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Bayview-obsessed The Business of Leaside

Here at the “Business of Leaside,” we’re obsessed with the shops on Bayview. We’re continually asking ourselves the vexing questions that must be addressed for the street to be thriving as a retail destination in a city that’s full of them.

  • How can they be more successful?
  • How can they compete against the big stores over on Laird?
  • How can they bring back the good old days when retailers were booming?

The list goes on.

I lobbied for a stronger, more united retail community in this very column on several occasions before the adoption of the Bayview Leaside Business Improvement Area in 2015. Seeing Santa arrive on a horse-drawn carriage December 11 tells me the BIA understands there’s more to local retail than just opening the doors.

Still early days, I’m guardedly optimistic.

In the December issue of Leaside Life, Bosley Commercial Real Estate expert John Robb put the blame for Bayview’s demise squarely at the feet of the City of Toronto planning department, suggesting the department’s done very little to live up to its name.

Essentially, Robb argued that because the planning department won’t allow for retail stores anywhere other than on the main streets in the area such as Laird Dr., Eglinton Ave., and Bayview Ave., only the biggest and fanciest retailers can afford the rents charged by big-box landlords.

Earlier this year I wrote about the plight of personal trainer Kevin Charles, who runs My Personal Trainer from a first-floor warehouse studio at 28 Industrial St. Business thriving, Charles looked at renting the space at Parkhurst Blvd. and Laird currently occupied by Kaboom. Unfortunately, they were asking $12,000 per month or $72 per square foot. He ended his search in frustration.

Robb’s not wrong about the City’s failure to update zoning in employment areas to reflect a modern world where manufacturing and industrial-type jobs are simply not being created in the middle of a sprawling Toronto while service jobs in retail, hospitality, and leisure could be if only zoning rules entered the 21st century.

It’s one thing to suggest the City’s not meeting the needs of businesses in Toronto and quite another to blame the planning department for poor retailing practices.

But forget about that for a moment and consider a couple of problems on Bayview that contribute to the street’s demise:

Vacant storefronts

Although I haven’t done a count recently, there are easily a dozen storefronts sitting empty on Bayview between Davisville Rd. and Parkhurst Blvd. Once Cumbrae’s opens on the east side of the street, only that particular stretch from Millwood Rd. north to Fleming Cres. will be fully occupied.

The location that once housed a Brick Furniture store on the east side of Bayview Ave., north of Fleming Cres., has been empty for three years. Same deal for the below-grade retail spaces at the northwest corner of Bayview Ave. and Belsize Dr.

Why does a commercial real estate owner let this happen? You would think some rent is better than no rent. Yet these owners feel perfectly content to let their units stay vacant.

The City is guilty of contributing to this problem because in 2001, in an effort to help commercial property owners muddle through tough economic times, it implemented the Property Tax Rebate Program for Vacant Commercial and Industrial Buildings. Under the program building owners can apply for a 30% rebate on property taxes paid on vacant space that’s remained empty for at least a year despite best efforts to rent out the premises.

Mayor Tory has wisely called for an end to this silly tax break that’s denied the City approximately $28 million in property taxes annually since 2001. A quick chat with Councillor Burnside indicates it’s likely to happen in 2017.

“The negatives of this program are about more than just the lost cash. It also incentivizes bad behaviour,” wrote Metro News columnist Matt Elliott in the December 5 edition. “If you’re lucky enough to own a building in a growing neighbourhood, the tax break makes it more appealing to avoid the hassle of tenants and sit on your property for a few years, letting the value appreciate.”

Bayview’s got enough difficulties without property owners making it worse. Empty stores equals a poor shopping experience. It’s that simple.

Excessive rents

Rumour has it the owners of 1588 Bayview Ave., where the Elegant Garage was located until closing at the end of September after almost 40 years in business, have decreased the asking price for renting the space in a nod to actually filling It. If that’s true, it’s a move in the right direction.

Rents on Bayview are obscene.

Vero Trattoria closed in September owing $51,000, or $5,000 per month, in unpaid rent. In my April 2014 “Business of Leaside” column, I recommended that owners get realistic about rent, citing two below-grade units in the building mentioned above that were charging $57 per square foot for retail space that shoppers have historically ignored, including when it was a 7-Eleven.

Below-grade retail spaces generally only work for small restaurants or bars. The owner of the building needs to cut that in half until someone can prove the space isn’t haunted.

Once upon a time when Laird didn’t exist as a shopping node and e-commerce had yet to be invented, $5,000 in monthly rent might have been acceptable. Yes, the city has grown and with it, rents must too, but you also have to be able to prove that foot traffic on Bayview is sufficient to generate the $1,560 in daily revenue I estimate is necessary to be able to pay those rents and make a reasonable profit after deducting all business expenses.

If you’re a Bayview property owner I challenge you to show me numbers that justify the rents asked on the street.

Bottom line

There are a lot of reasons Bayview’s not the retail strip it once was – too many to cover in a year’s worth of columns, let alone one or two.

Yes, the City has a part to play in the street’s demise, but ultimately it all comes down to a willingness by merchants and restaurateurs to be better than their peers in other parts of the city and for property owners to be actual partners with their tenants, not just rent collectors.

Until that happens I just don’t see how Bayview can be a first-class shopping and dining destination.