Big Changes Coming to Main Street

A slew of shop closures and a proposal for a giant tech park are poised to overhaul a central strip of Mount Pleasant.

January 30, 2017

By Jessica Barrett / Photo: Natalie Gagnon/Eva Lu

News The Foundation will become a casualty of increasing rents in Mount Pleasant already had hipsters crying into their giant plates of nachos and cheap pitchers of beer. But the impending passing of the longstanding vegetarian restaurant is just the beginning of big changes coming to the strip of Main Street just north of Broadway.

Art gallery and event space Hot Art Wet City will be shutting down at the end of March and its next-door neighbour, Adhesif Clothing, will be moving from its home of six years on Main and 6th to an appointment-only studio starting in May. Meanwhile, RX Comics, a 14-year fixture on Main Street’s heritage triangle between Broadway and 8th closed shop on January 28, and Scout Boutique, currently tucked around the corner on 8th Avenue, will be moving eight blocks south to squeeze in with Lace Embrace Atelier in February.

So, does the spate of soon-to-be-departed businesses signal something dire going down on Main? That depends on whom you ask.

“It’s always going to evolve but it’s a bit of a battle right now,” says Michael Wiebe, co-president of the Mount Pleasant Business Improvement Association. While turnover is a natural part of the urban environment, especially in Vancouver, Wiebe says he is concerned skyrocketing property values in the area — and the corresponding hikes to rents and property taxes — are making it more difficult to preserve the independent businesses that give the area its quirky character. And the pressure will only increase as the city moves forward with plans to rezone a five-block stretch of Quebec Street from 2nd to 7th Avenue to create a cluster of office space aimed at the tech sector.

The proposal could be a boon for Vancouver’s startup scene, but Wiebe worries that unless the city steps in the spillover effects of development will spell the end of more small businesses. Already, he says property assessments along Main from 2nd avenue to 7th avenue have increase by 100 percent in the last year, and by 50 percent in the rest of Mount Pleasant, in large part due to the interest from developers itching to get in on the tech corridor. In turn, that’s led to rent and property tax increases that might be easily shouldered by large firms like Hootsuite, but are often crushing for small shops, restaurants, studio spaces and community groups. “When you look at doing something like a digital park, you need to look at the surrounding area,” he says.

That’s exactly what Jude Kusnierz, owner of The Beaumont Studios on Alberta and 5th avenue, says isn’t happening at the city level. She recently launched a change.org petition asking the city to stop “out of control” property taxes, which she fears could threaten The Beaumont, a non-profit arts society which houses many small maker studios and hosts events. And it’s not just property taxes that are squeezing independent businesses, Kusznierz says. She thinks the rising cost of housing means fewer Vancouverites are willing to spend their limited disposable income on luxuries like locally produced art. The result? Many local businesses are barely hanging on. “I don’t think the city realizes which spaces are closing, necessarily,” says Kusnierz, who’d like to see the city explore options for independent and arts-based businesses, such as a rent control or grant programs.

But Tsur Somerville, director of UBC’s Centre for Urban Economics and Real Estate, says the booming breweries and packed restaurants in Mount Pleasant show there’s no need for the city to step in. What’s happening in Mount Pleasant is just a normal part of urban evolution. “Cities have turnover and churn where areas rise and fall, and quirky, funky stuff has always been the thing that thrives at the margin, not on 5th Avenue.”

Although Main Street is a far cry from New York City’s luxury mecca, the area may end up looking more like our own West 4th Avenue as businesses begin catering to the higher income bracket that comes with gentrification. “If you want the Vancouver example: Kits,” Somerville says.

Not only is city intervention unnecessary, he adds, it’s unfeasible. “What are the possible community benefits that say you should control rents for one group of store owners and not another? What if it’s a crappy store that stays in businesses because they control rents? Are you going to also have the city Department of Store Quality?”

Although painful for some, change is just a fact of life in cities, Somerville insists. And more than that, it’s integral to them. “Asking cities to somehow magically stay the same and never change is the antithesis of a city in the first place.”

One things for sure: there’s no risk of stagnation on Main Street.

City council is set to vote on the proposed tech corridor on Feb. 7. 

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