Jennifer Keesmaat has taken an active role in educating Torontonians about the planning process since becoming the City's Chief Planner in 2012. One of the primary ways she has done this is by hosting a series of public forums known as the Chief Planner Roundtables. The forum brings together some of the brightest minds in city building, including City of Toronto staff, community leaders and industry professionals. The intention of the roundtable is to identify a particular challenge or issue facing Toronto, then discuss how to tackle the issue. Past topics have included 'Mobility in the Suburbs' and 'Planning Cities for Families', which was the previous roundtable hosted in April. Last week, another of the series was held, this time focusing on 'Main Street Retail: Animating the public realm through active retail and commercial uses'.
Main streets play an important role in the overall health of the city. They have proved to be essential to our economic, social and cultural well-being by not only providing people with functional retail services, but acting as gathering places that foster interaction between one another. To discuss the importance as well as some of the challenges facing main street retail, seven panelists presented their perspectives:
- Ethan Kent, Senior Vice President of New York City's Project for Public Spaces;
- Phil Goldsmith, Architect;
- Sandy Houston, President and CEO, Metcalf Foundation;
- Tonya Surman, CEO, Centre for Social Innovation;
- Monique Drepaul, Executive Director, Eglinton Way BIA;
- Eve Lewis, President & CEO, Woodcliffe Landmark Properties; and
- Lorna Day, Manager, Urban Design, City of Toronto.
To begin, Ethan Kent noted that "the streets are about people and product", pointing to Kensington Market as a classic Toronto example of how street markets have traditionally played a large role in fostering social interaction and vibrancy. Places like these need to be replicated throughout Toronto he said, where people can be welcomed, interact and feel comfortable together. The main takeaway from his presentation was "if you plan for cars and traffic, you get more cars and traffic. Plan for people, you will get people."
Phil Goldsmith talked about the history of Toronto, particularly how the main streets we know today developed. He said that main streets typically serve two functions. One is the service function, providing people with the basic necessities of life, while the other focuses on social interaction. He noted that unlike most European cities which evolved around a central market, Toronto had no such market when its first ten blocks were developed. It was not until 1803 that the 'Market Block', where St. Lawrence Market now stands, was established. When St. Lawrence Hall was built in 1850, it brought an entertainment venue and retail to King Street, helping it become one of the most vibrant streets in Toronto. The population exploded in the coming years and an old military road was transformed into the high street of Yonge. The establishment of businesses on Yonge attracted other retailers like Eaton's until the end of the Second World War. By that time, the appeal of downtown was weakening as it became more crowded and dirty, discouraging people from city life. The move to the suburbs and subsequent decline of downtown meant that several historic buildings were lost, which also fortunately led to the heritage movement we see today.
Phil noted that although downtown has mostly recovered from its decline, there are still threats to main street retail. The infiltration of big-box retailers may drive out small businesses and suck up street life, while significant heritage buildings continue to fall into disrepair. He also said that downtown is becoming more and more expensive, leading to a loss of affordable spaces that again may lead to a decline in small businesses. On the positive side, he lauded Toronto's commitment to Heritage Conservation Districts and its many popular festivals like Pride. Finally, he urged the City to tackle the issue of accessibility by focusing on pedestrianization and transit rather than vehicles.
The Metcalf Foundation prides itself on finding innovative approaches to sustainability, creativity and equity. In his presentation, Sandy Houston used the Scadding Court Community Centre at Bathurst and Dundas as a case study in transforming underused spaces into commercial hubs. Scadding Court installed shipping containers along Dundas and used them as pop-up food and merchandise vendors, an idea that Houston believes could easily be replicated elsewhere in the city. He also pointed out the efforts of the Danforth East Community Association, who have helped turn several vacant shops along Danforth into temporary pop-up retail spaces. As a result, the vacancy rate has dropped by half, with twenty empty storefronts being leased within the last year. Houston explains that these are innovative solutions to the decline of main street retail in many parts of the city. To conclude, he suggested that the City alter how it deals with vacant storefronts, as tax rebates are frequently given out to commercial and industrial properties that sit empty.
"People go shopping on the street because we're looking for an experience," said Tonya Surman of the Centre for Social Innovation. She reiterated the innovation of pop-up shops and explained that micro-retail needs to be supported in the age of online shopping. However, she had concerns that growth and the reinvigoration of tired properties will ultimately lead to an affordability crisis, where long-established retailers are forced out of the neighbourhood as rents increase.
Some of the challenges Monique Drepaul of the Eglinton Way BIA has dealt with include tagging on benches and parking metres, weeds sprouting up through the sidewalk, and constant construction. She has also heard opposition from local business owners to proposed bike lanes along Eglinton. They fear the bike lanes will remove parking and discourage vehicular travel, resulting in fewer customers. However, when collecting data to determine the impact bike lanes have on businesses, Monique discovered that bike lanes have the opposite effect. They actually reduce commercial vacancies and increase retail sales. Monique also noted that businesses often overestimate the number of customers travelling by car, pointing to several Toronto neighbourhoods where transit users, cyclists and pedestrians far outnumber drivers.
Eve Lewis recalled Woodcliffe's work on the Market Street redevelopment. The buildings opposite St. Lawrence Market were falling into disrepair but have since been transformed into vibrant restaurants with outdoor patios stretching out onto the sidewalk. The redevelopment is an example of how to animate failing storefronts, though Lewis hopes that some day the vision of her late husband Paul Oberman will be fully realized by closing the street to vehicles. She also calls upon the City to improve the conditions on the St. Lawrence Market side of the street, which is currently covered by the overhead patio and dimly lit at night.
Finally, Lorna Day from the City of Toronto showcased some of the City's efforts in boosting main street retail through the Eglinton Connects project and the Avenues and Mid-Rise Buildings Performance Standards, which Jennifer Keesmaat sees as key projects. By implementing certain standards related to mid-rises, including enforcing a mimimum ground floor height to accommodate commercial uses, main streets can continue to thrive.
At the end of the presentations, a discussion was held to tie in all the ideas and perspectives. Although revitalization is necessary to keep our main streets healthy, the consensus was that it could have negative impacts by increasing rents and forcing out local businesses with roots in the area. Eve Lewis stated that after the revitalization of Market Street, property taxes skyrocketed and some of the restaurants along the roadway are now finding it difficult to cope with this new financial reality.
Drepaul and Kent both praised the City for hosting the various roundtables, adding that more collaboration and consultation is always appreciated. The panel concluded with the suggestion that an additional roundtable be held to tackle the implications of success and how the solution of one problem could lead to the creation of another.
For more information on the Chief Planner Roundtable, visit the official City website.
Have you attended a Chief Planner Roundtable? How do you believe Toronto can ensure active and vibrant retail along its main streets? Leave a comment below to share your thoughts.