Could the cure for a growing number of empty storefronts in Vancouver be a tax on empty commercial spaces?

An advocacy group is lobbying for the city to take the bold action of taxing empty storefronts in certain pockets where vacancy rates have been high or that have historic or cultural value to the city.

They are also calling on the city to investigate municipal tools to help small businesses set up shop and stay competitive, for example limiting chain stores in certain neighbourhoods.

Amy Robinson from LOCO BC pointed out that the city has set its sights on residential real estate with a tax on owners of empty homes, but there are also several blocks throughout Vancouver that are dotted with empty storefronts. Areas include Granville Street, 4th Avenue and Broadway.

In addition to a possible tax on empty storefronts, the non-profit organization set up to increase the presence of local businesses in B.C. wants to see restrictions on big box stores and chains in certain areas.

"Many whole blocks of independent businesses are taken out and what might go in are one of the big five banks and chain stores, so what we're really concerned about is the loss of affordable space for independent businesses," Robinson said.

The move would follow in the footsteps of San Francisco and New York, cities that have enacted rules governing where chain stores can set up, to help small businesses survive. The restrictions also preserve neighbourhood character.

But the challenge would be sorting out the details of such a restriction: Should local chain stores and restaurants still be permitted? And where would the no-box-store borders be?

"We don't want to rush into a city-wide ban like that, or necessarily even a targeted ban, without understanding what the implications are," said Wes Regan, a City of Vancouver social planner.

While the idea is on the table, planners would rather help mom and pop shops by limiting frontage or overall square footage of retail areas, making spaces more affordable for small business owners and less attractive to chains.

"This is not just a challenge unique to Vancouver," Regan said.

"Other major cities in North America are grappling with rapid changes in land economics that are affecting commercial real estate and small businesses are sometimes caught in some very rough waters."

With a report from CTV Vancouver's Penny Daflos