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A Nelson Commons primer
I’ve had the pleasure of representing members of the Kootenay Co-op as a board director since 2006. Those were the early days when the conversation of needing a larger location began. With a growing membership, increasing number of staff, and a sales growth far surpassing most North American grocery stores, we desperately needed to relocate.
Here we are today, seven years later and another two years to go until this vision will finally be realized in the form of a new and larger co-op.
Why such a long process?
With most supermarkets, when growth is necessary, wheels are set in motion at a breakneck pace. Stores are closed, renovated, moved, expanded, rebranded, sold to another chain, you name it. Change moves quickly in the world of chain supermarkets. Because we’re a co-operative, owned by the people of this community, and because we’re a business with strong social, community, economic and ecological values, our process was instead remarkably slow — an almost 10-year process!
This snail-like pace was the result of a number of considerations — first and foremost, finding a location. As we looked at options throughout the city, it became abundantly clear that the co-op belongs in our beloved downtown. This greatly narrowed our options and added years to the redevelopment process. There simply was no downtown site that would accommodate a single-level grocery store and enable our over 11,000 members to finally own our own building. When the opportunity to purchase the former Extra Foods presented itself, it was clear that this was the only viable option in the downtown core and the site was purchased immediately. It was up to the board to figure out how to best use that site.
The board engaged in a thorough process of assessing our development options: 1. Refurbish the existing building; 2. Build a new stand-alone store; or 3. Be part of a multi-use development.
It was clear that option three was the obvious choice, and since then, we’ve received incredible support from our membership and community. Thank you. Of course, there are also many concerns that have been expressed as a result of our decision and I’d like to respond to the most common.
Why condos? Why not just build a store?
Standing on the old Extra Foods location, we all have the opportunity to look back in time at an approach to urban planning and grocery store design that I believe simply doesn’t work. Large boxes surrounded by parking lots have de-communitied cities across North America. From an economic, cultural and ecological point of view, this approach is a poor use of space, especially in a downtown core of a city where available land is limited and valuable. From a financial perspective, it was also clear that if there was sufficient demand for owning residences in the downtown, then building condos on top of the store would be the most financially sound approach for our 11,000 members and could significantly reduce the debt (and risk) that we would have otherwise incurred renovating or building a stand-alone store. With 45 of the 54 units now spoken for, that decision is proving to be one of the best decisions we could have made for the benefit of our members. The Co-op also saw it as an opportunity to keep development within the control of our community and not in the hands of developers from outside the region.
What are the green building considerations?
I propose that the Nelson Commons development is the most ecologically sound development in Nelson’s downtown history. Why? We are building 54 residences on a very small footprint. In comparison to other residential areas in the city, that same footprint would be room for only 10 Uphill homes or five Fairview homes. These 54 residences will also be using existing infrastructure and not require any new land to build. With 54 families living downtown, that will also mean less traffic in the city as most needs and wants can be satisfied by downtown businesses. I can also assure the community that every option for using materials and technologies with the least short-term and long-term impacts have been considered and many great low-impact choices have been made. That aside, the co-op itself has always strived to supply products with the least ecological impact. We all eat food every day and it’s through these choices that I believe our individual footprints carry the largest impact. In the end, this project will be an exemplary model for conscientious development and mindful living in Nelson. For more on greening the Commons, go to nelsoncommons.ca.
Why is there no non-market housing?
The desire for housing that is accessible to a wider segment of the population was a desire shared by the board from the beginning of the redevelopment process. I can assure the community that the board pushed ourselves to the very limit of possibilities, but, in the end, it was unfortunately clear that the need for more affordable housing in Nelson is beyond the capacity of the Kootenay Co-op — especially in the downtown core where the price of land is high. For 38 years, our co-op has expended tremendous energy to work outside of the food system box and supply this community with the healthiest and most responsibly produced food we can find. At the same time, we’ve supported more local food producers than probably any other grocery store in the country. While the co-op has also supported the non-food community in many ways, we are first and foremost a food store, and our decision to construct residences was to make absolutely sure we can continue to provide the community with good food at the most affordable prices while continuing to ensure our farmers and suppliers are fairly compensated.
For the past eight years, my work outside of the co-op as a food journalist has involved observing the evolution of food systems throughout North America. When I put my bias aside (as best I think I can), I can say quite comfortably that I think this project is hands-down one of the most innovative local food system initiatives in the country. In less than two years, Nelson Commons, in its entirety, will become a living symbol of how much this community cares for our farmers, the earth, and each other.
Jon Steinman is a director on the board of the Kootenay Country Store Co-operative.