TEAM Councillor Wins One for Broadway Merchants
by Carol Volkart
When TEAM for a Livable Vancouver Councillor Colleen Hardwick heard that some Broadway-area merchants were being devastated by subway-line construction, she took action.
First, she visited them on Broadway to listen to their concerns. Then she encouraged them to work with her and each other to propose solutions. Then, on June 16, she won unanimous Council approval for her motion that the City explore ways of helping them out.
In working with the merchants and introducing her motion, Hardwick illustrated what a party that believes in listening to citizens’ voices can accomplish. Her motion not only set the wheels in motion for providing help, but also gave merchants a chance to impress on Councillors the difficulties a major construction project can create for those in its path.
The merchants told of business dropping 30 to more than 40 percent; of customers going elsewhere because of blocked sidewalks, noise and lack of parking; of being unable to get supplies delivered; and being bounced between the city, the province and TransLink when they sought help or information.
Several, including May Guo, owner of Your Dollar Store With More at 398 West Broadway, said they had struggled to survive the pandemic, but surviving the subway project will be even harder. Guo said she has used up her life savings in her business, and the bank won’t give her a loan because sales are dropping. If she doesn’t get financial help, “I am facing closure of this store very soon.”
Recounting the sad experience of having to tell an employee that there would be no full-time job for her after her maternity leave, she said it made her realize that it’s not just businesses that are being destroyed, but the families who depend on them. “I was so sad to tell her, but I cannot afford her. She needed the job to feed her baby.”
Like Sentheepan Senthivel, the co-owner and manager of Greens Organic and Natural Market, who estimates his business is down about 40 percent, Guo said the city should create a program to help businesses hurt by roadwork and infrastructure projects.
Senthivel said the City and the provincial government are concerned that providing relief will set a precedent, but the City “should grab the bull by the horns. We are in your community; the province is far away. We want a precedent that no business suffers and goes out of business because of an infrastructure project.”
The merchants’ frustration was tangible. While Senthivel’s business at 1978 West Broadway is paying the equivalent of about $5,000 a month in property taxes, “there’s a huge hole dug in front of our store,” limited access and no help with mitigation. Catherine Ellsmere of Odin Books at 108 East Broadway said her business is “caged off and noise is very high,” while limited access has turned the retail store “into a glorified warehouse.”
City Councillors were moved and impressed by the merchants’ stories. One called them “heartbreaking.” Another said they showed the fragility of businesses, especially in the aftermath of a pandemic, and that urgent help is needed. Another said they showed the City has a responsibility to its residents and businesses, and it should be doing more to advocate for them.
All voted in favour of Hardwick’s motion that City staff explore ways of providing relief to the businesses most affected by the construction. (The vote was 9-0, with one councillor and the mayor absent.)
The motion suggested the city could develop a program like the City of Montreal’s for businesses affected by major construction, which offers businesses up to $40,000 per fiscal year based on actual revenue losses.
Staff have also been asked to consider “relaxation or deferral” of business property taxes, and possible use of the revitalization tax exemption powers under the Vancouver Charter.
The furore over damage to Broadway businesses is reminiscent of what happened to Cambie Street businesses during the highly disruptive cut-and-cover construction of the Canada Line in the 2000s. Litigation over the damage to business continues to this day.
While the Broadway line will be mainly done underground by tunnel boring machines, cut-and-cover construction is happening around subway stations, affecting businesses in those areas.
Hardwick’s motion noted that subway construction has had a “profound impact” on owners and renters of commercial space on the Broadway Corridor, with merchants near cut-and-cover sections suffering worse. There, pedestrian, vehicle and bus access are restricted, and mitigation measures “have not been effective at offsetting business losses.” Adding to the pressure is the fact that merchants are only told about changes a week or two before they happen.