Redefining Canadian Downtowns in the Post-Office World

Canadian Downtowns in the Post-Office World

Kay Matthews, head of the Ontario Business Improvement Area Association, bluntly describes the dire situation in Ontario’s downtown areas, where businesses are battling to stay afloat.

“We’re in a tough spot,” she admits, highlighting widespread economic challenges, even in areas like Ottawa that previously remained unaffected.

This scenario is mirrored in downtowns nationwide, facing high vacancies, shifting work cultures post-COVID, and uncertain future foot traffic from office workers.

These challenges may prompt a transformative rethink of downtowns in Canada, involving significant investment and infrastructural changes to re-attract populations.

In November, the International Downtown Association Canada met in Ottawa, advocating for extended loan repayment deadlines for pandemic-hit businesses and direct government funding for downtown business groups.

Downtown vacancies in Toronto, Montreal, Victoria, and Halifax hover between 11 to 14 percent, while Edmonton and Winnipeg see rates as high as 33 percent.

Kate Fenske, chair of the association and CEO of Downtown Winnipeg Business Improvement Zone, emphasizes the national economic impact of weakening downtowns. In Winnipeg, the downtown area, though small, is a significant contributor to commercial and business taxes, supporting city-wide services and amenities.

Federal Tourism Minister Soraya Martinez Ferrada acknowledges engagement with downtown representatives in Quebec, exploring downtown revitalization and reimagining their core roles beyond office-centric functions. She envisions future downtown transformations with tourism playing a key role.

The University of Toronto’s School of Cities is tracking North American downtown recoveries. Comparing current visitor numbers to pre-pandemic 2019, Montreal is at 67 percent, Toronto at 70 percent, Winnipeg 76 percent, London (Ontario) 79 percent, Vancouver 85 percent, and Mississauga leads with 91 percent.

Karen Chapple, the school’s director, points out the traditional over-reliance of downtowns on office spaces, necessitating a diversified economic shift, which historically takes a decade or more.

For cities like Edmonton and Winnipeg, a key challenge is boosting downtown residential development, despite the high costs and low rental yields, according to Puneeta McBryan, executive director of the Edmonton Downtown Business Association. She advocates for more government incentives for such projects, noting the shift away from regular five-day office routines.

Downtowns also face rising vandalism and crime, adding strain to businesses. Tasha Morizio of Montreal’s La Societe de developpement du boulevard Saint-Laurent reports recent incidents of theft and vandalism, calling for more federal resources and leadership.

However, police data doesn’t consistently indicate rising crime levels. For example, Vancouver’s central business district saw a decrease in break-ins and offences against people, though minor crimes increased slightly. Toronto and Ottawa show mixed crime rate trends.

Matthews points out that data doesn’t always capture the recurrent nature of issues like vandalism, with some businesses closing due to repeated damage.

Montreal’s Morizio suggests reimagining downtowns as social hubs rather than just office spaces, with initiatives like pedestrian-only streets to foster public connection, though such projects are costly and not universally applicable.

She envisions commercial streets as vital public spaces for connection, a crucial aspect lost during the pandemic.