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VANCOUVER WOULD BE COOLER IF # 263 | It Was Zoned To Allow For Neighborhood Pubs

Carlos Mendes


I've recently taken up the post of beer writer for Scout Magazine. I'll be writing a weekly article for Scout where I'll profile some of the fantastic beer coming out of BC right now and the awesome people who are making it.  Here is my latest article on the lack of proper community pubs in Vancouver and the role that they can play in neighborhood building and fostering a unique sense of place. Read it  here on Scout.

Zoning’s a funny thing. The expression or omission of a few, simple words in a city’s zoning bylaws can have an absolutely massive impact on how people interact with their neighbours and how they feel about their communities, and while a city’s zoning regime will usually jibe with the desires and expectations of its citizens, that’s not always the case.

Small, community pubs in residential neighbourhoods provide an interesting case-in-point. While current City of Vancouver zoning permits the operation of ‘neighbourhood public houses’ in areas zoned ‘commercial’, ‘mixed-use’, and ‘industrial’ (subject, at times, to a few qualifications), those large swathes of the city zoned as some form of ‘residential’ do not. The result is that Vancouver’s pubs, taprooms, and associated ‘watering holes’ are mostly located on major arterial streets and are concentrated in only a few neighbourhoods.

Of course it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way.

 Consider the example of a little boozer’s paradise close to home and another city that you probably wouldn’t associate with a progressive approach to drinking and merriment: Portland and Toronto. I’ll start with Toronto. Situated on a quiet residential street lined with mature trees and gorgeous Victorian homes, the Victory Café in the city’s old Annex neighbourhood is an awesome example of what a community pub can be.

While the ground floor of the home that houses the ‘Vic’ is the ‘pub’ proper, offering a good assortment of local craft beer, the second floor is a performance space for music, theatre, and literary readings. Add a bunch of outdoor picnic tables, and you have the making of a pretty choice little spot.

Portland, of course, is chock full of brilliant little taprooms, cafes and pubs tucked away in residential neighbourhoods. Roadside Attraction, a cavernous curiosities museum masquerading as a dive bar, complete with an outdoor fire pit and $2 tall boys, is hidden from view behind a dilapidated fence just a short hop from my personal ‘holy trinity’ of Portland breweries (The Commons, Hair of the Dog, and Cascade). Early Black Sabbath, cheap mac n’ cheese, and surly bartenders are pretty much a given. If a serious taplist is your thing, APEX on SE Division is absolutely brilliant — one of my favourite taprooms in Portland. With a rotating list of 50 beers, a massive patio, and an ever-changing spate of food trucks, APEX is a fantastic little neighbourhood spot that I stumbled upon years ago and try to visit every time I’m in town.

As we’ve seen with the proliferation of brewery lounges in the city, small neighbourhood pubs can function as important community meeting places, bringing people and ideas together and creating a strong sense of community and localized, civic pride. They can also help foster a sense of ‘place’ – that intangible mix of the attachment that distinctive public spaces can elicit, and the meanings, both individual and shared, that we project on them. Currently restricted to industrial and mix-used zones, brewery lounges are the closest thing that we have in Vancouver to places like APEX and Victory Café, and in the few years since the first brewery lounge opened in Vancouver, I’ve seen an absolutely massive (and incredibly positive) change to my little corner of the city.

From changes to last call, to the ‘Greenest City Action Plan’, there appears to be some appetite at City Hall for people to drink and socialize locally by replicating the de-centralized, community-based model that Portlanders enjoy. Unfortunately, what Portland and Toronto have in common (and what Vancouver is lacking) is a specific, hybrid zoning category that permits liquor serving establishments in residential neighbourhoods. Amending zoning bylaws and re-zoning parts of the city would require public consultation and undoubtedly be subject to huge amounts of pushback from assorted residents and neighbourhood groups.

However, while a change like this would definitely be a challenge, with a focused pilot project that restricted size, hours of service, and the number of establishments in any given neighbourhood, this type of model could definitely work in Vancouver. Imagine seeing some of the great old retail spaces that were formerly inhabited by mom n’ pop grocery stores converted into small, neighbourhood pubs?

Until that happens, my neighbours and I will keep planning our next block party over pints at Doan’s, making play dates for the kids while we wait to fill growlers at Callister, and using Strange Fellows as a kind of neighbourhood living room. It’s just a shame that experiences like these are limited to a few, tiny pockets of this awesome city.