Vancouver City Council approves potential relief to businesses impacted by subway construction

Jun 17 2022, 8:46 pm

After hearing the impassioned pleas of small business owners near the Broadway Subway’s exposed construction sites, Vancouver City Council unanimously directed City staff to explore ways to provide relief to businesses most impacted by the construction activity.

City Council voted 9-0 in support of a member motion proposed by TEAM councillor Colleen Hardwick, with NPA councillor Melissa De Genova and Forward Together Mayor Kennedy Stewart absent.

Hardwick’s motion suggested the city could develop a program similar to that of the City of Montreal’s financial assistance program for businesses affected by major construction. Montreal’s program offers financial assistance of up to $40,000 per fiscal year per impacted business and is calculated based on the actual revenue losses incurred.

The motion was amended by City councillors to specifically consider “relaxation or deferral” of business property taxes, and the potential use of the revitalization tax exemption powers that are available to the municipal government under the Vancouver Charter.

It should be noted that the relief would be targeted to Broadway businesses adjacent to or in close proximity to one of the five subway station cut-and-cover construction sites on Broadway between Main and Arbutus streets.

While the SkyTrain Millennium Line Broadway Extension’s five-km tunnel will be built with tunnel boring machines to reduce arterial road and business impacts, the construction method still necessitates some localized cut-and-cover construction, which has hurt the businesses that surround these sites.

broadway-city hall station traffic deck

Traffic deck installation process for Broadway-City Hall Station. (Government of BC)

broadway-city hall station traffic deck

Artistic rendering of the traffic deck installation and excavation for the Millennium Line platforms at Broadway-City Hall Station. (Government of BC)

Major construction on the project began just over a year ago, and most of the disruptions at the five Broadway cut-and-cover station sites to date have largely been from the process of excavating and installing the temporary road decks, which allows excavation and station construction to occur below vehicle traffic.

“The last city council articulated a lot of commitments that this would not be a cut-and-cover project. The project is largely a bored tunnel, but in areas where there is cut-and-cover it is indeed very disruptive,” said Green Party Councillor Pete Fry.

The decision by the provincial government, TransLink, and the City of Vancouver to build the tunnel mainly from the use of tunnel boring machines largely stem from the lessons learned from Canada Line construction in the 2000s, when the entire span of Cambie Street was turned into a years-long trench for the project’s highly disruptive cut-and-cover construction method. Many businesses were impacted, and some have pursued litigation against the public transit authority, which is a process that continues to this day. The subway is scheduled to open in late 2025.

While the City has a responsibility to its businesses and residents and is a minor partner in the subway project, continued Fry, the onus on providing businesses with the proper support should be on the provincial government and its private construction contractor.

“We’re lucky to get a subway of this calibre, but we can certainly do more to advocate for our residents and particularly for businesses that have been struggling,” said Fry.

Green Party Councillor Adriane Carr emphasized “the urgency of moving on [relief],” considering that the businesses endured a double whammy of both the pandemic’s earlier dire impacts and now subway construction.

ABC Councillor Sarah Kirby-Yung said the testimonials of impacted businesses earlier in the public meeting were “heartbreaking.”

“These are real businesses and real people who are really suffering during this process and seeing losses. Time really matters. While I think in the future, Broadway will be a “Great Street,” will the businesses still be there and survive? We don’t want them to be casualties of the process,” said Kirby-Yung.

“I think that it was very helpful that the lessons of the Canada Line would help to mitigate the impacts, but clearly there’s a number that’s still really feeling it. It’s really challenging to hear the stories, and the stories of people who used up their savings or are not able to get financing from the bank.”

Here is a rundown of what some struggling small business owners told City Council on Thursday evening:

Greens Organic Natural Market (Arbutus Station)

Sentheepan Senthive, the co-owner and manager of Greens Organic and Natural Market, estimates his business has lost about 250 customers per day — losses of $800,000 in revenue, and about $300,000 in gross profit.

“We can handle the nose, nuisance, the inconveniences, but not the financial hardship. That is a lot to bear on a small business person. Our lost sales are quite tremendous,” he said.

“Imagine any of you had to take a 25% reduction on the income that comes to you.”

The 12-year-old market is located mid-block at 1978 West Broadway — between Maple and Cypress streets. While the business is just east of the Arbutus Station cut-and-cover site, it is directly in front of the cut-and-cover excavation being performed to build a crossover track switch that serves the terminus station.

broadway subway skytrain construction businesses impacts

SkyTrain Millennium Line Broadway Extension (Broadway Subway) construction at Arbutus Station, as of May 2022. (Kenneth Chan/Daily Hive)

He says “mitigation does not replace access,” while adding that “we’re getting cut off, access from all different angles. Pedestrians and cars, it’s pretty brutal. We’re not seeing many of them anymore.”

Senthive told City Council the business pays the equivalent of about $5,000 monthly in property taxes, which has seen increases “while there’s a huge hole dug in front of our store.” He has also been informed by the landlord that rents will increase in a few years.

Senthive also added that he has discussed the idea of providing relief to struggling businesses with City staff and the provincial government, but they are concerned that such a measure would set precedent for future infrastructure projects, potentially adding major public costs.

This business currently employs 40 people.

Your Dollar Store With More (Broadway-City Hall Station)

Sales at the Your Dollar Store With More have plummeted by over 40% since subway construction began last summer, according to owner May Guo.

The 12-year-old store is located at 398 West Broadway — the southeast corner of the intersection of Broadway and Yukon Street, immediately east of the Broadway-City Hall Station construction site.

Excavation is occurring directly in front of the store for a crossover track switch. But she says this is being done in a way that greatly limits sidewalk accessibility, with her store and the adjacent Sushi California restaurant now being the “dead end” of a temporary sidewalk configuration that is accessible only from the No Frills grocery store side of the block. She says she has been told the sidewalk will be blocked from her end of the block until late 2024.

“I need to pay extra for my deliveries because our store only has one entrance, and that’s my front door on Broadway. There is no street parking. All delivery drivers will struggle with finding a parking spot,” said Guo.

“After finding parking, the narrow sidewalk in front of my store has made any delivery on a pallet a challenge. If the pallet is parked in front of my store on the narrow sidewalk, my customers inside cannot leave the store until my delivery is finished. I have countless customers who complain about our access and parking problems, and this happens every day.”

Guo says she has directed all of her life savings into the business since construction began, and her remaining runway to keep the doors open is short.

“I went to the bank for any loan that I could get, but I have been declined for all of my attempts because our sales are dropping. For the past two years, we struggled with COVID, but COVID has not killed my business. This construction is and will. If we do not get financial help, I am facing closure of this store very soon,” she said.

“A couple of years ago, when we knew the Broadway Subway would be built, we all supported the project. But I don’t want to become the victim of this project.”

Odin Books (Mount Pleasant Station)

Odin Books is in a similar predicament as Your Dollar Store With More, as the store’s sidewalk access is also located within a temporary “dead end.”

The business is located at 108 East Broadway — mid-block between Quebec and Main streets, immediately in front of the excavation for Mount Pleasant Station.

Co-owner Catherine Ellsmere says her business, which offers books on mental health education and support, was promised limited impacts.

“When we signed the lease, there was no mention of cut-and-cover at the front door,” she said. “Our building is caged off, and noise is very high.”

broadway subway skytrain mount pleasant station traffic road deck

The temporary traffic road deck on Broadway, just west of Main Street, for the construction of Mount Pleasant Station for SkyTrain’s Millennium Line Broadway Extension, as of April 2022. This is the view outside the Odin Books storefront. (Kenneth Chan/Daily Hive)

A sound barrier was installed in front of the building to mitigate noise, but it was later removed as the reduced storefront visibility led some people to believe they were closed. She added that customers informed her that traffic flaggers prevented access to the sidewalk during their attempted visits.

Ellsmere says there were discussions by the provincial government to expropriate the building for subway station construction, but in the end, they did not choose to pursue the acquisition.

Pacific Angular (Mount Pleasant Station)

Pacific Angular, a fishing store, has seen its sales fall by 30% on average since subway construction began, according to owner Kathryn Sharp.

The business is located west of Odin Books, within the area impacted by the cut-and-cover construction for Mount Pleasant Station.

She says the impeded access and ever-changing nature of the construction project are major issues, and they depend on all deliveries coming through the front door.

They previously barely survived Canada Line construction at their previous Cambie Street location.

Rath Art Supplies (Mount Pleasant Station)

Just one short block north of Broadway, Rath Art Supplies at 2412 Main Street was particularly impacted by the pre-construction activities in Summer 2021 that relocated the sewer in preparation for the construction of Mount Pleasant Station.

Theresa Frazao, the store owner, told City Council the sewer relocation work was scheduled to last for two months, but it ended up going on for four months, with no parking for customers and restricted traffic flow in the neighbourhood.

“There were times when there was only one lane going in each direction, and traffic was so backed up on Main Street that people just avoided the area entirely. I know even for myself trying to get to my own business, I took Fraser Street because I couldn’t get through Main Street fast enough,” said Frazao.

“Customers repeatedly told me they tried to come to the store, but had to abandon their trip and often went to competitors instead, and I’m sure that continues to hurt us to this day as they found other sources for things they previously relied on us for.”

She adds that her customers often need a vehicle for the large and heavy types of purchases they make, and asserts the impact of subway construction is greater than the pandemic.

“I had savings just for emergencies. I’ve never had to use it before. We lost more money due to construction than this whole time during COVID,” she continued.

“When parking was restored, our average was back up, and we’ve continued to recover some of that revenue. But overall, the area is still quite slow… From what I”m hearing, it’s still difficult to get through the area. People just avoid the area, people don’t want to go down Broadway.”

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