EcDev Journal

Three Point Recovery Plan for the Downtown Yonge Business Improvement Area

Posted on Tuesday December 29, 2020

By: Natasha Apollonova, Eli Levin, Matthew Mohan, and Olusegun Villasa 

Natasha, Eli, Matthew, and Olusegun are recent graduates of Ryerson University’s Local Economic Development certificate program, where they worked together to assess the impact of COVID-19 on the health and vibrancy of the Downtown Yonge Business Improvement Area (DYBIA), one of Canada’s busiest and most vibrant economic and cultural corridors.

Abstract

Downtown Yonge Business Improvement Area (DYBIA) worked with a team of students at the Ryerson University Local Economic Development Certificate Program in the summer of 2020 to evaluate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on DYBIA’s key commercial corridor and to recommend practical interventions. To evaluate the impact, the authors undertook a comprehensive literature review, conducted walkthroughs of the study area,[i] undertook business and consumer sentiment surveys, and reviewed pedestrian counts, commercial vacancies, transit usage, and residential real estate trends. The authors proposed three recommendations for DYBIA: (1) advocate city council for a repurposed street that is COVID-19 compliant; (2) improve the perception of public safety by participating in outreach work for the homeless population; and (3) develop a DYBIA dashboard to track key performance indicators. These solutions aim to bring back pedestrian foot traffic to the area to ensure longevity and vibrancy for DYBIA in a COVID-19 world. The authors hope these recommendations can be applicable and adopted by other Business Improvement Areas (BIAs) across Canada.

Keywords: COVID-19 Recovery Plan for BIAs, DYBIA, BIA, Main Street, Foot Traffic

Introduction

Similar to other “Main Streets” and BIAs across Canada, DYBIA has been negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Ryerson University, one of DYBIA’s largest foot traffic contributors, shifted all classes online; foot traffic from commuting office workers vanished as non-retail businesses transitioned to a work-from-home arrangement; tourism flows have significantly declined as border closures and health risks have kept both domestic and international tourists at bay while many cultural events, such as Pride and Caribana, have been postponed or outright canceled. Many businesses have responded by laying off staff, reducing hours of operation, and in some cases, closing their doors permanently. This bleak reality is well-captured through the data: as of August 2020, despite an impressive recovery in foot traffic, foot traffic figures were still 38% below pre-COVID-19 levels and 66% below prior year’s summer, when tourism traffic was at its peak (see diagram #1). A spatial assessment of a 1 kilometer stretch along Yonge Street, between Queen Street and College Street, showed 26 stores to be vacant (either temporarily closed or boarded up - see diagram #2). A sample survey of 20 retail stores showed a 57% decline in weekly hours of operation (primarily on weekends - see diagram #3) and a look at above-ground public transit ridership suggested rush-hour utilization rates that were less than 20% of pre-pandemic levels (see diagram #4).

COVID-19 vaccines look promising.  Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna were approved by Health Canada, while Oxford-AstraZeneca, has shown promising phase 3 trial results – mass vaccination of the population will begin in December 2020 and is expected to take at least 6-12 months to be fully implemented. This timeline suggests that the COVID-19 realities focused on physical distancing, lockdowns brought forth by new waves, and work/study from home arrangements are here to stay in the short to medium term. This will mean ongoing uncertainty and reduced foot traffic for BIAs and their businesses with a possibility that foot traffic will never return to pre-COVID-19 levels if some of the changes brought forth by COVID-19 remain permanent (e.g. work/study from home arrangement). Changes to foot traffic have been further exacerbated by a worsening perception of public safety and street vibrancy as COVID-19-induced shelter capacity reductions and health concerns are driving individuals living in homelessness to opt instead for outdoor encampments set up at parks and/or near social services (see diagram #5).

DYBIA will need to adjust to this new norm – this article puts forward three recommendations for DYBIA over the next 12 months: 

1)    Advocate City Council for a Repurposed Street that is COVID-19 Compliant

Recognizing the challenge of generating pedestrian traffic on Main Street during a pandemic, the authors encourage DYBIA to rethink the design and usage of the built environment to support health & safety protocols. Specifically, the authors recommend two approaches: 1) reallocating more road space for pedestrian use and 2) adoption of an in-person, micro-events model.

The push for pedestrianization of Main Streets is not a new concept in Toronto. In recent years, “pedestrian priority” zones dedicated to pedestrian spaces have been key components of projects such as the King Street Pilot Project (2017) and YongeTOmorrow (2018). Through observational walkthroughs of the study area, the authors identified reduced vehicle traffic as an opportunity for closing the curb lanes along Yonge St., between Queen St. and Gerard St. This would widen the pedestrian right-of-way, allowing more people to safely navigate the sidewalks. Also, a wider streetscape would allow businesses to animate underutilized streetscapes (e.g. patio, outdoor fitness classes), enhancing customers’ buying experience.

An in-person, micro-events model that adheres to public health & safety measures on outdoor social gatherings could be made possible by DYBIA’s large open space areas like College Park and Yonge-Dundas Square. These areas act as natural multi-use convergence points for pedestrian traffic while possessing supportive design for physical distancing (e.g. size, multiple access points, containable). Currently, these two open areas are underutilized, and space animation of these spaces should be considered as a way to generate foot traffic during off-peak hours. In-person, micro-events can be safely delivered in these spaces through pre-registration (to monitor capacity), setting up of handwashing and sanitation stations, temperature checks, and traffic flow signage on the floor and alongside fencing. DYBIA should explore expanding permitted uses within open and green spaces to include year-round retail programming and activities such as pop-up markets and kiosks.

2)    Improve the Perception of Public Safety by Participating in Outreach Work for the Homeless Population

Observational and business survey data collected pointed to issues relating to petty crime (e.g. shoplifting, loitering), increased visibility of homelessness, and a reduced perception of public safety. While a “Law & Order” approach, say using increased security patrol along Yonge Street may be warranted if crimes escalate to more violent or vandalizing levels, it is unlikely to succeed in addressing the root causes contributing to homelessness, which often emanates from mental health and addiction challenges and a lack of low-cost housing. A more productive and humanistic approach would be to contribute to homeless population outreach efforts via a DYBIA-sponsored mobile outreach program. A mobile outreach program would comprise of volunteers and paid staff (if budget allows) that roam homeless encampments and other focal points for the homeless population and offer services that address immediate needs.

Petty crime such as shoplifting often arises from desperation for food or goods that can be sold for cash to meet other needs. A mobile outreach program is anticipated to get ahead of such behaviour by distributing heavily discounted (or free, if budget allows) meals, clothing, and household items typically sold by BIA members. Another immediate need that could be serviced is harm reduction - pedestrians naturally and justifiably get uncomfortable by the sight of used needles scattered along a sidewalk, individuals consuming drugs in public spaces, and emergency service workers treating overdosed individuals. This could be mitigated through services such as a clean-needle exchange, distribution of naloxone kits and generally encouraging individuals to utilize locally available supervised consumption sites (or at minimum not using alone). While informational services may be less impactful, homelessness will ultimately be reduced when individuals can be permanently housed and so referrals to non-profit housing providers may be helpful (although individuals are likely to face long wait-lists). A better-funded BIA budget could allow for a paid staff of case managers, nurses, counselors, and/or psychiatrists who can provide more intensive mobile supports, test for COVID-19, and/or administer vaccines (once they become available) while developing longer-term relationships with the homeless population.

A mobile outreach program could also be an opportunity for skill-development and a pathway into employment for homeless folks. Lower-need individuals that may not require intensive supports (e.g. mental health) could be recruited into the mobile outreach program as volunteers (or paid workers if the budget allows). This would smoothen outreach efforts (people with lived experience often relate and empathize better with the homeless population) while providing participants with an opportunity to do meaningful work that can help build valuable workplace skills. A paid role could go further by increasing participants’ incomes, potentially allowing them to re-enter private sector housing. Such targeted recruitment initiatives, particularly when developed in partnership with social service providers, have shown success in other BIAs, including the Junction and Waterfront BIAs.[vi]

The mobile outreach model has got some legs behind it as a tried and tested initiative, as seen through successful programs in Atlanta and Toronto. In Atlanta, a mobile-outreach program operating out of Woodruff Park has connected over 100 people to permanent housing over a two-year period.[vii] In Toronto, a mobile outreach van program operated by Ve’ahavta has placed 17 homeless individuals into housing over a 3 month period during the COVID-19 pandemic.[viii] With intentional design and collaboration with social service providers, which for DYBIA may include Covenant House (Yonge/Gerard) and/or Toronto Public Health (Dundas/Victoria), a mobile outreach program could be an impactful initiative that helps businesses improve the pedestrian perception of public safety, helps DYBIA build a reputation as a socially-minded business community and provides a helping hand and dignity to those in need.

3)    Develop a DYBIA Dashboard to Track Key Performance Indicators

“You can’t manage what you can’t measure” goes the saying by Management thinker Peter Drucker, which is especially important in the current environment where change and uncertainty are the norms. While DYBIA already collects and monitors indicators such as commercial vacancies, it should seek to further enhance data collection and analysis capabilities. A monthly-updated, easy to digest dashboard would allow DYBIA to be better informed about the BIA’s economic recovery. At least two Canadian economic development organizations - South Island Prosperity Partnership and Halifax Partnership - have been effective at tracking economic indicators monthly since April 2020.[ix]

Additional indicators that DYBIA could track include employment, business count, transit and hotel utilization, tourism traffic, and commercial and residential construction permits. Quarterly business satisfaction and confidence surveys would be a great tool to explore as well, as they would inform DYBIA about changes in the business environment and emerging challenges faced by businesses. Tracking non-economic metrics would also be helpful, particularly public health data, such as the number and utilization of COVID-19 stations throughout the BIA that offer sanitization, temperature checks, and rapid testing (once it becomes more widely available). Public safety data can be informative too, specifically the frequency of reported shoplifting and property crime as well as the frequency of emergency dispatch calls. Data that paint a robust picture of good public health and public safety can be a key catalyst for reigniting foot traffic. Another important dashboard component is benchmarking. By benchmarking across time (i.e. pre-COVID-19) as well as against the broader Toronto Census Metropolitan Area, the important context could emerge with regards to areas where DYBIA is underperforming and requires more work. Benchmarking can also inform long-term goal setting and performance measurement and help identify collaboration opportunities with stakeholders, potentially accelerating DYBIA’s economic recovery.

Conclusion

A healthy and vibrant DYBIA in a COVID-19 world will require a Main Street that is supportive of increased foot traffic while addressing pedestrians' concerns around public health and public safety. The authors believe that by (1) advocating city council for a repurposed street that is COVID-19 compliant; (2) improving the perception of public safety by participating in outreach work for the homeless population; and (3) developing a DYBIA dashboard to track key performance indicators, DYBIA will be well-positioned to safely support increased foot traffic. The authors hope that these recommendations can be applied by other BIAs who are looking to adapt to a new reality while delivering on a safe and inclusive Main Street. For Main Streets in Toronto and across Canada to continue thriving, the challenges facing Main Streets need to be addressed urgently and compassionately.

For any questions or comments, please feel free to contact Natasha Apollonova at natashaapollonova1@hotmail.com.

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Notes:

 

[i] The study area encompassed Yonge Street, starting from Queen Street and stretching north to College Street. The study area was divided into three sections: Queen St.-Dundas St., Dundas St.-Gerard St., and Gerard St.-College St., along Yonge Street. The study area walkthroughs occurred from Friday, July 24th to Tuesday, August 11th (10am-12pm; 1pm-5pm).

 

[ii] DYBIA Traffic Counts, July 2019-July 2020. 

 

[iii] Storefront vacancies and weekly hours of operation were observed during multiple walkthroughs of Yonge Street, from Queen St north to College St, throughout various times of the day on July 24th, 2020.

 

[iv] Public transit ridership was observed during the afternoon rush hour on July 30th, for the Westbound Dundas Street streetcar and the 97B Yonge Street buses, around the Yonge-Dundas intersection.

 

[v] Instances of homelessness, including encampments, panhandling, and queues for shelters and food banks, were observed during multiple walkthroughs of Yonge Street, from Queen St north to College St, throughout various times of the day on July 24th, 2020.

 

[vi] The Junction BIA has partnered with the Keele Community Correctional Center to offer employment opportunities to parolees in midst of rehabilitation while the Waterfront BIA has partnered with the Progress Place to offer employment opportunities to people living with a mental illness.

 

[vii] Project for Public Spaces, “How an Atlanta park is connecting people to housing through place-based social service provision.” nhttps://www.pps.org/article/how-an-atlanta-park-is-connecting-people-to-housing-through-place-based-social-service-provision

 

[viii] Ve’ahavta 2019 Annual Report, Mobile Outreach Van program. https://veahavta.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/WEB_Veahavta_Annual_Report_2019-.pdf

 

[ix] These indicators include the following: unemployment rate, average hotel occupancy, BC ferry passenger count, airport passenger count, average weekday transit system ridership, home sales, home prices, residential and commercial construction permits, and total business and employee counts.