How the Danforth East Pop-Up Project Moved Grassroots Practice to Policy Change

Three strategies for systems impact

Metcalf’s Inclusive Local Economies Program supports strategies that can create sustainable economic opportunities for low-income people and communities in Toronto. The Foundation is keenly interested in how innovations that succeed at the neighbourhood level can be scaled up and translated into the broader landscape of public policy, research, and community action. The Danforth East Pop-Up Project, a Metcalf grantee since late 2012, provides a compelling case study of this process in practice.

The Pop-Up Project was launched in 2012, when volunteers from the Danforth East Community Association (DECA) sought to rejuvenate a declining commercial area in their east Toronto neighbourhood by matching empty storefronts with local entrepreneurs. Their “Pop-Up” pitch seemed like a win-win proposition: entrepreneurs could test their businesses before investing in more permanent locations, landlords would benefit from their newly spruced-up storefronts, and the appearance of new businesses would encourage neighbourhood residents to shop locally. However, a lingering tax rebate for vacant retail properties presented a substantial barrier to the project’s ability to succeed.

“Because of this rebate, landlords were sometimes reluctant to rent to our project,” explains Gay Stephenson of WoodGreen Community Services, a partner organization with DECA in the Pop-Up Project. “But we knew that if we pushed for changes to the provincial legislation, we could help solve the problem of the vacancies rate and share this model with other communities.”

In February 2017, Pop-Up Project staff and volunteers celebrated a substantial victory when Toronto Council voted to request a change to the provincial rebate. After years of groundwork, the group was successful in laying the foundation for a shift in government policy.

The Pop-Up Project’s long-term success was derived from three key strategies:

An empty storefront; Pop-Up Project staff and volunteers revamp a business.

1. Adopt an Experimental Mindset

When the Pop-Up Project began, tenants were offered one-month leases free of charge. This short timeline quickly proved unsustainable for both landlords and tenants, who struggled to get their bearings under such a tight deadline.

Pop-Up Project staff and volunteers realized that a flexible approach would be necessary. They negotiated alternate rental periods with landlords that would give tenants enough time to properly gauge their business’ feasibility. Tenants would also pay rent, as well as any utilities costs requested by the landlord. Fewer tenants applied to the project after these changes were made, but the ones that did were more invested in their businesses and better set up for success.

Staff and volunteers’ willingness to adapt and shift their strategies paved the way for the project’s transformative effects. Over three years, the storefront vacancy rate for Danforth East dropped from 17% to 6% (below the City of Toronto’s average of 9%). Every storefront that participated was filled, and six pop-ups chose to stay on as full-time tenants. The Pop-Up project’s success was now ready to be shared and replicated.

Pop-Up participant Maggie Krawczyk; local restaurant owners.

2. Connect with Everyone

The Pop-Up Project’s staff and volunteers understood that impacting policy often requires multiple, well-aligned efforts by many partners, including local residents, non-profits, businesses, and government.

Staff were skilled in advocacy, and they actively involved local politicians in their work from the very beginning. They made deputations on the tax rebate to the City’s Economic Development Committee each year between 2012-15, and connected with municipal and provincial staff in the interim. The team’s efforts paid off — their work was cited in a 2014 staff report that was presented to City Council, and it became part of the policy’s review at City Hall.

The group also sought to explore new relationships outside of their traditional circles. “It was an economic development project, and the links to the private sector were crucial,” explains Diane Dyson, Director of Research & Public Policy at WoodGreen. Pop-Up Project representatives even attended a conference organized by the Retail Council of Canada, where they presented on the project and exchanged ideas during a tabling session. “It’s not too common to see non-profits at local business conference,” admits Dyson. “We learned a lot from one another.”

Social and traditional media were crucial aspects of expanding their message beyond their neighbourhood’s boundaries. The team’s active Twitter account chronicled their ongoing efforts and shared opportunities to get involved with issues around local entrepreneurship, neighbourhood economies, and advocacy around the vacancy tax rebate. The Pop-Up Project was also lucky to count journalist Catherine Porter among its original founders. Porter wrote several articles on the initiative in the Toronto Star, leading to snowballing coverage on the CBC, Metro News, Global, and other major outlets.

Perhaps most importantly, staff and volunteers sought to connect with, and build goodwill between local businesses — especially among those that weren’t actually participating in their project. Staff and volunteers understood that pop-up shops were just one tactic for improving their neighbourhood’s local economy, so they harnessed their volunteers’ professional expertise with graphic design, communications, and outreach to launch lively “shop local” events and campaigns that could strengthen an enduring sense of community between residents and businesses.

Attendees at the "Building Vibrant Main Streets and the Power of Local” symposium.

3. Share the Learning

The Pop-Up Project originally took its inspiration from a similar endeavour in Australia, so staff and volunteers recognized the value of sharing their work with people interested in replicating their success. Once the Pop-Up Project model proved to be highly successful in the East Danforth area, Metcalf encouraged its leaders to think about how their project could expand to other neighbourhoods.

Staff and volunteers developed a free pop-up shop toolkit to extend their reach to communities across the country. A partnership with Ryerson University’s School of Retail Management also enabled the group to build a digital knowledge hub and create new learning materials.

In May 2015, the group organized a public forum to spread their message to thought leaders in the GTA. “Building Vibrant Main Streets and the Power of Local” connected 150 representatives from community groups, residents’ associations, BIAs, non-profits, and government agencies.

With elected officials and broad constituencies championing the cause, the Danforth East Pop-Up Project successfully laid the foundation to shift government policy. Given the province’s approval, Toronto will be in a position to end the vacancy tax rebate by the end of 2017.

For more information on the Danforth East Pop-Up Shop Project, and their toolkit, visit