High rents threaten to change the character of Commercial

Mary Macintyre, owner of Little Nest, laments the doubling of her rent as her kid-friendly restaurant closes. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Mary Macintyre cannot afford to pay the rent any more. It has more than doubled in just six years.

The owner of Little Nest, a kid-friendly restaurant on Charles Street, just off Commercial Drive, is set to close in July.

The place continues to buzz for now, just as it always has. When it opened in 2007, it quickly became known as a destination where parents could grab a coffee and a quality breakfast with their young, often rambunctious children without having to worry about annoying other patrons. Many say Little Nest is “pure” Commercial Drive.

A Save Little Nest Facebook page was set up almost immediately after word got out that Ms. Macintyre was going to close her business.

But the story of Little Nest has shone a spotlight on Commercial Drive as a whole. Little Nest, some residents argue, is just another small business forced out by high rents that then change the distinct character of the strip.

There’s little debate that Commercial Drive, long known as a Little Italy of sorts, a neighbourhood with a working-class feel mixed with a bit of the bohemian, is evolving. The price of real estate, both commercial and residential, has gone up significantly over the past few years.

Some people are concerned at the pace of change on the Drive, but their fears might be rooted more in what might be coming rather than what has already taken shape. Fundamentally linked to this is a desire among many to hold on to the neighbourhood’s past – a traditional ethos – in a time of new economic realities.

A stroll along Commercial Drive, on the east side of Vancouver, reveals a distinct feel, unique in Vancouver. Old espresso bars such as Giancarlo’s, where elderly Italian men can be seen through the window playing cards, are neighbours with independent book stores and record shops. Small family-owned butchers and grocery stores such as The First Ravioli Store, opened in 1957, are not found anywhere else in Vancouver. There’s Merchant’s Oyster Bar, a Tim Hortons, countless pizza places and small, independently owned clothing stores. If you want eclectic, Commercial Drive is your street.

Ms. Macintyre once paid less than $3,000 for her space, but the rent went up to $6,500 in just six years.

Tony’s Deli, which had been a Commercial Drive staple since 1972 and a symbol of the strip’s Italian heritage, left earlier this year, partly due to high rent. Owner Andy Mollica said it more than doubled in five years. He moved the business to Burnaby.

Restaurant the Latin Quarter, cheap clothing store Label Express, and Kitchen Corner have all left - businesses that people say epitomized Commercial Drive.

“I think part of it is that a lot of people that originally owned business on Commercial Drive were people that owned the building themselves and were small businesses themselves,” said James Buonassisi, a residential real-estate agent whose family owns several commercial properties along the Drive. “As we have more absentee landlords, they do treat it as a business. I think they want to get the most amount of money they can.”

The result, some residents say, is a cultural deficit on the Drive.

“Landlords, both commercial or residential, can charge whatever the market will bear. But this is not a market, it’s a neighbourhood, it is a community,” Corin Browne, who lives near Commercial Drive, said while having a coffee at Little Nest. “What we love about this neighbourhood is that there’s this weird mishmash combination of like, you know the crazy chicken dude who has organic chickens … to the hardware store we all love, cute places like this. It’s a real mishmash. The higher rent, it’s just going to become kind of generic.”

The issue for people does not appear to be gentrification itself, however, but a certain type of gentrification that does not jive with Commercial’s values.

The trendy new butcher and fishmonger, side by side on the Drive, seem to hark back to an earlier time and represent something that has always been Commercial.

“That fish shop and that butcher shop, and particularly the butcher shop … will not sell anything that is not ethically raised meat, and so that also speaks to a certain type of Commercial Drive ethos that has some consistency with the neighbourhood’s politics,” said Karen Ferguson, director of the urban studies program at Simon Fraser University, who also lives off Commercial Drive. “It’s also extremely expensive. So there are many contradictions.”

Exposure Home, a furnishings store that opened in March, has raised eyebrows among many residents. The large store, just north of 1st Avenue on Commercial, looks similar to a Pier 1 or a Pottery Barn from the outside.

“And for me that seemed to be the tipping point, that this was the type of store you would see in neighbourhoods like Kitsilano or the West End,” Prof. Ferguson said. “I think in Vancouver there was always a very distinct separation between East and West Van, and that the West was rich and conservative and East was working-class, immigrant and bohemian, and also politically more left and progressive.”

Kylie Thickett, the manager of Exposure Home, says she has heard rumblings that the store does not fit well on Commercial Drive, saying it probably has to do with the size of the store and its big shiny sign.

“But our stuff, it is a mix between vintage and new, so it’s not all new and shiny and modern. Even the new stuff we carry has a vintage feel,” she said.

But perhaps not vintage enough.

What is likely at play on the Drive is the typical gentrification scenario, Prof. Ferguson said: Middle-class people – the gentrifiers – move into a neighbourhood because of a particular feel, and lament the loss of that feeling when others follow them.

“You get middle-class people wanting the authentic urban experience and the newcomers are the vanguards of this,” Prof. Ferguson said. “When other folks like them move in, they start to feel it’s not the colourful neighbourhood they were in before.”

Elana Kathnelson Sures, who has lived off Commercial Drive for the past six years, says a place like Little Nest, in fact, caters to the gentrifiers, noting that a breakfast is around $13 and a coffee is $3.

Her concern is not gentrification, but what kinds of businesses will be able to afford The Drive.