This article was originally published on OpenFile Vancouver in June 2012.
After six nights of contentious public hearings and many months of polarizing debate between opponents and supporters, City Council resoundingly approved a rezoning application for a $165 million dollar mixed-use development in Mount Pleasant. Many residents are unhappy with the approval and a bitterness lingers about the future of community involvement in neighbourhood decision-making. But to the organizers of the Mount Pleasant Food Cooperative, the approval was an important milestone in their work to build a locally-owned and controlled food store.
“Since the public hearing closed and the decision was made, it’s meant that we’ve had to go-go-go,” said Jessica Wadsworth, a resident who’s been helping to set up the Mount Pleasant Food Cooperative [MPFC] since December of last year.
In February, Wadsworth and three other cooperative organizers signed a letter of agreement with the developer, Rize Alliance Properties, to secure more than 34,000 square feet of space in the planned complex for a food store to be owned and operated by cooperative members. The agreement restricts the developer from seeking another occupant for the large, second story space.
Chris Vollan, VP Development for Rize Alliance, said they started discussions with the cooperative organizers about a year ago and consider the project a “natural fit” for the neighbourhood and their proposed development.
“It’s a unique offering and something in the realm of food business that could push Vancouver ahead,” Vollan added.
The agreement, which has a 60-day term and been renewed once, sets out benchmarks for Rize and the organizers. “We’ll need assurances as we get down the road that they’re doing the right things,” said Vollan, “that they’re viable, and working with their members.”
Dane Baspaly, who sits on the cooperative’s steering committee with Jessica, grappled with the controversy around Rize’s re-zoning application. “The Rize hearings gave us a square kick,” Baspaly told me. “We have this amazing opportunity, but do we go for it or not?” The advantages of the space promised by Rize, which could be custom-built and is located along several major transit routes, were too much for him to pass up. “If we don’t get this space, another big box grocery store would be in there,” Baspaly said.
Their enthusiasm about the re-zoning contrasts lingering animosity about the city’s handling of the process and several permitting milestones remain until any project could proceed.
Following the April 17th vote, members of the Residents Association of Mount Pleasant (RAMP) announced plans to take the city to court, arguing that city staff allowed false documents to be used in the rezoning application. They want the rezoning to be overturned.
Neighbourhood activist Stephen Bohus told me that RAMP is still investigating the legal challenge and is concerned that Rize officials may have misled Council about the arrangement with the cooperative. Bohus also expressed concern over the ability of the planned cooperative to run and finance such a large space.
Despite the court challenge and lingering divisiveness about the Rize project, the cooperative organizers are taking the approval as a green light to proceed. So far, the MPFC organizers have laid out some core values and drafted a mission statement. But most significant decisions will be made by members, after the cooperative is incorporated. Until then, concerns about the cooperative’s capacity to operate and finance a large food store are difficult to assess.
“Being part of the steering committee is a little frustrating”, Baspaly said, “because you have what you want to do, but you have to hold back your own values and goals. As the membership grows it will start to take shape.”
For community members that felt disempowered during the rezoning process, the food cooperative could offer a space to regain some control over the future of the Rize development, as well as their local food system.
For now, the organizers are working with the British Columbia Cooperative Association and Marty Frost, founder of DevCo, a BC-based cooperative development firm, to formalize and launch the cooperative. Next month, they are meeting with city representatives, including Councillors Andrea Reimer and Adriane Carr, and will begin exploring financing options with VanCity Credit Union.
Over the summer, the organizers plan to engage the community and solicit prospective members. They’ll be tabling at the Main Street Car Free Day festival on June 17 and other Mount Pleasant events throughout the summer.
“We’ve got to let people know that there’s a food coop happening in this neighbourhood, so that it’s on their radar,” said Wadsworth.
But a long campaign is ahead for the MPFC, even if the complex proceeds as they hope.
“We won’t have the space for a couple years,” said Baspaly. “MEC [Mountain Equipment Co-op] started in the back of a truck — so might our food co-op for the first little while.”