A Path to the Table
Floating 61 feet tall, 79 feet wide, and 89 feet long, the world’s largest rubber duck brought its unmistakable presence to Toronto’s downtown lakefront last summer. Weighing nearly 14 tonnes, the endearingly graceless yellow behemoth was a showpiece of the Redpath Waterfont Festival. As novelty Instagram bait, the duck’s appeal was obvious — few objects demand hashtags and selfies quite as loudly as a six-storey bathtub ornament. Beyond that, however, the zeal for the installation was harder to understand, particularly given the fact that a Canada150 grant from Queen’s Park of $120,000 was used to fund it. What’s more, the annual event was co-presented by a variety of businesses and local organizations, prominent among them the Waterfront Business Improvement Area. The last fact begs the question: what does a rubber duck have to do with business?
The answer is relatively simple and almost 50 years in the making.
The Birth of BIAs
In 1966, the opening of the first phase of Toronto’s Bloor-Danforth subway line sparked a transformation of the prominent street, and the city around it. Long a major west end arterial, Bloor Street became the busiest part of the city’s primary east-west transit corridor, replacing the slower and more limited streetcar service that preceded it. For Toronto, the new subway line represented a crucial step in the city’s evolution to becoming a global financial capital in the 21st century, while catalyzing over a half-century of rapid growth and ambitious — albeit often confused and interrupted — city-building. Just two years later, the first extension of the line was completed, with six new stations stretching subway service past High Park and into Etobicoke. In transit terms, it was and remains an unmitigated success.
In the aftermath of the subway’s completion, however, stretches of Bloor Street did not immediately experience the infusion of vibrancy that comes with improved transit. Instead, the businesses lining the Bloor West Village neighbourhood suffered. Replacing the closely spaced, pedestrian-friendly stops, and the views of storefronts afforded by the streetcar, the subway meant a quicker commute, but less of a connection to the street. To make matters worse, intensifying suburbanization prompted construction of big box malls, further threatening the vitality of fine-grained urban businesses. In 1970, Bloor Street’s businesses responded. Over coffees and sticky buns in the back room of a local bakery, a group of local business owners formed the Bloor West Village Business Improvement Area (BIA) — the first organization of its kind in the world.
Collecting additional taxes from local businesses, the BIA used the funds to promote the Bloor West neighbourhood as a shopping destination. The nascent organization focused on rudimentary streetscape improvements and beautification projects, and it worked. In those early years, planters on the sidewalks and lights on the trees enlivened the stretch of Bloor between Jane Street and Runnymede Roadd in a modest but meaningful way. Knitting together a stronger distinct neighbourhood identity, the BIA’s efforts helped create a renewed destination, and renewed revenue.
Today, there are over 80 BIAs in the City of Toronto alone, and hundreds across Canada. South of the border, the first ‘Business Improvement District’ (BID) to follow Toronto’s example came to New Orleans in 1974, with a 2011 report by the International Downtown Association finding over 1,000 BIDs across the United States. In 2018, the business improvement model ranks as one of Canada’s more successful exports, with equivalents existing in England, Scotland, Wales, and Germany.
Since 1970, the basic structure of BIAs has remained unchanged: a group of associated businesses voluntarily impose a local tax, and the proceeds collected are put toward collectively beneficial initiatives. In 2018, the challenges are different and the ambitions greater. Enter the era of rubber ducks, and the era of businesses as city-builders.
Backed by Data
For the Waterfront BIA (WBIA), the rubber duck is just one entry in a full year’s calendar of activity, which includes everything from walking tours to cultural festivals, sporting events, food fairs, and markets. As Carol Jolly, Executive Director of the WBIA explains, “All of that helps to build foot traffic,” and to “create a destination, not only for the city, but for the world.” To business owners, all of that means paying up.
“At the end of the day, we’re spending other people’s money, and we have to have data to back it up,” says Jolly. The annual Ice Breakers outdoor art installations are a prime example, bringing activity and revenue to the winter waterfront each year. “We make sure to keep careful track of the impacts,” she stresses, “and the data shows that the visitors are shopping and dining,” with an average spend of $31 in the Winter and $55 in the Summer. For 2018, “over 30 businesses are actively promoting Ice Breakers, with bars and restaurants even creating signature drinks to mark the occasion,” she explains.
Still, if funding a series of art installations or a cultural festival don’t seem like an intuitive sell to small retailers, that’s because it probably isn’t. The data is harder to argue with. For its part, the rubber duck attracted some 750,000 visitors to the waterfront during the July 2017 long weekend, with analysis by Enigma Research concluding that the installation brought some $7.6 million of “economic impact” to the city. Suddenly, spending $120,000 of public money on inflatable waterfowl seems like a prudent investment.
For Jolly, it’s a natural process of change. “BIAs are evolving, just like cities are evolving,” she says. Indeed, today’s demographic and technological landscape is very different from 1970. Across North America, urban environments hold more appeal for many young professionals than the suburbs, while the compact layouts of new high-rise suites makes the appeal of a ‘third place’ or ‘outdoor living room’ all the greater. Meanwhile, the rise of online shopping changes the equation for bricks and mortar retailers. If any product is only a click or two away, then the appeal of shopping has to be more than just that. In many cases, the appeal of going to the store is the experience of being there. As Jolly puts it, “We’re not just thinking about visitor traffic, we’re thinking about the living quality of surrounding neighbourhoods. People living downtown need an outdoor living space.”
Nonetheless, the basic role of the BIA remains in tune with the street-level improvements pioneered in Bloor West Village. For Jolly, a “focus on the streetscape” is paramount, with quality of place always top of mind. While the terms ‘city-building’ and ‘placemaking’ were not common parlance in the ‘70s, a continuity of urbanist influence isn’t hard to see. In fact, the process of adapting to online retail through experiential appeals mirrors the challenges faced by 20th century urban retailers competing with new suburban malls. You can’t get the urban experience at the mall, and you certainly can’t get it on Amazon. Yet, if the principles remain consistent, the scope of influence is massively expanded.
“We’ve even started talking to developers about the street-level layout of new construction projects,” Jolly notes, explaining that the business community is now taking a more active role in urban design. In 2017, the Waterfront BIA released its impressively thorough and far-sighted Strategic Framework & Tactical Plan.
Developed by international real estate development and advisory firm Live Work Learn Play (LWLP), the Strategic Framework outlines the central goals of not only creating a city destination, but of transforming Toronto into a ‘Waterfront City.’ Detailed and data-driven, the report outlines the physical and psychological barriers to the waterfront as impediments to visitation, diagnosing “a lack of reasons to linger on the street.” The solutions, according to LWLP, include fostering districts with “a distinct sense of place,” while improving pedestrian connections and creating more year-round programming.
LWLP partner and principal Rob Spanier frames the WBIA’s Plan within the context of changing stakes. “When you look at the central waterfront, it’s not just a matter of responding to online retail,” he says, “you’ve also got Sidewalk Labs developing what’s touted as the ‘neighbourhood of the future’ to the east.” Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Google parent company Alphabet, recently chose Toronto as the first testing for the company’s foray into real estate. “And you’ve got to respond to that,” Spanier stresses.
Navigating Vision and Interests
Yet, for all the impressive urbanist credentials now being collected by large BIAs, there are equally potent criticisms. In a 2016 critique in The New Republic, Max Rivlin-Nadler wrote that American “Business Improvement Districts are a favored neoliberal practice that transforms mixed-income neighborhoods into the same chain stores one can find at any outlet mall across the country.” The creation of new BIDs is sometimes even vehemently protested. BIDs, Rivlin-Nadler argued, are typically agents of gentrification, and become part of an undemocratic “power play for public space.” Considering that some American BIDs even hire private security to patrol the streets, the argument is hardly a stretch.
Is that the case in Toronto? The WBIA’s rhetoric suggests otherwise. “We understand that we’re not Bloor-Yorkville,” says Jolly, “and that the appeal of each neighbourhood is it uniqueness. We’ve got the water, and much of our success depends on our relationship with it” she says, arguing that “distinct character is what makes a neighbourhood appealing in the first place. We want to nurture that.”
Joe Cressy, the WBIA’s local City Councillor, strikes a similar tone. “Our BIAs improve the quality and character of our neighbourhoods,” he says, adding that “It’s in the city’s best interest to have vibrant and dynamic business district.” In Kensington Market, one of the city’s newest BIAs (and also in Cressy’s Ward) reinforces his point. In what may be Toronto’s most eclectic and independently minded retail destination, a BIA was created to give a more empowered voice to some 240 local businesses; not to roll out the red carpet for Starbucks and Banana Republic. With a Board of Management composed of independent community entrepreneurs, the structure of the organization is designed to ensure that local interests remain at the forefront.
There are two lessons to take from this. First, that business interests and pedestrian-friendly planning initiatives are often symbiotic, and that urbanists can find important allies in local businesses. The very fact that so many BIAs are willing to voluntarily tax themselves to pay for public benefits makes that clear. The second lesson? Data. Businesses won’t come on board unless there are convincing reasons to expect returns.
The point takes on particular urgency when we consider the conflicts between business owners and urban planners that continue to make headlines in Toronto. In 2016, the installations of bike lanes along Bloor Street, initially as a pilot project, raised more than a few eyebrows from local business owners, some of whom remained convinced that the removal of street parking would cripple revenue. For its part, the City of Toronto collected extensive data, smoothing out the pilot project’s early design to create a more welcoming destination where the influx of cyclists more than compensates for marginally slower vehicle traffic and reduced parking. In launching the project with Council colleague Mike Layton, Cressy invoked former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg: “In God we trust. Everyone else bring data.”
18 months later, and a more heated debate rages on King Street where another new pilot project has restricted vehicle traffic in favour of a right-of-way for the streetcar. On North America’s busiest surface transit route, the project is an obvious win for riders, creating a speedier commute through the urban core while also opening up road space to pedestrians. From an urbanist lens, the project is a success, creating much more efficient and democratic use of space by removing private vehicles that dominated the road in favour of public transit. Among some business owners, however, the project is strongly opposed. In January, one King Street restaurant even installed an ice sculpture depicting a giant middle finger — emblazoned with the words “fuddle duddle” — in protest.
As with the Bloor Street bike lanes, a local BIA is not a central player in the controversy. Nonetheless, the data-driven example of the WBIA carries important lessons. For King Street, the first round of data was released by the City of Toronto in December, and was followed by another set of numbers in February — indicating that consumer spending had not been adversely affected. The results, for riders, urbanists, local politicians, transit planners, city-builders, and most businesses, are promising.