Toronto’s downtown renaissance, who’s watching ground floor retail?

As urban centres, especially in fast-growing Toronto, race to higher and higher psf values for commercial space, we’re able to watch realtime a game of Monopoly reserved to the highest bidder. And it’s a fast exchange. It’s no wonder real estate is one of Toronto’s favourite conversation topics. The rapid sell-off of commercial assets over the past 10 years has ensured the downtown ownership rests with just the few REITs and large corporations. No big deal? Maybe. It keeps the core economically viable, profitable, maintained. However these corporations generally stem from the private equity or investment industries, requiring a year over year return to stakeholders. This is a model that can only support tenants who are continually performing and growing year over year.

To me, that’s worrying. I love downtown to be dynamic, curious, surprising, inspiring. How do those values exist when there’s a monotony of what’s getting the ground floor commercial rents, are a collection of the same?

Commercial landlords and condo builders in the expanding core, have their eye on the big whale tenants (i.e. the Dentists, Dry Cleaners, the chain stores/restaurants, the bank branches) set new rents and increase existing rents quickly to “market rate”. Every build seems to choose the highest bidder and in some cases, against what fits and is germaine to the neighbourhood. When the pace moves so swiftly as it did with Queen West et al (i.e. galleries, art institutions, iconic indy retailers) from an area known globally for its ‘cool’ happenings, it is important to consider how we evolve and accommodate hundreds of new condo-dwellers without losing our identity. With the boom, we’ve seen 4 dentists take over one city block (Queen West to Sudbury) all with huge street-level frontages, Condo stores and realtor storefronts instead of galleries and indy shops (Ossington/Liberty Village)and fast-food franchises replacing iconic cultural spaces (Taco Bell takes over the Hideout).

Initially the 14 contemporary galleries that moved on from Queen West/Ossington/Dundas West neighbourhood loop, left a sting. It was gradual, yet once Vogue told us we were still it, everyone (marketers, suburbanites, realtors, buyers, retailers) wanted a piece. Eventually our Thursday night routine of gallery and dive bar hopping was no longer. We lament the days when we could tour the neighbourhood, see art, see friends and spend less than $20. Since, the significant change to the cultural destination and identity of the area is apparent and rests on the shoulders of the pioneering Drake and remaining indy retailers. Can they keep the spirit of attractiveness that the cultural strip once offered? How can it when economic imperatives dictate only the highest earning storefronts succeed?

Of the 130 businesses that closed on Queen West in the past 3 years, I wonder if the “market rate” is a realtor’s invention and should be taken more seriously at City Hall. If every commercial lease downtown adapted tomorrow to the avgerage $89 psf value, plus+, plus+, how dynamic can we expect the walkable downtown to be? It appears to me, that it results with an no man’s land of Shoppers Drug Mart, Dentist, Vet, Dry Cleaners, Bank branch, chain store or restaurant. Repeat.

As commercial leases rise, the result the world-over is the gradual fringe-ification of the art and cultural destinations. Higher rents produce chain stores and corporate giants in neighbourhoods unaccustomed.

Our sense of place and belonging impacts how we engage with our surroundings. If we don’t feel connected or permanent, we are then apathetic to the changes shaping our neighbourhoods and our Toronto.

To combat is to enable a stronger connection to this place we call home, push for the positive changes that will help Toronto continue on its path to becoming a true urban world centre. The creative economy has the power to play a major role in Toronto’s global competitiveness. We have produced world-leading entertainment icons, a famed film festival and examples like Artscape’s creative placemaking projects prove layering creative innovation creates ‘place’ and economic stimulus.

*The real estate industry’s trajectory is in direct opposition to the incubation and growth of our creative and cultural exports.*

It is in this time of exponential growth that we must forge connections between like-minded entities toward mutually beneficial outcomes. Spaces for culture will require to be more carefully constructed and sustainably resourced to survive in market climates reserved for box stores.

For the people who reside in these areas of growth and skyrocketing rents, a demand for authenticity and community value could do with some inspiration. We can combine objectives of destination, attraction and commerce for an area with a brands’ need for visibility, reputation and relevance to create new value for a public and all involved. We need more in our urban landscape.

Reserve space to grow into neighbourhood icons, places to connect people to each other and the place they live.

To merge these forces, the key lies in opening dialogue and expertise to discern when a true alignment of ideology can produce an outcome all parties feel good about. These outcomes can be development planning, temporary happening, amenity access, public festival, community garden, publication, event program or cultural hub.

The urban experience is more than consumerism. Art and culture and its economic potential deserves a concentrated creative approach to safeguard the dynamism and uniqueness that made these neighbourhoods desirable in the first place.

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