In December 2016, Toronto Mayor John Tory announced he would call for the repeal of a provincially imposed commercial vacancy tax rebate.
Unless you’re a real estate broker or a commercial landlord, you are likely unfamiliar with this particular piece of policy. The rebate subsidizes landlords whose storefronts sit empty by refunding 30% of their property taxes. It was designed during an economic downturn as a means to keep owners afloat during tough times. However, Toronto is currently experiencing significant economic growth, and instead of sustaining local businesses, the rebate largely acts as a disincentive to lease empty spaces. It’s been identified as a major reason that storefronts lay fallow.
“Because of this rebate, landlords were basically treating their properties as a safety deposit box,” explains Diane Dyson, Director of Research and Public Policy at WoodGreen Community Services.
WoodGreen and the Danforth East Community Association (DECA) have devoted years of work towards ensuring the rebate’s retraction. It began in 2012, when the two organizations partnered to launch the Danforth East Pop-Up Project to revitalize their neighbourhood’s declining commercial areas. The concept was simple — empty storefronts were matched with local entrepreneurs, who would then occupy the spaces on a temporary basis — and it seemed like a win-win proposition. The new tenants could test out their shop idea before investing in a more permanent location, landlords would benefit from their newly spruced-up storefronts, and the appearance of new shops would help to renew the neighbourhood’s declining commercial areas.
But after speaking with the landlords, project staff realized that many preferred to hold onto their vacancy rebate. The policy was a large obstacle, one they’d have to overcome to successfully scale their project.
Since late 2012, Metcalf has funded the Danforth East Pop-Up Project under its Inclusive Local Economies Program. The Foundation is particularly interested in how policy change happens from the local level: how organizations connect groundwork to systems change, and perhaps equally, what’s learned along the way.
Here are four key elements of the Danforth East Pop-Up Project’s success:
The Pop-Up Shop Philosophy:
2. Connect with everyone
3. Share the learning
4. Build the momentum for systemic change
The Danforth East Pop-up Project operated within an experimental space from its inception. As a unique commercial tenancy model, it fits within the movement toward alternative and innovative economies. “The project was iterative by design,” explains Dyson, “and this experimental approach has continued.”
Nontraditional projects often require a strong foundation of open communication and community goodwill to acquire the necessary buy-in. The Pop-Up Project benefitted from its partner organizations’ respective strengths: DECA arrived with a committed volunteer base, while WoodGreen brought its institutional resources. Project staff were able to harness this joint capacity to effectively make their case when approaching their first round of potential tenants and landlords.
The project was founded upon a comprehensive strategy, but responsiveness and flexibility proved crucial in the project’s early days. Storefront spaces were originally offered to tenants free of charge for one month, as the pop-ups were intended to act as placeholders until more established businesses moved in. However, the first incubated pop-up struggled with the short time frame. It opened its doors in February — a typically poor month for retail sales — and equipment issues sidelined operations for much of their tenancy. Subsequent businesses also didn’t gain traction the way that organizers had hoped.
The group quickly altered their approach. Tenants would now pay rent, as well as any utilities costs requested by the landlord. The tenancy length was expanded to six months, providing renters with enough time to properly gauge their new business’ feasibility. Fewer tenants applied to the project after these changes were made, but the ones who did were fully committed to their business concepts.
Staff and volunteers’ willingness to shift their strategies ultimately paved the way for the project’s transformative effects. Within three years, the vacancy rate for Danforth East dropped from 17% to 6% (below the City average of 9%). Today, every storefront that participated in the project are leased, and six participating pop-ups chose to stay on as full-time tenants.
Connect with everyone
Impacting policy often requires multiple, well-aligned efforts by many partners — including local residents, non-profits, businesses, and government — and each relationship has to be continually negotiated to achieve sustainable change.
The Pop-Up Project’s staff and volunteers were committed to establishing and preserving close relationships between these various groups. Early on, they sought to build goodwill between local businesses, especially those that weren’t participating in the project. DECA harnessed their volunteers’ skills with graphic design, communications, and outreach to launch “shop local” events and campaigns that would build community between residents and business.
Next, the group met with Business Improvement Areas to share their strategies and experiences. “The BIA’s weren’t so interested in how to run a pop-up shop,” notes Dyson. “They were engaged with the larger question of ‘how do you renew commercial streets?” As a result of these conversations, both parties expanded their vision for the project’s potential.
The group also sought to explore new relationships outside of their traditional wheelhouse. “It was an economic development project, but the links to the private sector were crucial,” says Dyson. Representatives attended a conference organized by the Retail Council of Canada, where they presented on the pop-up project and exchanged ideas during a tabling session.” “It’s not too common to see nonprofits at local business conference,” laughs Dyson. “We all learned a lot.”
Share the Learning
The Danforth East Pop-Up Project originally took its inspiration from a similar endeavour in Newcastle, Australia. From the beginning, program staff and volunteers recognized the value of sharing their work with people and groups who were interested in replicating their success. “We knew that if we could solve the problem of the high vacancy rate, then we could push it out to others,” says Dyson.
Project staff mentored other local renewal efforts in communities like Weston-Mount Dennis. To ensure they could provide this guidance on an ongoing basis, they brought in committed DECA volunteers who were ready to support this work. This lateral knowledge sharing was also strengthened substantially with the development of an online and hardcopy pop-up shop toolkit.
In May 2015, the group organized a public forum to spread their message to thought leaders from across the GTA. “Building Vibrant Main Streets and the Power of Local” connected 150 representatives from community groups, residents’ associations, BIA’s, nonprofits, and government agencies. A keynote speech from Chief City Planner Jennifer Keesmaat, titled “Creating Walkable Communities and Vibrant Main Streets for All” lent further support to their vision.
Build the Momentum for Systemic Change
DECA was founded and run by volunteers, whose commitment to continually bring new supporters into their fold increased their ranks exponentially. Likewise, the WoodGreen-DECA group sought to develop a critical mass of support to tip the scale in their favour for the necessary policy change.
Social media played a large part in amplifying the project’s reach and connecting them to new supporters for their advocacy efforts. DECA has long employed social media as a tool to connect with new volunteers and maintain excitement among existing supporters. Nearly 1,000 people subscribe to their blog, which shares local events and activities, and they now boast over 4,000 followers on Twitter.
Traditional media was also a crucial aspect of expanding their message beyond their neighbourhood’s boundaries. “One of the early key ingredients for success was the media play,” notes Dyson. “We could really build that excitement, and watch it spread.” DECA was lucky to count journalist Catherine Porter among its early supporters. Porter wrote several positive pieces in the Toronto Star, leading to snowballing coverage on the CBC, Metro News, Global, and other major outlets.
Project staff were skilled in advocacy and policy change, and from the beginning, they actively involved local politicians in their work. “The local councillors were there from the early days, but as we began to share our learning, other councillors wanted to get involved,” says Dyson. “They’ve been instrumental in helping bring about change at the city level, and encouraging this project to expand to new areas through city-run initiatives.”
Councillor Janet Davis met with the group several times, and ultimately asked the group to participate in a workgroup through the City’s Economic Development Committee. This resulted in a 2014 report, “Re-designing the Vacant Commercial and Industrial Tax Relief Program to Stimulate Economic Growth,” which was presented to Council and became part of the policy’s eventual review at City Hall.
With elected officials and broad constituencies championing their cause, the group had successfully built the critical mass required to shift policy at the city level. “We’ve made the case, now we just have to wait to see if the Province follows through,” says Dyson.