The latest in Catherine Porter’s series on neighbourhoods in the Toronto Star is below…
Also, we had such a great response from DECA members about recommendations for contractors we’re now looking for photographers to do casual family photos. I’ll start by suggesting Stephen Caissie. He’s a DECA member and has donated a lot of his fine work to this here blog and to some of our Business Revitalization Team projects.
Stephen also posts a lot of his local photos to the Art of the Danforth flickr page that is featured on the DECA Diaries blog. Yes, if you actually visit the blog’s website instead of just reading it on your e-mail, you will see the link to these photos and gosh darn it, some of these pics are pretty awesome.
If you have further recommendations, please post them on them on the blog and share the love.
Locals Exasperated By Derelict Gerrard St. E. Storefronts and Buildings
By Catherine Porter
Inside Lazy Daisy’s Café, Dawn Chapman serves up foamy lattes, Lindt chocolate croissants and curried cauliflower soup.
Outside, the street serves up desolation and despair.
The once-mighty Little India bazaar on Gerrard St. E. is now riddled with dirty, derelict storefronts, many of which have seen no tenants besides roosting pigeons for years.
“That building is my major beef,” Chapman says, looking out her café window at the shell of a giant household items store. Its windows are grubby, the floors inside dirty and strewn with mop buckets and fire extinguishers. From this, you might think the owner was cleaning it up for a new tenant. Except it has looked like this for four years now, Chapman says — a museum set for the recession.
“It’s ridiculous,” says Chapman, who opened her little café last October. “Why should he be allowed to bring down my neighbourhood? We have to make a law to push landlords to upkeep their properties.”
Winnipeg has such a law. It’s called the Vacant and Derelict Buildings Bylaw. It requires landlords of empty buildings to pay for an annual city inspection and permit, starting at $2,000 the first year and rising to $6,500 the fourth. Landlords who repeatedly don’t respond to repair orders issued by inspector have their property seized by the city and sold off.
Most of the buildings in question are run-down gang houses in the city’s north end. But the bylaw can been used against derelict storefronts too. This week, the city took action against two downtown hotels.
“This is the part I like,” Chapman says, pointing to the City of Winnipeg’s website. Among the bylaw’s six intents, one reads: “Contribute positively to neighbourhood renewal by discouraging vacant buildings to remain inactive for extended periods of time.”
Her point: all it takes to transform a safe, vibrant main street into “da hood” is a few empty, dirty storefronts. They may be private property, but they affect the public space. We all walk down that street, we catch the streetcar there, we shop and dine and talk to our neighbours . . . until it starts to look rundown and ugly and maybe not so safe, in which case, we scurry elsewhere.
Main streets are the village squares of Toronto’s neighbourhoods, but they are privately owned.
Here, a commercial building can sit empty for years with no repercussions. In fact, the city offers landlords a one-third property-tax cut if they can’t find a tenant. But what if a landlord simply doesn’t want to rent out the space? I talked to one Gerrard St. E. landlord who says he hasn’t found the right tenant for 10 years. Ten years! He should have bought a mausoleum.
Another landlord who owns an empty building on Danforth Ave. near Woodbine says she wasn’t comfortable renting the space out to a stranger. She’d rather it remained empty, losing money.
Locals living near Gerrard recently formed a residents’ association, the Gerrard East Community Organization. They too want to revitalize their strip. Their proposal: cover the empty storefronts with wooden boards, painted by local artists and children.
It worked in Seattle’s Columbia City neighbourhood seven years ago. There, the locals painted what they wanted to see inside those stores on the plywood window coverings: an ice cream shop, a toy store, a dance studio. The murals looked so realistic, drivers started pulling over to shop in the real establishments.
“It was just amazing how it visually changed that block,” recalls Jim Diers, the former director of Seattle’s Department of Neighbourhoods. (Can you believe they have something like that? Stay tuned, I’ll get back to Diers in a later column.) “It looked alive, and within a year, we had to take down every one of those murals because businesses were coming back.
“They were signs that people cared about the place, that is wasn’t unsafe. And that makes a big difference.”
In Seattle, the neighbours got a small government grant to cover their supplies. The residents around Gerrard St. were hoping for some money and support from the local Gerrard India Bazaar Business Improvement Association, which has a $200,000 annual budget it spends on things like street flowers.
That doesn’t look likely.
“It’s a good idea,” says general manager Subbu Chintaluri. “But, as far as I’m concerned, the property owners should take it up by themselves.”
If the property owners can’t find the energy or money for a bottle of Windex, how likely is it they will pay for art and wood supplies?
Positive change doesn’t happen by itself. It has to be attentively coaxed.