Atop the Christmas list for West Vancouver’s ailing retail sector: some business prosperity

Appeared in Business in Vancouver – December 22, 2014

West Vancouver, the wealthy widow of Metro, might well ask Santa for Christmas: please, how about some nice fresh prosperity for our businesses? Especially for the main business stem, Marine Drive, Ambleside. A former councillor once drily counted something like 13 beauty salons by any name on the Marine Drive strip. Not huge retail magnets and tax-generators.

The “wealthy widow” analogy is defensible. I used to guess that the elderly women squeezing coins from their change purses at Safeway on 17th Street were widows, left pensions – ample 25 years earlier – by their husbands. Inflation was easing them into genteel poverty. Businessman and former councillor Victor Durman, not given to excreting sympathy, heard wailing by widows living skinny – sitting on $2 million properties. Land-rich, cashflow-poor.

That well-worn Safeway is gone, replaced by landlord H.Y. Louie’s own smartly framed (and pricier) Fresh St. Market, its customers visibly generations younger than Safeway’s. Just what Michael Smith, twice-acclaimed West Van mayor, wants – only more, please, Santa.

Retired oil company executive Smith (who gives his $9,000-a-year mayoral salary raise to the West Vancouver Foundation) is an outwardly reserved, even shy man. But demons writhe inside. Business, he says bluntly, is dying along Marine Drive.

“Our commercial area is not doing well,” he said grimly at an election meeting last month. “If we don’t do something we’ll just have a rundown area we drive through on the way to Park Royal [Shopping Centre].”

Ah, Park Royal, West Van’s explosively growing retail gorilla. Its personable vice-president and general manager, Rick Amantea,seems sincere when he says a business-healthy Marine Drive is in Park Royal’s interest. The owning Lalji family may not have heard. Park Royal’s ambition is to be not merely a North Shore but a regional shopping centre, competitive with Oakridge and Burnaby’s Metrotown. Its glossy shops proliferate, its roadways are an off-putting maze with non-stop construction, but its vast free parking is a killer for Ambleside, where scarce parking is also free – but much of it grabbed early in the day by store employees from the suburbs.

The mayor’s centrepiece for Marine Drive revival is Grosvenor Ambleside, a 95-condo and retail gem-to-be on the police station’s waterfront site at 13th and Marine. Smith felt West Van got an excellent deal – $62 million for the site and $1 million a year in future taxes – but the sale to London-based Grosvenor was almost scuppered. Some furious citizens railed about its bylaw-bending, view-blocking heft. Council’s 2-2 deadlock (Coun. Mary-Ann Booth abstaining because her lawyer husband had a Grosvenor connection, now lifted) was broken only through pressure on populist Coun. Bill Soprovich.

Last month’s election could be seen as a chastening referendum on Grosvenor: council’s two naysayers, Craig Cameron (who simply held out for a smaller development) and Nora Gambioli, finished one-two, while longtime poll-topper Soprovich fell to fourth. The big upset was financial adviser and Grosvenor development critic Christine Cassidy’s whipping of several prospective Smith allies. As a potential tie-breaker she’ll be under close watch.

Town hall is by far Metro’s biggest municipal per capita spender, the Fraser Institute found – $2,118 per person in 2012, far above the $1,384 regional average, and more than twice bottom-rung Surrey’s $951. West Van is an oddity. First impression, it doesn’t look that rich. The money is behind opulent private doors up the slopes. But Smith asserts its aging residents would gladly move to condos nearer businesses and recreation – if they were built. Old-timers feel Marine Drive’s modest, human-scale businesses are part of the charm. And trees, views, foreign speculators – let’s not go there.

Next month council begins updating its official community plan – possibly spurred by a jarring 17,500-square-foot home approved for a once-serene neighbourhood – and a new lobby group is inviting developers, builders and realtors to join, its suspected goal to head off as much regulatory stricture as possible. The wealthy widow has panting suitors.

© Trevor Lautens, 2014

Wheels of progress roll over us all

Appeared in the North Shore News – October 24, 2014

You can’t stop progress.

Oh, you’ve heard that? Very disappointing. I thought I’d had a brilliantly original thought for a change.

What’s seldom mentioned in stories in the media, and doubtless even less in the developers’ boardrooms and in-camera council meetings, is just exactly what and whom the wheels of progress roll over on the way to a bigger and supposedly better future.

Giuseppe the Roman Tailor has been in business in a tiny West Van store at 1348 Marine Drive for an astonishing 44 years. There’s no front counter. Giuseppe works alone over his sewing machine in back. Customers – and they include some smartset people – come in and move closer, past rolls of cloth and a rack of ready-made clothes, to shout over the machine’s hum if they want Giuseppe to hear them. He tells them to wait a minute.

Giuseppe still has a rich Italian accent. He is short on banter. He listens and responds with a few words. Some customers want made-to-measure suits. Others only alterations. He takes measurements with the air of long-honed familiarity. When Eaton’s was in business in Park Royal you might be quietly advised in the men’s wear department to go to Giuseppe for alterations. Faster.

Next door, at 1348A, is Mr. Rea’s Cleaners (“serving North Shore since 1978” says the business card). You are greeted by Mr. Hera. So I’ve known him for many years. He writes his first name on the card for my edification, Rakhshandeh.

Like Giuseppe, he too has an accent, Iranian. He is a hearty man with a big, welcoming voice. In the back of the shop is a space, seemingly barely shoulderswide, where alterations are made right on site.

Recently Mr. Hera told me of a sadness in his life. His son, a rock musician who performed under the name Rasul, real name Ali, died at age 32 four years ago.

Mr. Rea’s had to move out of its long-time 16th Avenue store a couple of years ago to make way for Fresh St. Market. Now it will have to move again. If it continues.

Like Giuseppe and all the other 1300-block’s south-side businesses, Mr. Hera was given notice a few months ago to vacate at the end of this month. Among others, after 35 years Yoko’s Haute Couture and Spa is moving close to the Pinnacle Hotel in North Vancouver. Rainbow Nails, a “newcomer” of 11 years, has moved to Hollyburn Plaza. Station Post is closing, its quaint furnishings stored until a new site can be found, so I was told.

I recently met Giuseppe on Marine Drive, one of those surprises you have when you see people out of their normal habitat. He was looking for a new location.

A couple of weeks later he told me he couldn’t find a place. “Too expensive.” Giuseppe is 70.

Mr. Hera is 72. Maybe he could get a job elsewhere in the business, I suggested. Mr. Hera roared with laughter. “I never worked for anyone!” He has always run his own businesses.

Mr. Hera and Giuseppe are being ousted to make way for Grosvenor America’s development, which will occupy the whole south-side 1300-block. Of course glossier, up-market shoppes (fancier spelling) for Grosvenor’s tonier clientele will replace them. When Giuseppe and Mr. Hera and their tiny businesses are gone, West Vancouver will suffer a distinct loss of character – and of characters, in the kind meaning, to describe Giuseppe and Mr. Hera.

Fair enough. That’s progress, right? The bigger/newer shall absorb the smaller/older, and in turn will be absorbed by the bigger still.

I doubt if the Duke of Westminster, who owns the choicest chunks of central London, and his family, the Grosvenors, have ever heard of Mr. Hera and of Giuseppe. Or maybe not even of West Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

***

She’s more irresistible than Cleopatra – who, to be fair, is dead. But then again, so is Agatha Christie. Doesn’t stop her.

Last season Theatre West Van triumphantly staged Christie’s The Mousetrap, which opened in London 62 years ago next month. Still playing. Longest run on record, by far. If it ever closes, predicts newly enrolled Agent 6B22sn74, who took part in WV’s Mousetrap, London theatre will collapse.

This season it’s Christie’s Murder on the Nile, performed at the Kay Meek various nights from Nov. 1 to 15 (check the ad), with two matinees. Be there and be square, and join the worldwide millions of mainstream Christie fans, her appeal over generations almost uncanny.

At this writing the terrible events on Parliament Hill are still in flux, and any comment would be overtaken by events.

But hold on to this: The “peace, order and good government” in Canada’s constitution seem modest words, but they are precious attainments in a world of chaos, hatred and want.

© Trevor Lautens, 2014

West Van foodies foraging farther afield

Appeared in the North Shore News – April 11, 2014

Decisions, decisions. Today’s topic: Should I expiate on the Quebec election? Or deplore lives and minds so impoverished that a losing hockey season triggers mass civic depression? Neither. Extra Foods at Park Royal Shopping Centre will close April 22. How and where West Vancouverites forage for food is bigger than large men chasing a small black object on ice.

Park Royal is kicking out Extra Foods and other nearby tenants to make way for yet another fancypants shop. Stupidly, some disappointed customers are abusively taking it out on the cashiers. Some employees are angry at the relatively short notice given last month, though aware a year ago the axe would fall some time. Of course the moneyed people responsible are insulated from such wrath.

My well-informed Agent Jp3d7aJ says a plan for a north mall replacement fell through and predicts it will be at least two years before one is built.

Last weekend several smaller nearby businesses open on Saturday were shuttered overnight, including the Black Forest Delicatessen, formerly Van Den Bosch Patisserie Belge, once a Vancouver institution. Nearby Waggott Seafood had already closed.

Peter Black the butcher and the British Newsagent are just memories – the latter, providing the most lively and people-friendly corner in the whole centre, has been reborn in North Vancouver’s pleasant Edgemont Village.

You may prefer the new, narrower White Spot – assuming you can reach it through the strangled traffic and construction – to its more characteristic building at Taylor Way and Marine Drive. I don’t.

All part of the owning Lalji family’s ambition to make Park Royal a regional, not just a West Vancouver, shopping centre.

In a harshly competitive business, Park Royal’s Extra Foods definitely is your grandmother’s somewhat dowdy 1940s-era supermarket – full disclosure, I own both Loblaw’s turgid stock and corporate parent Weston’s decent bonds – but it has its appeal. Such as the amazing bargain of a big loaf of French bread for a loonie or less (94 cents last weekend) that my millionaire friend Stan F. and I love; bananas a quarter cheaper than anywhere else; the well-regarded President’s Choice line, including a big 300-gram bar of French chocolate for four bucks and breakfast cereals that compete flake-to-flake with Kellogg’s.

Somewhere in the Internet world there’s a Californian who is so “hopelessly addicted to President’s Choice Memories of Szechuan peanut sauce” that she’s required every Canadian friend to bring her a bottle or two when they visit.

And speaking of Szechuan, Park Royal southside Asian food-focussed Osaka has a zealous clientele. Attractive grocery, but not my choice – I tend to avoid looking into the eyes of lobsters awaiting a boiling death. People-level Kin’s Farm Market has long been many shoppers’ store of choice for produce. There’s also a stratospherically upmarket grocery store in the south-side Village. I went there. Once.

The sensational West Van success is H.Y. Louie’s year-old Fresh St. Market – also owners of Marketplace IGA at Marine and 25th – so cosy, inviting and friendly it hugs you when you walk in. Our table is regularly blessed with its delicate Dover sole, highly recommended. The Louie family has sold groceries for 111 years and their experience shows.

Hmmm. I wonder why town hall gave Fresh St. a fresh, handsome new setting as well – an extravagantly wide north sidewalk that squeezes vehicle traffic, with no pullout for buses. Part of Ambleside rejuvenation, I guess.

But local convenience enjoys a head start, and the Caulfeild Safeway continues to draw our own modest day-to-day patronage. I didn’t set out to plug certain products, but why not? Safeway’s Lucerne-brand yogurt at two 750-gram tubs for five bucks is far and away a value leader, and even more so Lucerne’s old white cheddar cheese, at $1.79 per 100 grams, shames other stores’ cheeses costing twice as much.

Can’t give advice on top cuts of beef. Too rich for pensioners like me. Damn, another disclosure: Last fall grocery chain Sobeys bought Canada Safeway, and I own Sobeys bonds. Doesn’t influence me.

You’d be surprised how much information feeding this column begins at this Safeway. (Haven’t seen you for a while at the pet food shelves, Agent Hd55enM. What’s new?) Of course West Vancouverites slip over the North Vancouver border to Jimmy Pattison’s Save-on-Foods, whose strangely under-marketed Ganong chocolates from St. Stephen, New Brunswick whip all its familiar-brand competitors in quality and price, but seem to be sold only at Christmas. And my wife was knocked out discovering Loblaws City Market on Lonsdale. But for today it’s enough to focus on West Van.

A belated standing ovation for West Van’s parks and recreation people for the grand children’s play area thoughtfully designed and rebuilt at John Lawson Park. A sailing ship, a slide or two, a train that almost toots “choo-choo”. .. it’s a big draw even on winter days.

© Trevor Lautens, 2014

What they learned in a year on the job

Appeared in the North Shore News – January 18, 2013

In time, as the Gershwins mused, the Rockies may crumble, Gibraltar may tumble, but love for West Vancouver is here to stay.

As proven by the following. I asked West Van’s three rookie councillors and first-term mayor to write essays on their first 12 months at town hall, no looking up the answers. Bright students. Some droll wit. Slightly condensed for space reasons: Nora Gambioli:

“Municipal government operations and issues are incredibly complex and interesting. The substantive work of council is more about being a ‘judge’ than I had anticipated; weighing the interests of those directly affected, precedent, and the other 44,000 residents who did not have a chance to attend a meeting, speak or write to council, or who are not yet old enough to do so, requires careful reasoning and difficult choices.

“As an educator at heart, I am constantly striving to communicate in practical ways that will encourage as many residents as possible to understand and become involved in local issues.

“Election campaigns are the most lengthy, demanding and expensive kinds of job interviews!

“As a member of the ‘sandwich generation’ (job, young kids, elderly parent) I’m now forced to be an even more highly efficient multi-tasker.

“Speaking of sandwiches, ate them for dinner every weeknight for almost three straight weeks in November (thanks to evening meetings) . . . husband not amused!

“So far, I love this work.”

Mary-Ann Booth:

“I have met dozens of smart and thoughtful residents who care deeply about this community. This has been very much a learning year for me, for while I had some understanding of our diversity through service as a school trustee, it has been deepened vis-a-vis seniors, First Nations, new Canadians, and those who struggle financially.

“It is often assumed that councillors receive a great deal of negative correspondence, but I have found the opposite to be true: most of the feedback I get is respectful, constructive, and even at times inspiring.

“I’m particularly pleased with the progress on new initiatives to support and engage our youth, including a revitalized youth centre. . . . We are off to a great start this new year as we open two new wonderful additions to our community – the new Teen Centre at our much-loved library, and the just-completed salmon rearing pond in Memorial Park, both of which only came about through unique collaboration between the municipality and its dedicated, engaged citizenry.”

Mayor Michael Smith:

“A priority during the past year has been to improve both the look and the vitality of Ambleside. The village atmosphere needs to be retained, but parts of Ambleside need to be refreshed. This spring we are making plans to take this to the public for its feedback.

“While we have had no property tax rate increase for the second year, I am somewhat disappointed by the pace of our review of the programs and services we offer. To help accomplish this, I have scheduled monthly public council meetings in 2013 that will deal only with financial issues and economic challenges.”

On political service: “You have to manage time effectively. I believe it is important that we ensure that citizens with careers can serve on council and offer their talents to the community.

“In summary, I have enjoyed the past year and look forward to the future.”

Personable Craig Cameron was first to express enthusiasm, but his reflective essay just missed my deadline. Wait for it.

. . .

Speaking of essays, I crashed the Fresh St. Market opening-eve party in my university student garb and used the power of the press to avoid getting tossed out. Invitees included suppliers, consultants and the distinguished.

“That’s a supermarket!” marvelled one, examining the lush seafood counter. “I want them!” a woman greedily hissed, staring at some sexy crab cakes. The high-end counters dramatically seduced the eye, all right. In contrast the prosaic canned goods aisles seemed narrow and shy.

Summed up, the “village” Mayor Smith referred to above looks as if it’ll be crushed out of existence between the glossy new store and the development Grosvenor seeks on the police station site.

But – hold on. There’s competition for the humble (and sharp) shopper’s dollar: Example, a couple of “ethnic” markets in the 1400-block of Marine Drive sell produce often sharply below typical supermarket prices.

. . .

Delightful: Minister of State for Seniors and West Vancouver-Capilano MLA Ralph Sultan, a coltish 70something, honouring ageless 95-year-old music man Dal Richards with the title Hepcat Laureate. Cool! Dig it! . . .

Sign of the hockey times: In a WV shop selling $200-plus pullovers branded with Canuck players’ names: “LUONGO 50%.”

. . .

I’m giving up lists. How could I have recently omitted from Vancouver Sun North Shore notables the amazing Malcolm Parry, whose narrative skills and encyclopaedic people recognition have raised the traditional “names” column to the reportorial pantheon?

© Trevor Lautens, 2013