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The Village a Train Ate

Canada Line work nails merchants. Should taxpayers save them?

By Linda Solomon 30 May 2007 | TheTyee.ca

Linda Solomon has written humorously about navigating Cambie Street in articles such as "Driving Vancouver....Insane," "Cambie Street Survival Kit" and "Ash Street: Take the High Road" at http://www.thevancouverobserver.com

After researching the story above, however, she's not laughing.

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RAVaged: Simon and Sora Kim. Photo by Brian Powell.

"Welcome to Cambie Village," the sign reads, amidst traffic barriers, tractors and empty stores strung along the road.

"Does this look like a village to you?" asked Simon Kim, 37, whose family-owned Don Don Noodle shop will soon close, another casualty of the Canada Line tunnel ripping a huge trench along Vancouver's Cambie Street.

"Driving by that banner, both my wife and I were just laughing. The village as it was is dying," Kim said.

An NDP MLA hopes new legislation might still rescue the village, sparking a sharp debate in the legislature earlier this week.

And as the toll mounts, some observers are pointing to Seattle as an example of how the whole easily predicted mess should have been handled.

'Bunch of dummies'

On Sunday morning, Simon Kim stood in the sun and listened to NDP MLA Gregor Robertson describe the Small Business Fairness and Protection Act he was submitting the next day. The bill would provide property tax relief and interest free loans to merchants rocked by the construction. Kim smiled sadly and said, "It's good. Gregor's a great guy. He's very well-intentioned. But it's too little, and too late."

At the 2005 launch of what was then called the RAV line, Vancouver's mayor-elect, Sam Sullivan, acknowledged that construction would mean "difficulties for our citizens and our businesses," but said everyone involved would "work hard to make sure we minimize these disruptions."

"They're treating us like a bunch of dummies," said Helmut Petri, who owns Montreux Jewels Ltd. on Cambie at 16th. "I don't think they've done a thing to minimize disruptions."

The line will be the third in Vancouver and will connect downtown Vancouver to Richmond and the international airport. In the beginning of the project, merchants were told that construction would move quickly from block to block and sidewalk access would be maintained. That was when public consultations led merchants to believe that construction would be bored tunnel. But when SNL-Lavalin got the contract to do the construction, the project shifted to the cheaper, more disruptive method of cut and cover.

When the method was revealed in winter of 2005, one city councillor accused RAV backers of pulling a "bait and switch" on citizens who would feel the impact.

Today, the tunneling is at the core of the sense of betrayal that shrouds the business closures, Petri said. It's taken far longer than many business owners say they were led to expect. It has snarled traffic and forced many smaller businesses to close as walk-in and drive-by customers have dwindled.

'Never said it'

Alan Dever is director of communications for the Canada Line. He sounds irritated when told that local business people believe they were deceived.

"I don't know who promised bored tunnel," he said. "The company doing the work never talked about a bored tunnel. In the winning perspective, they talked about making sure by the end of the project, there'd be a tunnel to the end of 64th. The company that won the bid never said it was going to be bored tunnel.

"I don't know that somebody didn't say it," Dever said with a laugh, "but not since the actual company has been selected to build the line, which is InTransit BC. They've never said it. It was never part of their plan."

Dever added that "Cambie Village has always struggled. Some businesses are closing, but a lot of new businesses are opening."

He cites the case of Tomato, a neighbourhood institution fleeing to the Kitsilano area of town. "Tomato Café is leaving but there's a restaurant moving in right away called Daddy O's from Edmonton. That space is going to be immediately filled."

Still, he says, "We know people are suffering there and that's why we are doing what we can to help."

Help has come in the form of a $1.3 million grant for marketing. "We've provided some communication and business liaison committees in Vancouver and Richmond with this money. We've said use it as you see fit to help through the construction period. We've provided money for window washing and for signage."

Saved in Seattle

Petri winces at the notion that $1.3 million is much help. "Look at Seattle," he says. "They know what help is."

Seattle is constructing a light rail line on a 14-mile route from downtown Seattle to Tukwila. Completion is scheduled for mid-2009. As with Cambie Village, many of the affected businesses in Seattle were owned by non-whites, primarily Asians, according to news reports.

But Seattle apparently took a much more proactive approach to making sure businesses had a chance to survive the loss of traffic and that the area retained its character.

Seattle created the Ranier Valley Community Development Fund (CDF). The fund's website said it would provide a source of investment that was concerned with the area's well-being, its cultural diversity, livability and sustainability. Its aim was to strengthen and preserve the community, "not only by investing in tangible assets such as businesses and facilities, but also by building networks of relationships and trust that would allow the community to participate in determining their future well being."

In 2006, The Beacon Hill News and South District Journal reported that the fund was succeeding. It had approved $7.5 million in mitigation funds" to help affected businesses through loans. In the beginning of the project, the fund had identified 274 businesses along the corridor. Of those, 230 still remained.

"Businesses that stayed were eligible for $30,000 payments, while those that relocated could receive $50,000," the newspaper wrote. "Exceptional hardships entitled businesses to an additional $20,000," said CDF director Jamie Garcia. Garcia said he expected the Seattle city council to approve an additional $50 million to pull the area through to completion of the line.

"We really care," Dever, of the Canada Line, said, referring to the $1.5 million grant.

Bob Waters, who manages properties along Cambie, is skeptical. "What's a million dollars over this whole line from here to Richmond?" he asks. "If you split it up between every merchant, you'd be lucky to get $500 per merchant."

Roberston vs. Falcon

After Robertson submitted his bill on Monday, he and Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon squared off during question period.

Robertson: "Over 500 small businesses along the RAV line corridor are being devastated by losses in revenue averaging over 40 per cent. That means well over $100 million in lost sales for those businesses over the year of construction chaos in front of their stores. With more than one small business a week closing down right now, the situation is dire."

"The premier said yesterday that there are 'major efforts to try and take care of it.' Does the premier honestly believe that the $1.5-million marketing fund that he calls a major effort is fair to offset over $100 million in lost sales to small business?"

Falcon: "I'm always interested in the comments of the member opposite. But you know, I also pay attention to people from that business community and representatives from the Cambie Village Business Improvement Association. One of them, Leonard Schein, had a few things to say. He pointed out, for example, that in recent months 10 new businesses have opened their doors or have expressed their intention to locate, including a new pharmacy, several new restaurants, a Capers Community Market. But he goes on to say: 'But exaggerated statements related to recent business closures in this area only serve to deter potential customers and hurt local businesses.'

"I actually agree with him, because the fact of the matter is, this member is calling for a solution that would be quite unprecedented.

"No level of government anywhere across Canada provides that kind of intervention. Apparently, this member opposite believes we need to subsidize a bank, a Safeway, a Superstore, a Starbucks and all of the other major big businesses that these people always rail against, that that member always rails against. Suddenly he's calling for the provincial government to provide relief. Well, that's not the answer. The fact of the matter is, there's a $1.5-million dollar fund that TransLink has put together to help those folks, and it's doing its job."

Robertson: "Well, only this minister would think that big banks are small business. And perhaps the minister hasn't seen the letter of support from the Cambie Village Business Association in support of compensation, as I have brought forward to the house. This premier, this minister thinks that the paltry $1.5 million to put up some billboards along the line will cut it, and they're dead wrong.

"This government's support for business only seems to apply to the huge multinational construction companies that are digging up the city. We're talking about hundreds of small businesses, thousands of employees losing their livelihoods. We're talking about ripping up communities. . . ."

Falcon: Well, this is really rich. This is the same opposition that voted against significant tax relief for small businesses each and every year . . . the fact of the matter is there's no difference in the number of empty businesses than there were before this project started and today. It hasn't changed by one."

Survival tactics

Walking Cambie, the political shifts back to the personal. The cost has been enormous to the Kims and many other merchants who have had to close their doors.

"Nobody should be asked to sacrifice their livelihood over the construction of the Canada Line," said Laura Jones, of the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses, a group that represents over 150 small and medium-sized businesses. "Why should the 500 or so businesses along the line pay such a disproportionate price for its construction? How many members of the public would sacrifice their jobs or 40 to 60 per cent of their income for the Canada Line?"

"On average, my tenants are telling me they're down anywhere from 40 to 55 percent," says property manager Waters. "We've cut their rents in half for the balance of this year just to try to help them out and they're still down."

Waters ticks off the names of stores gone, as if listing names of friends lost in battle. "Tomato, Don Don, Kitty's Hairstyling, Armadillos was here for thirty-six years until he was forced to move south to Granville to preserve his business." He sighs. "It just goes on and on."

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