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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Fringe Benefits continued: How should “Avenues” develop?

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Mayor Miller at the Fringe Benefits launch

The way the new exhibition Fringe Benefits (reviewed earlier) presented the dynamics of ethnic communities in the suburbs helped to crystallize some concerns I have about the way the City of Toronto proposes to develop its suburbs in its official plan.

The exhibit pointed out the importance of small, affordable retail and office space in allowing ethnic communities to provide services for themselves, and creating accessible and affordable avenues for building businesses. This kind of retail can be found both in old strip malls, and in newer condominium-style large malls where business owners can buy their own shop space (or lease from individual owners).

At the same time, ethnic communities are transforming the original use-concept of suburban housing, often fitting in extended families, or, in houses, renting out rooms to other members of their community. The result is that the housing is both more affordable, and also that local densities are much higher than originally conceived by planners.

The city’s official plan calls for the currently hostile, unappealing suburban arterials to be transformed into attractive and sustainable “Avenues” oriented around rapid transit and friendly to pedestrians, by encouraging the building of dense mixed-use mid-rise (e.g. 6 storey) buildings along them. I’m very much in favour of this concept in principle, as I have consistently found that this is the most appealing and lively kind of urban streetscape in any city.

The problem, however, is that whenever I’ve seen this kind of building built in Toronto in recent years, the result in inevitably the same — a dull building with expensive small condos on the upper floors and the familiar chain retail stores on the ground level. My colleague Sean Marshall describes this phenomenon as “Rabba, dry cleaner, Subway, Blockbuster. Repeat.”

If suburban arterials had their strip malls demolished to be populated by these kinds of buildings, the effect would be to drive the existing communities and their businesses off the main streets, because many would not be able to afford either the retail space or the residential spaces. For those who can afford them, the residential spaces may be too small for their needs, and the retail spaces will be designed for easy leases to chains rather than leases to independents. Also, these streetscapes would be dull and sterile — much less hostile than the existing streets, certainly, but instead merely anodyne, rather than streets with vitality and a real sense of place that genuinely attract people and serve as the centre of their community the way older main streets do.

If the Avenues strategy is going to work, Toronto needs to re-think the kind of development it will encourage along them.

First, it needs to think of ways to integrate affordable older buildings such as strip malls into new streetscapes. As Jane Jacobs points out, the presence of old, affordable buildings where people can start their businesses or their families is crucial to building a vibrant community. There are several ideas in the Fringe Benefits exhibit that point to how this could be done, but there is a lot more thought that could be put into it — and much of it could come from the communities themselves.

Second, Toronto needs to find ways to make new mixed-use buildings more accessible and individual. A key measure would be to make sure that retail/office outlets on the street level are built in a variety of sizes, including small ones, and are at least sometimes sold as condominium retail spaces, so that each one becomes individualized and they are accessible to business owners from the local community. It would also help a great deal if buildings were built on smaller lots, so that there was a wider variety of approaches to buildings along each block, creating both more visual interest, and also more opportunity for a variety of developers to try a variety of strategies. This approach would replicate the successful development of main streets in Toronto and in many other cities earlier in the century.

The city’s “Avenues” strategy will only work if it results in distinctive communities with a real sense of place, and that will only happen if it enhances existing communities, rather than displacing them.



  1. Heh – in New York the intensification of the avenues has also followed a pattern, as old tenements with a chopped-up mishmash of retail have been replaced with bland 30 storey rental towers and condos with ground-floor chain stores. Sixth Ave in the 20s, 3rd , 2nd and 1st Ave in the 80s and 90s have been quite transformed by this in recent years. Only here the formula goes: “Duane Reade, dry cleaner, WaMu, Starbucks. Repeat.”

  2. One thing I’ve always wondered is how retail portions of condo buildings are leased out. Are they bought and sold like units? Are the leased by the condo board, allowing the residence some influence? Are they leased out by some third party?

  3. Great post. I think that condo developers in Toronto show an open hostility to potential retailers. Cookie cutter spaces, low ceilings, no ability to customize facades…its no wonder the only parties interested are mediocre chains. The problem is further exaserbated by the ludicrous “weather protection” guidelines. Stores and restaurants cannot present themselves to passersby – they’re hiding beneath pre-cast furrowed brows and po-mo visors. I tried to think of a truly vibrant street, in any city, that incorporates these features and I came up empty. If anyone can provide positive examples, do tell. (Bay St – to my mind – is the worst offender.)

  4. Dylan,

    I’ve heard that the reason the grade floor of mid-rise condo buildings are so blah is that the condo corps tend to veto more interesting uses — restaurants, bars, etc. — because the residents don’t want noise, commotion, bugs, etc. Therein lies one of the unsung attractions of the absentee landlord — they don’t live in the building and perhaps care less about the tenant mix.

  5. Dylan,

    Could you elaborate on your comment that “the retail spaces will be designed for easy leases to chains rather than leases to independents”?

    Part of the problem is that when such mixed used low/mid rise buildings are developed, they do so on land that was previously assessed as commercial. They city, being afraid to loose this lucrative assessment base, insist that an equal portion of the new development remains commercial. I personally know developers that would much rather not build any such space and have the buildings be 100% residential. From a business perspective you cannot blame them. Residential space commands nearly three times as much per sq. ft., while costing approximately the same to build.

    It should be noted that this has been occurring in the downtown core also. Ground floor retail is the canary in the coal mine of Toronto’s commercial unsustainability. Toronto’s high non residential tax rates are exclusionary and pose a major roadblock for independents. Furthermore, by limiting competition, it benefits those companies that can afford it. It benefits the Home-Depot, Canadiantire, Loblaws, etc. when small retailer’s such as Jacob’s Hardware, Dukes Cycles, etc. are unable to justify the high taxes and close. Dukes for example may face a yearly tax increase of $75,000 (

    It is much easier for, artist, lawyers, health professionals, accountants, retailers, etc. avoid Toronto’s exhorberant commercial tax rates and work from home.

  6. If you don’t want condos’ ground floors to be full of chain stores, don’t shop at those stores. If enough people do the same, they will go out of business.

    Otherwise, let the free market decide.

  7. “exhorberant”???

    Maybe Toronto Housing could be pro-active in this. I guess they are including retail in the Regent Park redevelopment. But what if they included some live/work spaces for artisans/artists and small businesspeople in new buildings (if they ever build any)? Didn’t tailors and hairdressers and such live above the shop back when? You’d have to be a twakrillionaire to afford that now.

  8. The problem is that large landlords would rather rent out the stores to chain or franchises. Usually, at a high rate. A new small business has to look for a small landlord or buy (and mortgage) a small store for themselves. As usual, a small business just starting out can expect the first years to be lean, and if the rent is high to start, they won’t move in.
    If a street is successful, the rent increases can drive small businesses out. Ignoring the fact, that the small businesses along that is the reason the street is successful.

  9. Sometimes I swear landlords prefer to let the space sit empty. It’s the only explanation for the storefronts on Queen East, on the south side between Kingston Road and Woodbine — some of them have been empty since the buildings were put up more than 10 years ago.

  10. Dylan,

    You quote Jane Jacobs in your article, regarding the need for a mix of new and old buildings, but then show you’re not aware of the context she is advocating for.

    Jacobs is very clear: New buildings have to recover the invested money. The easiest way to do this is to rent to reliable businesses (that is, belonging to large chains), and high-rent paying tenants. This is because the costs of putting up the building are such that it is a foolish business model to do anything but be conservative in your choice of tenants.

    It’s only when buildings age, and owners have recovered their profits, or changed hands–that is they become old buildings–that new, riskier, and more interesting tenants can get space. But, successful commercial areas attract investors, who try to create more space for new residents and businesses–thus building new buildings, and the cycle continues.

    When Jacobs says a mix of buildings is necessary for successful neighbourhoods, what she’s advocating against is the wholesale demolition of neighbourhoods, and locking neighbourhoods in history.

    Toronto’s plan changed the building envelope on Avenues significantly from what the legacy cities had been promoting (1 story strip malls, etc.), but also promoted doing it gradually through private investors. That’s exactly what is happening. But, as above, new building owners won’t take financial risk.

    So, like the strip malls, these new buildings will hold a diversity of tenants, and interesting businesses–eventually. You’ll just have to wait a few decades for the process to kick in, and our “new buildings” to become “old buildings.”

    If it means anything, the strip malls were bland and boring, and un-ethnic for decades for the exact same reason. The reason they are more interesting now is, owners having recovered construction costs, would rather make some money than none at all. Strip malls in Scarborough do not command the highest rents.



  11. Does any part of the city’s official plan, looking to make suburban arterials “serve as the centre of their community the way older main streets do” intelligently address the fundamental question: why do certain areas work so much better than others?

    Consider the more interesting stretches of street in the city in no particular order:
    College (Bathurst to Ossington)
    Bloor – Annex
    Bloor-West Village
    Danforth (Pape to Chester)
    Queen – Beaches
    Queen West, and further west
    Front (Yonge to Jarvis)
    Yonge N. from Eglington
    Parliament N. from Gerrard

    Seems to me that the basics are nearly always the same, with few exceptions:
    pre-WWII building stock
    good, to very good, transit
    large residential population of varying incomes
    higher than average proportion who do not own cars
    higher than average income/education
    higher than average proportion presently in higher education
    white (not saying it is a cause, but it observable)

    The city had better figure out which of these are the most necessary, and the most duplicatible. I’d say there’s few facts on the ground they can change, except: “good, to very good, transit”; because that will cause a “higher than average proportion who do not own cars”, which leads to both a “higher than average income/education” and a “higher than average proportion presently in higher education.”

  12. Electric Landlady – I have heard that landlords get a break on property taxes if their space is vacant, which seems utterly backwards from a planning perspective. There are far too many stretches of major avenues in this city full of empty storefronts.

  13. Hi Richard,

    I’m well aware of the context of Jane Jacob’s statement, and it is implied in what I wrote. It’s why I say it’s important to find ways to keep some old, affordable buildings in place rather than demolishing them, even if they’re not the most ideal urban form.

    However, I think there are also ways for new buildings to be more accessible (e.g., smaller floorplates), and given that with the Avenues strategy there is an incentive (higher density) for new buildings to replace old ones more rapidly, thus reducing the “affordable” window of a building’s later life, I think it’s important for the city to investigate those as well.

  14. Richard,

    What you say is true. Though in Toronto, where so many of these spaces are vacant, the issue is somewhat different.

    Many years of vacancy in these newly created commercial spaces highly suggest that landlords are not being selective. Simply there is no demand for what they are offering, at the price they are offering it. New commercial space in Toronto that is not subject to capped rates will not likely even be able to recover taxes. Never mind being profitable. At least by keeping it unoccupied there is some tax savings.

    Take the Dukes example I listed earlier. If that site is redeveloped as a mid rise with ground floor retail, how large is the market for such a property when taxes are going to be $90,000 per year? Of course there are going to be pathological examples of of willing tenants whom can justify such expenses. But they are few and far between. Which is why Toronto finds itself in the position it is in.

    Toronto’s ability to plan for the future is poisoned by a tax climate that makes such plans academic. For example, Toronto is 300,000 jobs behind its own forecast. The city complains of gridlock but the Cordon count shows that transit ridership to the core is only now approaching its previous peak of a generation ago. Yet vehicular traffic is down 11%.

  15. Well money is something I know s&%$ about, so could you explain better how those areas have “capped taxes” but the boring areas don’t? I’m seriously interested. If you’re right, we can kiss the plan goodbye, because the city won’t ever give up money. That’s why those of us who cycle had better live with riding in the door zone: the city maks far too much from on-street parking to give a damn.

  16. “Yet vehicular traffic is down 11%.”

    And that’s a bad thing??

    But anyway, the city can’t even control its older streets. Anyone notice ANOTHER one-story Shopper’s has been plunked down on Sherbourne by St. Jamestown? But it has a two-storey false-front like the stores in little prairie towns.

  17. aidan,

    It goes back to the previous Municipal Act. Previously, the old Municipal Act mandated that residential property tax was to be at a rate that was 85% to that of other property classes. Here is TABIA’s good summation:

    Property was assessed; that is, the municipal government sent out a valuator who examined the property and determined its value. And once a property was assessed, that assessment stood indefinitely. The last assessment before CVA was done in the 1940’s. It would probably never change unless you renovated or added to your property. Each year the municipality would figure out how much tax rev. it wanted and then it would set the tax rate – so for example, if the assessor said your property was worth 100,000.00, and the tax rate was set at 1%, you would pay 1% of 100,000.00 i.e. $1,000.00. But when it comes to tax, governments really don’t want the taxpayer to understand what is going on, so instead of talking about tax rate, it talks about “mill rate”. So, remember, “mill rate” is just another word for tax rate.

    This method of property assessment gave stability to the system. If your property was assessed at $100,000.00 in 1956, unless you made changes to it, it would stay at 100,000.00 year after year. You knew that the municipality would change the tax rate from time to time, but you also knew that the rate would rise reasonably slowly, so you always had a good idea of what your taxes would be as years went by. As the City expanded i.e. new homes and buildings were built, they were assessed when built, so the values would be higher than on older properties. So for example a house built at College and Ossington in 1956 might have been assessed at say 30,000, but the identical house built at Finch and Victoria Park in 1966 might be assessed at 40,000. But when you bought that house you knew what the assessment was and you knew with reasonable certainty what your annual tax bill would be. If you thought the taxes were too high or outside your budget, you didn’t buy that house, you bought a different house with lower assessment.
    This did lead to anomalies. For example, over a long period of time, as market values rose, assessed values stayed the same. So it could well happen that a new, modest-size house at Steeles and Islington might be assessed higher than an large, older home in Rosedale, although the Rosedale home would bring much more money on the market. But the market has a way of straightening out that kind of discrepancy, because the market value of each home reflects in part the annual tax bill. If the taxes on a home are $1,000 a year, a buyer takes that into account when considering what he is prepared to pay for it. If that same home had an annual tax bill of $15,000, he may not be willing to pay nearly so much for that home. So the price of the property reflects in part the level of tax imposed on it.


    When the move to CVA was made, in order to insulate (think Rosedale, Forest Hill) the residential property class from dramatic tax hikes a number of policies were adopted. The move to CVA was a wholesale abandonment of the principles of the previous MA and also the new one, being that all classes were to be taxes approximately the same. With the potential for complete financial ruin for many businesses in Toronto, the province enacted some restrictions. The two most relevant would be that, within your property class, the tax rate would be averaged over a period of time. So over a period of time differences between properties in the same class would be removed. The rate at which this could happen is capping. If you were paying less than the class average the city could not raise your taxes (excluding normal budgetary increases) more than a set amount. This was has fluctuated between 2.5 and 5%.

    Also as the province restricted then limited tax hikes to classes that were paying more than the provincial average for the same class. If on average in Ontario the commercial tax rate was 2.5X that of residential, the province mandated that any municipality where the commercial tax rate was above the average could not raise the ratio. If they were average or less the municipality could only keep the ratio the same or make it better. The long term goal was to have it return to the levels stipulated by both past and previous MA’s. The new act through regulation states a ratio of .6 to 1.1 ICI to residential.

    What this has led to is that existing, and as you noted, older commercial properties have been partially insulated from ridiculously high tax rates. Though they are creeping higher. What happens when new properties are developed though, is far different. Like the Dukes example, their taxes were $15,000 per year. After rebuilding they are set to go to $90,000. If you recreated any of the areas you mentioned today, the same thing would happen. So new non-residential development has become, for the most part, cost prohibitive.

    That, in a nut shell is why Toronto has stagnated for a generation and is 300,000 jobs behind their own forecast.

  18. hunter,

    If the 11% was replaced by other means. it would not be bad. The fact that it has not means that less people are travelling / working downtown. Twenty years ago there was more people coming into and out of downtown than do today. Sounds like Detroit.

  19. I respectfully disagree with Glen’s last point: No, it doesn’t sound like Detroit since property value has skyrocketed in the core over the last 20 years and the number of residents have increased. Ridership on most downtown transit lines are way up.

  20. Can we please stop talking about “ethnic communities in the suburbs”?

    It’s a meaningless term. If you’re going to talk about “ethnic communities”, be specific. Tell us the difference between the Chinese in Agincourt and the Chinese on Spadina; describe clan organization among the Somalis on Dixon Rd.; explain the rivalry between the Galloway Boys and the Malvern Crew; etc, etc. Give us the nitty-gritty. Help us “understand the urban landscape”.

    But if you can’t, stick to talking about tax rates and zoning regs and leave out mentions of “ethnic communities”. All you’re doing is reinforcing the widely-held impression (widely held, that is, among “ethnic communities”) that white Canadians are basically well-meaning but clueless dorks who don’t know shit about shit.

  21. Dylan: hate to repeat a banal trope often heavy-handedly lobbed at the Spacing crew, but perhaps your rinse-repeat experience of “mixed-use mid-rise” is excessively tinged by the same-old Richard-Florida-friendly inner-city hinterland? I’m not so sure that Rabbas’n’drycleaners formula would hold so firm beyond Toronto’s “Stuff White People Like” zones.

    Excellent case in point (though more highrisey than midrisey a lot of the time) are a lot of the recent developments in North York Centre, where Asian and new-Torontonian mom’n’pops have happily shoehorned themselves into impossibly tight spaces, so that condos barely a year or two old already feel as “settled down” at street level as if they were 20 or 30 years old. Now, *there’s* an antidote to Stuff White People Like…

  22. I agree with Adam, above, when I actually looked at what was happening in a lot of condos in North York Centre I was surprised and pleased to see these tiny little storefronts crammed with all sorts of odd businesses (“Sushi Bong” comes to mind). The storefronts are narrow in the extreme, so one building has tons of different shops. And they front not only onto Yonge Street, but for a small distance on the side streets as well.

    Yes, the condos are generally ugly and there are mallish exceptions, but it can be done and is being done. I just haven’t seen it downtown much.

  23. Steve > the exhibition makes clear that every community comes up with different solutions, but I think it also shows there are some common issues that are relevant many different suburban communities. Also, the official plan, which is what I am talking about here, applies the same principles to many different suburban arterials in many different kinds of neighbourhoods.

    Adam and Bob > that’s good, it would be great if the generic Toronto condo is being subverted into something interesting in suburban areas in a way that is not happening in central parts of the city. In a way, that reinforces the argument of the exhibit.

    I’m glad to see people are interested in this issue, this has been an interesting and varied discussion.

  24. Dylan,

    Let me ask again. In your opinion, what is it about the design of these spaces that make them appealing for chains as opposed to independents?

  25. Aiden,
    I really question whether some of the areas that you speak about have “higher than average proportion that do not own cars” compared to other downtown areas. Also, one thing that I think is missing from your list for most of these sites you identified is that they are sites of high density and/or they serve as destinations for outsiders that are quite accessible (some by transit, some by vehicle and some by both transit and vehicle.) Some people will hate me for pointing this out but virtually every site you identified has a great deal of parking availability (Green P Parking, or shopping centre lots). This is true for Chinatown, Danforth, Bloor West, Eglinton, even Kensington. Why is this noteworthy? Because it means that people from outside these areas are coming in and keeping them vital…and the parking (whether we like to admit it or not) is one of the features at these sites that allows this to happen. In terms of what I’ve mentioned, Leslieville may be the exception on your list…but then compared to the other sites you mentioned, Leslieville is perhaps the most unproven “success”.

  26. North York centre is a great counterexample. But “why did it get that way?” seems like a really important question.

    Is it a matter of density — high enough so that even “Sushi Bong” is a sure bet? Is there so much ground floor retail in the area that even Subway stopped needing more space? Or is it design — did developers lay out their ground floors differently, either because of a city edict or their own strategy? Did Mel Lastman slip through some kind of local tax holiday? Is there a different ownership mix for retail space?

    It’d be a big risk to rely on luck (or the magic of suburbs “subverting” the central city model) to get similar results for suburban avenues.

  27. I do not believe Dukes will have to pay dramatically increased taxes as you fear.

    Before the fire they would have been paying a fraction of their full taxes because they where still being phased in from the changes to CVA in 1998.

    When a new building it built it is preliminary given the unphased in CVA Tax rate which it the $95,000 you fear. However, Under Bill 140 MPAC will have to find some “comparable” properties and calculate the average percentage off the full CVA Tax that those properties get due to the phase in and give that percentage off to Duke’s new building.

    The result is taxes at a similar rate to what they had before.

  28. Glen – in terms of design, one key issue would be floorplate – developers generally prefer to create retail spaces with large floorplates which are more convenient for chain retailers with a particular formula. But for independents small floorplates are more accessible in terms of cost and other factors.

    But it’s also how the spaces are rented out. If they’re owned in bulk by a property company, it’s much simpler for them to rent out to known quantities (a chain) (see Richard’s comment above). But if the individual stores are owned independently, they’re more open to being independent shops, either from the owner themselves, or from a renter who develops a one-on-one relationship with the owner.

    None of this is absolute, of course, it’s just shifting the weight of probability.

    See also Matt L.’s comments – I think they’re relevant too.

  29. Glen, your Detroit comparison is beyond ridiculous. You moan about gridlock and in the same breath you moan about vehicular traffic falling 11%. You can’t have it both ways. Not only has transit ridership increased but more people are living downtown and doing their shopping by foot and/or bike, myself included. Isn’t that what we want?

  30. Dylan,

    As Matt pointed out, there are only so many Subway restaurants to go around. With so much vacant ground floor retail available one has to wonder if design is really an issue.


    MPAC must always use comparables. Bill 140 has nothing to do with that. It is the tax rate, not the assessment value, that is subject to capping.

  31. hunter,

    It is your reading comprehension that is ridiculous. Go back and re read what I wrote. I stated that the city, not me, is saying that grid lock in the core is an issue that is worse than ever. Yet statistics show that transit ridership is finally matching its all time high, tellingly from twenty years ago. At the same time vehicular traffic has declined by 11%. The statistics are at odds with what the city is saying. Yet the city persist with saying that downtown gridlock is an issue that needs to be addressed.

    At least Mayor Miller is enough of a realist to concede that congestion taxes need to be applied across the GTA. Perhaps he has seen what real congestion, like in the 905, looks like.

  32. Glen, you said that “If the 11% was replaced by other means. it would not be bad. The fact that it has not means that less people are travelling / working downtown. Twenty years ago there was more people coming into and out of downtown than do today. Sounds like Detroit.”

    The point is more people are LIVING downtown so they don’t need to drive or subway in. Toronto has its issues but show me an area in this city that resembles the bombed-out wastelands of Motor City.

    And yes, if you live or drive downtown you will agree that traffic is a problem. Gas prices may have finally reached the level necessary to mitigate that though. If we don’t retool regionally to adapt some areas such as Oshawa might begin to resemble Detroit and our overall economy will suffer as it is starting to already. But that’s another story, sort of.

  33. Re: Matt L’s post from above, asking questions about why some buildings seem to accommodate small scale retail. I have asked myself the same questions, but unfortunately don’t have a clue. I doubt it’s Mel, but I think it would be important to know, so that it can be emulated elsewhere as need be. For instance, the gruesome looking Bohemian on Queen would certainly be more acceptable if the retail were in line with what else in on Queen Street.

    I should emphasize that not all buildings in North York follow this model, but quite a few do, at both the northern and southern ends of North York Centre.

  34. Hunter, that 11% reduction is probably greater than the increase in residents in the core. Look at census numbers delineate those active in the workforce and remove those that work outside the core.

    The Detroit reference is drawing a parallel between the two cities. Both failed by being unable to attract jobs/investments. Detroit, because of crime. Toronto due to taxes.

  35. Re North York Centre, the pattern of retail vitality was probably set by the block on the S side of Spring Garden E of Yonge, where a surprising cohesive Asian retail nucleus blossomed some 20 years ago…