The “downtowners” certainly know what they want the core of the city to look like; citizens meet at the Art Centre to talk visions.

By Pepper Parr

BURLINGTON, ON  November 10, 2012  They were doing more of that vision thing.  They were doing it in the Shoreline Room of the Arts Centre.  There were more than 150 people in the room – it was basically packed, with 140 of them citizens taking part in an exercise that was intended to help in the shaping of the city’s downtown core, which many feel is a bit of a mess and at times a disappointment – not THE place you go to for services and supplies.

But our situation is, according to the people who are doing the surveying, not all that bad.  Pretty good in some categories, very good in others.

Shoreline Room of the Art Centre was packed; close to 150 people participated. Did we manage to move the ball up the field?

The event was nicely structured.  City hall is getting very good at coming up with ways to involve people.  Much more use is being made of large maps that people can work over as they gather around tables and trade comments and opinions.

This event ran just a little on the long side.  People were beginning to drift out of the room and there wasn’t a solid wrap up – but there was a lot of input and if city staff can capture that input, interpret it and then work it into the plans they develop – the evening will have been time very well spent.

So what did we learn?  The evening began with those necessary(?) introductions.  Councillor Sharman wasn’t seen in the room and Councillor Dennison slipped in late in the game.  Downtown isn’t Councillor Taylor’s turf.

Defining and then creating a vibrant downtown core is a joint venture between the private sector that takes the risks and city hall that comes up with rules, zoning and regulations that make things possible and a public that buys into what is in place and shows up with their wallets and purses and spends.

This was a Workshop and people at the tables were certainly active. The session lasted a little too long and there wasn’t time to hear all the table summaries.

There are some locations that are close to outstandingly successful.  The Works, a high end hamburger joint where four people can spend more than $100 on burgers is very popular – don’t expect to always get a table right away – there are lineups – often.  As marketers the people at The Works have figured it out – everything was free the first day they opened.  Talk about getting the public’s attention.  The folks over at the Village Square have had to put what they had on the selling block because the ability and the desire to really aggressively market that location just isn’t in them anymore.  The property is for sale – some say it has actually been sold.  The public record doesn’t show a change in the owners of the property.

La Costa did a name change and is now Celli’s Osteria which means authentic food sourced from the local countryside.  Melodia is open on the corner of Locust and Elgin, the Prime Rib moved from Brant to Elgin several months ago but has yet to open their doors.  So there is some health in the core.

These could have been tables with family members gathered playing a game of cards – most had a friendly, relaxed mood to them.

The meeting was a review of the Strategic Action Plan which Jody Wellings, Planning and Building department, said the committee had delivered on.  As a committee they met 14 times and got 520 people to take part in the survey they had done.

As part of the research work done by Urban Metrics for the city, a measurement was taken of all the retail space in the downtown core.  Here is what we learned from the 140+ people who participated in the Workshop.

They reported that there was 1.1 million square feet of retail space in the core (which oddly enough was never  defined during the meeting) and that 81,000 people lived in the area.

Notes taken, views exchanged – city planning staff now have to go through all the data and figure out what the public has said. Is there an end result? At some point Burlington will have the vibrant downtown is wants.

There are  130,000 square feet of office space in the core.  While delivering  the data the researcher added that there are companies that would kill for the kind of downtown Burlington has.  That view doesn’t quite square with comments made by Sheila Botting. National leader on real estate and financial services for Deloitte, who told a Council Workshop that while the core is appealing the cost of providing parking is prohibitive – business prefers the Burloak area where parking is less expensive.  Transit in Burlington doesn’t appear to be an option for the management and executive crowd.

However, people believe there is significant opportunity for smaller boutique operations in the core – problem there is no one defines “boutique” and we have yet to see one choose Burlington.

Ward 2 Councillor Marianne Meed Ward had her daughter Miranda, a grade 9 student, shadowing her all day. The workshop was the end of a 12 hour day. The young lady does not have a campaign manager.

Ward 6 Councillor Blair Lancaster was there but didn’t appear to be an active participant. Here she talks with Scott Wallace, proprietor of Burlington Taxi who has an interesting report going to council committee this week.

In general boutiques are seen as small groups – that can reach 75 people, who are professionals:  architects, law firms, researchers that prefer a quieter community but need very quick access to downtown Toronto.  Burlington does have the access to the “big smoke” – it’s just not that fast to get to.  An hour on a plugged expressway isn’t the way professionals want to spend their time.

The researchers described our core as stable with commercial space increasing; that would be marginal increase at best.

The commercial space vacancy rate is 11.2% of the existing space which is a little on the high side.  We aren’t in trouble but the sector isn’t exactly vibrant.

Each of the tables was assigned a subject to discuss.  Had the people at this table gone shopping.

The researcher said that 70% of the people who shop in the trade area live south of the QEW, 20% are from outside the community – which leaves 10% that come from north of the QEW – the folks in the Orchard and the new Alton community aren’t coming downtown as much as the merchants would like them to.

Why do people come downtown?  Because they have to; because they live downtown or they work downtown or they have an appointment.  13% of the people who come downtown do so to shop while 9% come downtown to dine.

29% come once a week; 47% drive to the core, 40% walk; 8% use transit and 4% use their bikes.

Asked what downtown should be – the answers from the survey were: festivals, entertainment, meeting people and the place they take visitors.

What kind of retail services did those surveyed want to see?  A first run movie theatre; a small supermarket, a hardware store and more restaurants with more in the way of clothing and accessory retailers was on those wish lists.

The Burlington Downtown Business Association (BDBA)  has been trying for some time to get a supermarket to open up in the core – Brian Deane, Executive Director of the BDBA, hasn’t been able to land one of them yet.  Parking is the biggest problem and because the supermarkets know we all have to eat – we will go to where they are – they don’t have to come to where we are.  There will come a time, when the core will have people who will not want to or be able to drive to the supermarkets,  and supply will follow the demand.  That day hasn’t arrived yet.

The advice the researchers offered was that we need to leverage the assets we have, (most of the retailers don’t know how to do that)  and communicating has to be well done.  Many of the smaller merchants don’t particularly want to communicate to a wider market; they have their core clientele and they do very well with that – why go to a lot of additional effort at some cost and not be certain they are going to see a return.

The surveys did note an interest in a Farmer’s Market in the core –  and the city had one for several months in the summer.  It struggled.  The one time there was a crowd was during the Chef’s Shootout which could have been a boffo event had it not rained.  Even with the poor weather, with a dozen or so umbrellas set up to keep the water off people as they watched two well rated chef’s do their thing with the most rudimentary equipment.

The number of people who showed up for the event suggests Burlington Tourism wants to look at this – it was a good idea that just needed some time and more in the way of promotion – hopefully Barry Imber won’t give up the ghost on the idea – it is well worth doing for at least one more season.

Our Burlington was the only media in the city to continuously follow and promote the event.

The researchers thought public funds and resources were needed to draw in private investment.  Those are your tax dollars they’re talking about.  Back in 1985 the city permitted a “landmark” structure to be built on the edge of the lake – there is still nothing on the site.  The city back then did it’s part – the private sector sat on what they were given and let it improve in value but gave nothing back to the city.  Late this year we might see a shovel in the ground to start the building of an eight story structure – they currently have approval to build up to seven storeys – they’re asking the Committee of Adjustment to allow an additional floor.

There are cranes on the horizon in Burlington, there is activity, that tipping point however doesn’t appear to have been reached.  Last Christmas season there were major restaurants and retailers on lower Brant who had nothing in the way of seasonal decoration on their locations.

The audience was told to not compromise the vision and expect false starts – does the pier fall into that category?  While on the pier – construction progress does take place – albeit at close to a snail’s pace.  But what are we going to end up with?  A place we take people to and talk about how long it took to get built and how much it actually cost us?

It will be a magnificent structure and it will change the look of the city but will it end up like Ben Johnson, a magnificent athlete who destroyed his reputation by taking drugs; does the pier have too much negative history that we may not be able to live down?

There is certainly a challenge to leverage that asset when it finally opens and communicate the story.  Do we have the people with the skill sets needed to do that communication?

We were told to measure performance and then empower the decision makers – that would assume there are enough qualified decision makers in town.  It is a challenge.  There are some exceptionally good people who work for the city – are there enough of them?

At some point all the data and all the public input gets placed in front of Burlington’s Planner, Bruce Krushelnicki – who will issue a report and city council will make decisions. Creating the downtown the city wants and needs has not been an easy process for Burlington.

The province has a growth plan which calls for 15,000 new jobs in the region by 2031.  Burlington is going to limp towards its part of that objective; we just aren’t creating the job opportunities; our commercial assessment for 2012 will be less than it was for 2011 – not a good sign.  Once the Economic Development Corporation shakes itself out we will begin to see a change but that could be as much as a year away.

The province wants there to be a “mobility hub” in Burlington, which will centre on the Fairview GO station that is undergoing an upgrade.  The site immediately south of the GO station, west of Wal-Mart on the north side of Fairview, is to be developed and have at least four towers.  Efforts are being made to have some of that space set aside for commercial use.

With the theory and some of the potential set out for the Workshop audience,  the researchers then began an interactive process with the audience.   Participants were given hand help devices the size of a package of playing cards,  and told to make their choices to questions that appeared on the large screen at the front of the room.

A question would appear on the screen, participants would be given 30 seconds to make a choice  – and the results would appear on the screen instantly.  It is a remarkable opinion survey tool the city has used in the past.  Very effective.

How many of you live in the downtown core:

Of the 130 responses – 2/3rds say they lived in the downtown core.

How many owned a business? 20% of the 133 responses

How many of you think the core has a lot going for it? Most saw the core in a positive light.

What are the top three things you like about the downtown core?

The waterfront, the restaurants, the places to walk.  137 responses

Things that need the most attention?

Neighbourhood shops; better places to live, more entertainment locales. – 133 responses.

What would you like to see added?  You can add your views to the city’s on line survey.

One of the prime places to just enjoy the city is on the north side of Lakeshore looking out over ther lake. This could be a social spot in almost any one of the prime tourist destinations in Europe or North America – but it is right here in Burlington.

More entertainment destinations, restaurants and cafés, retail stores and parks.  That last one, parks was odd; Burlington has the equivalent of 333 football fields in public park space. Central Park has to be one of the largest in any city of comparable size.

The audience was told that all the data collected will be up on the city’s web site.  Most of the questions are shown but the responses aren’t there at least not as of Saturday afternoon.

The Downtown vision team will be going over the data and determining what to do next.  That means more meetings.  Ugh!

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2 comments to The “downtowners” certainly know what they want the core of the city to look like; citizens meet at the Art Centre to talk visions.

  • john lawson

    DT Burlinton is a dynamic, hot bed for young independent entrepreneurs. The new business growth is coming from the under 40 bracket. These are the people that are going to create, innovate and grow Burlinton

  • railway enthusiast

    The last photo would look much better if the restored Freeman Station were right across Lakeshore. The trees block the view of the lake now so the lake view would not be lost. The station location as it was proposed (with washrooms beneath) would be an excellent addion to the downtown area. Could we reconsider? Was this even mentioned in the workshop?