In late June, the Vancouver City Council voted 8-3 to deny approval for a 130,000-square-foot Wal-Mart superstore along Marine Drive in the southeastern part of the city. The council also voted down plans for an adjacent Canadian Tire, a big-box retailer that sells automotive supplies, sports and leisure goods, and housewares at 455 superstores across Canada.
The council then voted to place a temporary moratorium on big-box development in that part of Vancouver and to review the city’s “highway-oriented retail” policy.
Opponents of the project, including many residents and local business owners in the neighborhood, were thrilled with the decision. “I think they really validated the whole vision of the city. They put the teeth behind the words,” neighborhood activist Louise Seto told the Vancouver Sun.
More than 8,000 people signed petitions against the project and dozens spoke out at public hearings.
Wal-Mart first announced plans for a Vancouver store four years ago. Then in 2002, candidates affiliated with the Coalition of Progressive Electors won a majority of seats on the City Council. Many had campaigned in favor of local, neighborhood-serving businesses and environmentally sustainable development.
Wal-Mart responded to the election by proposing a store with ecologically-friendly features, including a windmill, a system for using rainwater in the toilets, natural lighting, and underground wells for heating and cooling.
But the council concluded that the store would induce more driving, ultimately causing more environmental harm than could be mitigated by its innovative design. Large-format stores are by their very size designed for driving and not well-suited to shopping by foot, bicycle, or public transit. Wal-Mart’s presence would also undermine the survival of many small neighborhood businesses located within walking distance of homes.
“It does not overcome a fundamental flaw, which is that it is a retail development that is based on the use of the car,” said Councilor Anne Roberts, who has been a strong critic of big-box development. Councilor David Cadman concurred, noting that “the design doesn’t outweigh the consequences of the design.”
Several groups representing big business interests, including the British Columbia Chamber of Commerce, denounced the decision and called on the provincial government to step in and sharply curtail the authority of cities over land use and development. Because it has its own charter, Vancouver is especially independent from the province and has wide-ranging powers over many issues. Unlike most other major Canadian cities, Vancouver does not give developers the option of appealing land use decisions.
A poll by The Vancouver Province found that residents were evenly split on whether they supported the City Council’s decision. A slight majority disagreed with the decision, but the difference was within the poll’s margin of error. Opposition to Wal-Mart was strongest among younger residents (aged 18-34), 51 percent of whom supported the council’s decision. But, among those over age 55, a majority—57 percent—said the council should have approved the store.
Councilor Roberts said support for big-box development has eroded markedly over the last few years as citizens become more knowledgeable about the effects on locally owned businesses, traffic, and job quality.
She strongly supports the council’s move to review Vancouver’s “highway-oriented retail” policy, which was adopted prior to the 2002 election and allows industrial land to be rezoned for big-box retail. Roberts argues that the city should not abandon certain areas as “throw-away” zones for sprawl development, but should instead redevelop those areas as walkable neighborhoods.