grocery stores as part of the broader Vancouver Plan.

In part, this is thanks to the realities exposed by COVID-19—along with a renewed focus on outdoor space, city residents now want easy, walkable access to retail and grocery shopping.

“The world that emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic with more people working from home than ever before, will inevitably result in a greater need for neighbourhood amenities and local food infrastructure of coffee shops, restaurants, services, and shopping including the need to access goods right in their own neighbourhood,” wrote Kirby-Yung.

“Local corner stores once filled this role in Vancouver neighbourhoods, providing a place where locals bought fresh milk, cheese, some staples, while also serving as a social gathering place for community,” she continued.

In a 2019 joint study by the City of Vancouver and UBC, authors noted the critical importance of these stores in creating and supporting community bonds. “These spaces should continue to be maintained because they foster neighbourhood connections and strengthen community. Small-scale retail spaces…allow neighbours to meet and form connections.”

With the city’s support, we’re hopeful that these community cornerstones experience the resurgence they deserve.

Good News on the Way
Just last month, a new development project was announced to restore a West End neighbourhood store that shuttered in 2017.

The Cardero Grocery, built in 1902, is a heritage mixed-use building up for planned renovation that will include reopening the now-closed grocery store. The return of this business, right in the heart of one of Vancouver’s densest neighbourhoods, is a promising sign for the future of Vancouver’s corner stores.

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