East Van rallies against city hall—but over what, exactly?

A bylaw infraction scares a community into mass action

December 10, 2015

By Jenni Elliott / Photo: Le Marché St. George

“It’s been insane—it’s been a really insane couple of days,” says Janaki Larsen, one of the owners of Le Marché St. George.  A little over 48 hours ago, the popular neighbourhood café/grocery store put out a last-ditch call for locals to help avoid closure by city officials, and the community responded. As of Thursday, over 13,000 Vancouverites have signed an online petition to encourage city hall to protect the corner store’s five-year legacy.

But protect the store from what? “We aren’t saying they can’t run their business, but there are processes,” says Andreea Toma, chief license inspector for the City of Vancouver. “It’s not fair to other cafés and restaurants that have to play by certain rules.”

The plea from Le Marché St. George was desperate: “Help keep businesses like ours alive.” The café is currently housed in a residential building, classified by the city as an RS1. The bylaw in question dictates that only grocery stores can be part of a residential unit, forbidding cafés, bars, and restaurants.

Larsen is calling for the city to upgrade the business’s license to a “limited service food establishment.” Though this would mean changing the current bylaw, the new certification would allow the premises to reheat food and keep their 16 seats: “We don’t need a liquor license or extended hours or anything. We just need to be able to maintain our business as we have in the past. We’ve been passed by the food inspector for the past three years.” (A spokesperson from Vancouver Coastal Health said food inspectors don’t necessarily check business licenses, however.)

According to Toma, the city is not opposed to that action plan. But she is bothered by the dramatics surrounding the situation, saying, “We don’t actively look for businesses that are violating bylaws. But if an issue is brought to us—which it was in this instance by an anonymous 311 call—it is our due diligence to ensure there’s compliance.” Toma says that when the city inspector arrived to check out the premises, he realized there were 16 seats instead of the three stated on Le Marché’s business license. The officer warned the business owners of their violation: “You may be asked to remove those.”

There has been a lot of confusion in this saga—the city claims it has been trying to contact Le Marché for two weeks, while the owners claim to have never been contacted—but both now say they’re willing to sit down and work out a solution. “At the end of the day, if the community wants this, it’s our job to create that balance, taking into consideration the dynamic of the neighbourhood,” Toma says. Though concerned about her own business, Larsen is still thinking big picture: “There are so many little shops like this in different neighbourhoods. I hope because of this that the bylaws will allow them to continue operating, instead of being boarded up and lying empty for years.”

While it’s tempting to accuse Le Marché of overreacting to the situation, one has to wonder: would the city have been this seemingly flexible were it not for the substantial media attention and signature gathering? Appropriately-licensed food for thought, that’s for sure.

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