— The Urbanist —

An Inconvenience Truth

What’s limiting the humble bodega?

This November my mom, Dianne, visited from Ontario, and one day left my 124 St. condo on foot in search of a grocery store.

headshot 2At 72, she skipped the nearby organic premium store for something run of the mill, but from the Jasper Ave. sidewalk she couldn’t see the street’s lone supermarket, since it’s hidden behind an arena-sized parking lot. She did discover Foodland, though.

Back home, Foodland is a grocery chain, but on Jasper and 111 St., it’s a little mom-and-pop shop selling (amongst its countless snacks) milk, produce, pet food and other essentials at extended hours to mainly pedestrians. In other words, it’s a bodega.

And it occurred to me, in light of downtown’s disappearing and struggling grocers, that bodegas are rare around here. Most cities have nicknames for them: Edmontonians might call them “corner stores,” but that doesn’t do their inventories of semi-fresh food and pantry goods justice. In Toronto they’re called fruit markets; in Montreal, depanneurs (or “the dep” to Anglophones); and in New Y ork, bodegas (it means “grocery store” in Spanish). Regardless of its nickname, a bodega can help resolve a food desert while also build street vibrancy by catering to pedestrians.

It’s estimated there’s one for every 1,500 Montrealers and one for every 600 New Yorkers. Compared with many similarly sized cities, the convenience of buying essentials from an independent shop just down the street is rare in Edmonton. The exceptions are 107 Ave., where there isn’t a single grocery chain but a dozen bodegas selling to primarily ethnic patrons. But a walk down Jasper Ave. in Oliver, both the city’s most populated and densely populated neighbourhood, reveals just four bodegas. Within its residential streets, where many of its 19,000 residents live in walkups and lowrises, there are just a handful more.

In their place are dentists and hair salons — businesses that cater to motorists from across the city and, in turn, force residents to drive, rather than walk, to get groceries.

“There’s always people who will drive to those stores—it doesn’t matter if they’re one block away or five blocks away. We have to make sure they have places to park.” —Livia Balone, City of Edmonton

Given that the grocers remaining in Oliver have parking lots the size of a soccer pitch, I wondered, is one contributing factor Edmonton’s parking minimum bylaws? In the past, Oliver Community League was complicit in preventing businesses that cater to foot-based traffic.

Minutes from 2006 and 2009 meetings reveal it opposed new businesses seeking relaxations of parking minimums (it no longer does). The minimums are only relaxed through special request, regardless of whether a business targets pedestrian clientele. Why?

“There’s always people who will drive to those stores—it doesn’t matter if they’re one block away or five blocks away,” says Livia Balone, director of development and zoning services with the City of Edmonton. “We have to make sure they have places to park.”

So it’s no surprise that we turn to power centres like Oliver Square with our shopping lists, what with its vast parking lots. This isn’t unique to the core; neighbourhood retailers struggle across Edmonton, hence the City’s “Corner Store Pilot Program” to revitalize mature neighbourhood shopping sites.

But parking minimums aren’t why bodegas are rare in Oliver, according to former city councillor and Oliver historian Michael Phair. For one, he says, the majority of bodegas outside Alberta thrive because of their ability to sell liquor (however, this doesn’t explain their ubiquity in Toronto). More importantly, though, retail pads were included in the initial Oliver residential towers of the ’60s and ’70s, and envisioned to sell food, but they’re more likely to house offices than bodegas because business is lean. High rent and competing drug store chains and gas stations don’t help. “If you talk to [bodega owners] they’ll tell you it’s been a really tough go.”

Pratap Thapa owns Mini Mart Plus, north of Jasper and 112 St., which sells produce and clothing from his native Nepal. He agrees with Phair. Unlike him, the offices and salons filling the small bays envisioned for food retail have far less overhead. “Here it’s just a fight, a struggle,” he explains, a basket of fresh bananas beside him on the counter. “You have to bring everything into one room. You’re not making money.”

Thapa said his biggest sellers are cigarettes, junk food and produce. He plans to bring in more fruits and vegetables in the future to meet demands.

While it’s nice to know I can whiten my teeth within a short walk, given the shortage of affordable groceries I can only hope Thapa and others are more successful.