Another old Vancouver corner store under threat from redevelopment

Ten years ago, Jian Li Li and his wife, Yan Li, shelled out $50,000 to buy a small business, a corner store at Yew and 6th in Kitsilano.

With a small living space behind the store, it seemed perfect: The store, known as Helen’s, had been a community anchor since 1912.The Li’s could live and work on site, and raise their three kids in the close-knit neighbourhood.

The landlord had decided to redevelop the site into duplexes.

Li, who also worked as an autobody repairman, was still grappling with what to do about the situation when COVID-19 hit and he was temporarily laid off from his job at Craftsman Collision.

“I’m losing my investment,” said Li. “I don’t know what we are going to do.”

Li’s family and renters in units above the store will also be losing their homes. Li feels particularly vulnerable because his family’s residential unit, behind the store, is not officially listed on his tenancy agreement.

VANCOUVER, BC - September 29, 2020  - Store owner Jian Li inside his corner store at Yew and W. 6th ave. in Vancouver, B.C., September 29, 2020. Story on this building being a possible heritage site.  (Photo by Arlen Redekop / Vancouver Sun / The Province -PNG) (story by Denise Ryan) [PNG Merlin Archive]
Store owner Jian Li Li inside his corner store at Yew and West 6th Ave. in Vancouver. PHOTO BY ARLEN REDEKOP /PNG

As customers trek in and out of the store, some in bedroom slippers, others just to check up on the Lis, it is apparent that the corner store that has stood since 1912 is more than just a place to buy milk or lottery tickets — it is a neighbourhood hub and a place of connection.

Heritage expert John Atkin said the loss of another corner store is a blow.

“We continue to lose the type of Vancouver that everyone talks about wanting to have — walkable neighbourhoods, local community, sustainable retail.”

The pandemic has only underscored the need for such spaces, said Atkin. “It’s a community space, you step into a grocery store like this, you know the owner, you don’t have to drive anywhere: It’s necessary retail.”

In July, Vancouver Councillor Sarah Kirby-Yung asked city council to support local convenience stores, citing food security for seniors, health concerns related to travelling to larger stores during the pandemic, access to necessities, and walkable, sustainable neighbourhoods. Her motion passed.

Atkin said the Yew street site is particularly interesting because it retains almost all of its original architectural details, and was built in 1912, a boom period of development in the city. A streetcar had been running on 4th Avenue since 1909. What was once “forest with a bit of rail line going through it,” was filling in with a mix of retail and residential buildings — in other words, it was becoming a neighbourhood.

The building that houses Helen’s grocery is not on the heritage registry, something that concerns Atkin. “This points out the lack of finesse to our heritage register — a building like this should have been captured and it’s hasn’t been.”

According to the City of Vancouver’s website, “any building constructed before 1940 is considered a character building if it has surviving authentic or period features,” and requires a “character merit assessment before redevelopment.”

B.C. Assessment records show the site comprises several different lots, including 2205 6th Ave. West, and 2137, 2139 and 2143 Yew Street. However, the redevelopment notice and application uses the addresses 2137 Yew Street and 2205 West 6th — both additions built in the 1970s — and fails to mention the inclusion of the original building at 2143 Yew. A land title search for 2143 Yew shows no pending applications, raising concerns that the demolition of the original building, to which the additions are attached, will slip through the cracks.

“I would hope that someone at city hall would hit pause on this one,” said Atkin. “And the rental units above the store should be flagged — you do have to replace rental units.”

Heritage Vancouver has also written a letter to the city expressing concerns about the proposed redevelopment and the loss of Helen’s grocery: “Its loss will further erode Kitsilano’s ever-increasing loss of both its built and social character.

The proposed replacement also doesn’t address the loss of the commercial space which is still in use serving the neighbourhood as a corner store.

“We are losing something quite important here,” said the executive director of theVancouver Heritage Society, Bill Yuen.

The city of Vancouver sent Postmedia a statement that said staff are reviewing the proposal and will consider residents’ comments.

The city stated that the Residential Tenancy Act governs both residential and commercial contracts between tenants and landlords.

“Legally, an eviction notice can only be served to tenants once all permits are in place. Additionally, any evictions must also meet the City’s tenant relocation and protection policy which seeks to mitigate the impact of displacement on tenants.”

Li said his landlord has always been “very good to us,” but is refusing to renew their lease even if the redevelopment doesn’t go ahead immediately. Li said he is worried about eviction, and that he and his family hope to stay and continue to run the store until the matter is settled.

The building owner, Jane Wong, declined to comment.

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