Guidance and Governance

My last two articles have dealt with the challenge of ‘guiding’ development with the few municipal tools we have to build and preserve the ‘essence’ of our communities. While Cookstown seeks to preserve its historic character, Alcona struggles to capture and cultivate the essence of small-town Ontario. Our built environment is a lasting expression of the way we wish to live. It’s too important to be warped by the forces of wealth, politics and greed.

Yet, if you read my last article, High Rent Blight, current policies look inadequate to encourage, much less achieve the results we want. It’s too easy and too common for greed and speculation to rip up a commercial district and entirely change the character of a neighbourhood. Or in Alcona’s case, distort it from the outset.

In Ontario (and other jurisdictions), tax policy encourages landlords to let commercial spaces sit empty. Absentee landlords have no particular interest in, knowledge of, or commitment to our community, certainly no vision, considering the state of Alcona’s or Cookstown’s commercial core. Idly dreaming of the day a property can be leased to a national chain at GTA rates is not an acceptable strategy.

So, let’s pick up where I left off. Here are solutions proposed and discussed in The New Yorker article I quoted previously: 

  • Regulation of leases: mandatory mediation and arbitration of lease renewal disputes to limit rent spikes
  • Allow pop-up stores temporary access to vacant spaces
  • Zoning rules: encourages landlords to quit waiting for the jackpot and to start renting
  • Fines: for landlords who leave storefronts abandoned

In Ontario, we need to repeal the property tax benefit for vacant commercial properties. In other jurisdictions, many U.S. cities side-step the issue with a Vacant Property Registry bylaw. An annual fee can be as high as $6,000 aimed at preventing derelict buildings. In some places, the Registry fee increases every year.

It would make sense to combine these approaches. Commercial cores could be zoned as “Priority Commercial” areas where vacant properties are subject to a significant ‘Vacancy’ or ‘Idle Asset’ fee, which would apply after 4 months and increase every 4 months afterward for up to two years. Landlords would have an incentive to lease at realistic rates appropriate to prevailing local conditions. Meanwhile, the Town could use the Registry revenues to search for appropriate tenants, support pop-up stores, or fund new place-making initiatives. This would provide a mechanism to moderate lease rates to local conditions, stimulate local economic activity and create some local employment.

We also need some kind of mechanism to ensure opportunity for a reasonable and permanent mix of local, independent businesses. The Town might use zoning to require a better variety of different-sized retail spaces in new developments, or the Town might participate as a development partner to exert more influence on design and leases. Innisfil could consider creating an independent development company to invest in strategic properties and jump-start innovative commercial development appropriate to the community. Or a community-based coop or social enterprise might step in to do the same.

We can see what is ineffective, even counter-productive. Cities and towns need innovators to pioneer new policies and practices that firmly and effectively guide change benefiting everyone.

Related: Places to Grow & the Sunship Model (January 2014)


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