Patios, bike lanes and parklets: How COVID-19 may actually save Toronto’s main streets

August 29, 2020 By Tessa Kalinowski, The pandemic has broken Laura Sellors’s hungry heart. She loves the city’s food scene and has watched with dismay as the restaurant industry, an underpinning of main street life in Toronto, struggles under the COVID-19 closure and restricted openings. “The reality is there will be tons of
vacancies across main streets in Toronto or any other city in Canada,” said Sellors, a partner in Entro, a design firm that specializes in branding buildings and neighbourhoods.

“It’s such a shame those are the folks affected — that and the cultural sector,” she said.

The upside is there will be new opportunities for start-ups in markets that will be reinvented, said Sellors. She is impressed, however, with the creativity that has brought some main streets back to life this summer. The city’s CafeTO program has seen 715 restaurants spill outdoor seating onto the sidewalks and curb lanes, along with 44 parklets that encourage people to linger longer on the streets. Layered with lighting, planter boxes and signage, they are the features that create a street’s identity, making it attractive to people, said Sellors. Toronto’s main streets such as Danforth Avenue, Roncesvalles Avenue, Bloor Street West and Queen East and West are a key part of the city’s brand — residents identify with them as the jewels of their neighbourhoods. But many stretches were already struggling to compete with internet shopping, high rents and taxes before COVID-19. Now they are faced with the loss of some defining businesses. Designers, planners, merchants’ associations and politicians say it is critical that the city’s main streets are still lively hubs of commerce and community when people feel safe to go out again. The problem, said Sellors, is that “We’re coming into winter. The shelf life of this patio experience is so short.” Many merchants have used their reserves surviving the spring and summer. There isn’t much left for the colder months. “There is no way businesses like that are equipped to sustain themselves for six months. A local restaurant or shop – if you don’t have customers coming in every day there is very little chance you can survive beyond a month, two months at best,” she said.

The challenge on main street isn’t new, said Toronto’s chief planner Gregg Lintern. He doesn’t minimize the current distress of main street businesses but says high streets are resilient. Historically they have found ways to survive because they serve a purpose.

“Living and working locally is an old-fashioned concept … (that) makes sense environmentally, makes sense from a transportation point of view,” he said. That is why main streets were able to compete even after the post-war proliferation of cars that suddenly saw shoppers flock to suburban shopping centres. Increasingly, the main street concept is being translated to suburban settings. The Shops at Don Mills, a mall at Don Mills Road and Lawrence Avenue East, has lined its streets with upscale outdoor offerings and twinkling patio eateries this summer. Toronto developer Leith Moore is less optimistic about the survival of the pre-COVID main street. “Anybody who didn’t know they could get everything delivered before (COVID), knows now,” he said. He thinks that live-work spaces are one way of staving off empty storefronts. His company R-Hauz is building a prototype of a pre-fabricated structure on Queen Street East. The pre-fab panels of R-Hauz designs provide faster, quieter construction because they are built off-site and then assembled on the building plot. The concept allows for different building configurations up to six storeys. Part of the answer to empty storefronts, said Moore, is to design buildings that can cycle through the good and bad times. He said Toronto zoning needs to be more permissive in allowing smaller street-facing storefronts with private space at the back and rental housing above to provide additional income. “If you’re an entrepreneur, you can’t afford to rent a home and a business location. If you can combine them you can make a go of it,” he said. “You can have a bedroom at the back, the middle is your flex space — your kitchen (or) office during the day — the front remains to the street if you’re an office, an artist, a retailer.” Lintern says it’s tricky to balance residential and working spaces. “Retail and restaurants are more animating. When it tilts too far to people living, it can have a deadening effect on the activity,” he said. The Canadian Urban Institute (CUI) is running a Bring Back Main Street campaign designed to provide policy and design recommendations that will nurture main streets across the country. Its CEO, Mary Rowe, said cities need to be vigilant about making sure that the solutions that have proved successful so far — things like takeout wine and beer — are allowed to continue. Because COVID has altered people’s attitudes about how far and how often they want to leave their homes, that could actually nourish main streets as gathering places and centres of commerce, she said. Some businesses with marginal cash flow will succumb. But other small businesses with strong local connections may actually have the upper hand on less nimble, more distant chains, said Rowe. COVID is an opportunity in which consumers suddenly place more value on shops and services that are close and familiar, she said. “If you didn’t want to deal with the risks of going to Costco or a large grocery store or you didn’t want to deal with the lineups or you just didn’t want the hassle of actually getting there, all of a sudden the corner grocer who’s a block from you, where they’re only letting two people in — where you see the produce coming in and out and you know the owner — that relationship becomes much more crucial to people’s understanding of how they want to survive,” said Rowe. Danforth Avenue has been one of this summer’s most successful main street comeback stories despite recent losses such as the 33-year-old Pappas Grill. A pilot project by the city to transform Danforth into a “complete street” friendly to cyclists, pedestrians and cars, has boosted its resilience. There are still challenges ahead though, said Albert Stortchak, the owner of Der Dietemann Antiques for 30 years, who chairs the Broadview Danforth Business Improvement Area (BIA). After a spring lockdown, this summer’s reopening has been an especially welcome relief, made all the more pleasant by the acceleration of the city’s Destination Danforth pilot project, including new bike lanes, banners and beautification, and a healthy take up of the CafeTO program, he said. There are 18 CafeTO patios and a parklet in Stortchak’s BIA that runs east-west along the Danforth from Broadview Avenue to Hampton Avenue, according to the city. There are another 57 along the stretch to the east. Those numbers don’t include private restaurant patios that aren’t part of the CafeTO program or small frontage seating where a proprietor has positioned a couple of chairs and tables outside. “A couple of blocks between Hampton and Bowden the whole block has been closed off. It looks good. It has a wonderful feel to it,” said Stortchak. “People have embraced it,” he said. “Our concern is that things look good right now — we’re in Stage 3, we’re moving forward, the patios are open and people are out. But people are still reluctant to go back to the restaurants.” What happens, he said, if the weather doesn’t co-operate through the fall, if there’s a second wave of COVID in addition to the flu season. “It won’t help our restaurants if the (COVID) numbers tick up,” said Stortchak. Destination Danforth is designed to connect the transportation flow along the street from Dawes Road to Broadview Avenue, including separated bike lanes. It spans four different BIAs each identified under separate coloured street banners, said city councillor Paula Fletcher, who called it the city’s most ambitious “complete streets” program to date. She said the Danforth was overdue for an upgrade 27 years after the Taste of the Danforth festival (cancelled this year) was founded to promote the street and the city’s Greek culture. “People come to the Danforth once a year for Taste. We want them to come more than once a year,” said Fletcher. Destination Danforth makes the street safer and more inviting for cyclists, pedestrians and cars, she said. But in rulebound Toronto, Fletcher said the project likely wouldn’t have been built as quickly and seamlessly if the city hadn’t recognized the merchants’ struggle, which converged with the need for transportation alternatives because people weren’t riding the TTC. “When we started the Danforth study — now Destination Danforth — we were going to do little pieces and parts, odds and sods, with it. But this approach of just grabbing a really big piece and bringing everyone together and saying let’s make this the best possible, that’s COVID related,” said Fletcher. She thinks the project has set a precedent that businesses and residents will expect after the need for physical distancing has passed. “Moving patios into the curb lane, that’s pretty exciting. Having parklets anywhere where you have the cafes, that’s going to be interesting,” said Fletcher. “This is something that I don’t think will change after COVID.” Stortchak praised the city and government assistance programs that have helped BIA members stay afloat. But he wonders what happens when CafeTO folds on Nov. 16. “Once the parking comes back, the planters will be taken up and it will revert back to a traditional streetscape with bike and parking and traffic,” he said. “It’s not going to look as attractive,” said Stortchak. Merchants are hoping the city will consider renewing the café program next year. Meantime, the BIA will need money to activate the Danforth in cold weather. The business group is already working on next year’s financial plan and, “out of necessity it will be an austerity budget,” said Stortchak. LIGHT IT UP: Lighting draws people into a space and makes them feel safe, especially in winter, says Entro partner Laura Sellors. She acknowledged that lighting costs money but, “somebody should do a return-on-investment analysis.” Sellors pointed to the Bentway, one of Toronto’s hippest spaces for skating, warming stations and events. “If there’s no lighting you would never go under the Gardiner,” she said. RECONSIDER WINTER: The climate is changing. That means there are only a few days a year when cycling isn’t feasible, said Toronto chief planner Gregg Lintern. “There’s no question the new cycling facilities can be cleaned and plowed and maintained so people can still cycle,” he said. “We know there is a strong relationship between cycling and retail and restaurants. There are some studies that show people frequent retail more often on a bike than they do in a car.” Another winter city, Copenhagen, uses outdoor heaters, umbrellas and blankets to provide comfort to cold customers, said Matt Blackett, a founder of Spacing magazine. Streetside patios might not be practical because you would need barriers to protect diners from the splash of passing cars, he said. But the city might consider allowing winter patios in laneways and converting some Green P parking into dining spaces or markets. IN THE MEANTIME: Empty stores and vacant lots that deaden a street, can be converted to what planners are calling “meanwhile spaces.” Lintern says examples already exist in Toronto, notably the Stackt shipping container market at Bathurst and Front streets. It stands on an empty city plot designated to later become a park. Sellors says community groups, landlords and other partners can be enlisted to animate vacant spaces, turning them into activity hubs, galleries or even just decorating the windows. TOUCHLESS TECH: COVID has people seeking more space with touchless access. Touch screens will disappear, said Sellors. She suggested that doors could be pedal operated or motion activated. QR codes can be used to access the menu at the local pub or add to the street experience by letting you scan a lamp post with your phone to learn about the history of the neighbourhood, for example. “It’s like a car that unlocks and your keys are in your purse. Those are the things that make the user experience so much better and easier to go to,” said Sellors. Tess Kalinowski is a Toronto-based reporter covering real estate for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @tesskalinowski

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