Vancouver mulls 'legacy business' label to maintain neighbourhood character

"This isn't just about trying to hermetically seal neighbourhoods or specific businesses," says Wes Regan, Vancouver's community economic development planner. "It's about the story of a place and about how businesses contribute to that."

Designation would help keep local businesses from being squeezed out of areas like Chinatown

Could San Francisco's 'legacy business' program be adapted to help preserve the character of Vancouver Chinatown and other cultural districts? (Stephanie Mercier/CBC)

It's a common Vancouver narrative: old, affordable housing is replaced with shiny new condos, squeezing out longtime residents and eroding neighbourhood character.

The same narrative is becoming increasingly common for local businesses, and that has the City of Vancouver considering its options for keeping those businesses afloat, especially in cultural districts like Chinatown.

"This isn't just about trying to hermetically seal neighbourhoods or specific businesses, and it's not trying to stop change from happening in the world," said Wes Regan, the city's community economic development planner.

"It's about the story of a place and about how businesses contribute to that."

Enter the 'legacy business'

One of the more promising options the city is exploring is the idea of a "legacy business" designation for businesses deemed important to keep in the area.

Regan has been closely following groundwork laid in San Francisco. In 2015, the city created a legacy business registry with the goal of mitigating the displacement of longstanding culturally and historically significant businesses, specifically in its Chinatown.

There, businesses can be nominated to the registry if they've existed for at least 30 years, have contributed to their neighbourhood's history and agree to maintain their identity, name and craft. Once on the registry, they're eligible for grants and other support services from the city.

Regan says Canadian municipalities don't have the same grant-giving powers as their American counterparts, but the concept could still be useful if adapted specifically for Vancouver — it could be used to encourage more LGBTQ-centric businesses in the West End, for example.

"[It's a] conversation about, what is the story of Chinatown? What is the story of Commercial Drive? How do businesses represent the story of Vancouver throughout the different neighbourhoods?" Regan said.

Still exploratory

At this point, the legacy business is just one of several ideas Regan's office has been exploring. The city is holding a public forum discussion Friday evening in Chinatown to consult with the public about how these ideas could work for Vancouver.

"We're not saying this is a silver bullet for addressing business affordability concerns in Vancouver, but it's one of a handful of different tools or policy levers that we know we can look into," Regan said.

Regan says the province also has an important role to play in keeping this affordable for local businesses. He says, for example, that it's unfair to tax businesses on the speculative value of what their property could be used for — a highrise condo tower, for example — instead of what they actually are.

"This is really an issue stemming from speculation and from rapidly rising land values and from small businesses being caught in some turbulent waters between the financialization of the real estate and the role they play in neighbourhoods."