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Vacant storefronts: Retail space outpacing shopping habits, hearings told

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Is Montreal’s enduring problem with vacant storefronts caused by the fact it’s inundated with retail space?

Since 1980, the amount of commercial space available has increased by 250 per cent, while the population has remained relatively stable and shopping habits have changed, the city’s association of business development groups said Thursday.

“Ten years ago, the (South Shore megamall) DIX30s of this world didn’t exist, so there was a large number of people from both the North and South Shores who came and shopped in Montreal. Now the situation has changed enormously,” said Caroline Tessier, director general of the Association des sociétés de développement commercial de Montréal, representing 12,000 merchants in 20 business development groups.

Tessier was among 30 presenters to address Montreal’s public consultations on the issue of vacant storefronts, meant to generate solutions to the fact 1,000 out of 7,000 of the city’s street-level commercial spaces sit empty.

On Wednesday, former veteran city councillor Sam Boskey told the standing committee the last time a definitive overview of commercially zoned space available in the city was conducted was in 1986. Senior urbanist Georges Bonhomme examined every street and found that Montreal, “with a (pre-fusion) population of just over a million, had enough commercially zoned space to satisfy the needs of a city of 7 million!” Because of his study, city council removed commercial designations from the zoning on parts of 99 streets to ensure the health of commercial arteries.

Five years ago, the city predicted commercial space would increase by 1.8 million square feet between 2015 and 2021, Tessier noted. But that was before the Royalmount megamall project in Town of Mount Royal was announced, which will increase commercial space by 1.5 million square feet alone.

“If we don’t respect a certain vision, and we don’t manage it, we will find ourselves in a situation with even more square feet for sale and an even larger problem,” she said.

Her association presented a series of recommendations:

— Collect data on things like the numbers of vacant properties, value of commercial leases, number of people frequenting the street and tax rates being paid in order to enable targeted solutions.

— Create an independent committee responsible for keeping commercial arteries vibrant.

— Create a registry of vacant stores where property owners have to register their empty spaces and note reasons, allowing entrepreneurs to know of available spots. Most merchants’ associations already have them.

— Enforce cleanliness of vacant stores to avoid the spectre of boarded-up, graffiti-strewn properties that deter investment.

— Simplify and standardize commercial leases so they’re comprehensible for shop owners.

Tessier said she knows of owners who have had properties vacant for seven or eight years (and in one case 35 years), a sign real-estate speculation is to blame.

“Owners I meet who have triplexes on large commercial streets and still have a mortgage, they find a way to rent their spaces because they’re stuck with a mortgage and taxes on top of it.”

The Canadian Taxpayers Federation said Montreal’s commercial tax rates are the highest in Canada, 50 per cent over the national average, and must be lowered.

“One can’t have a vibrant commercial street and the highest commercial taxes in the land; those two concepts are incompatible,” said Quebec director Renaud Brossard.

Jean-François Gosselin, general director of the Montreal North business development association, noted commercial arteries like Fleury St. in Ahuntsic and Masson St. in Rosemont are flourishing because the socioeconomic fabric of their neighbourhoods changed as more young professionals move in. But gentrification can have a downside, forcing out smaller local businesses like bakeries and vegetable stores in favour of trendy restaurants.

“We don’t want our borough to become gentrified,” he said. “What we want is for the people who are living there to be able to improve their quality of life. It’s easy to say ‘OK, get out and we will bring in people who make more money.’

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