Developer says he’d like to create more livable spaces above downtown Lindsay stores

By Roderick Benns

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“We’d like to do more in Lindsay -- it’s near and dear to my heart." Photo: Erin Smith.

One of Lindsay’s leading commercial building owners, Steve Podolsky, says he’d love to create more housing opportunities above downtown businesses but says there are a lot of obstacles in the way.

Those obstacles include the fact that so many of the spaces on the second and third floors have languished so long that there is no water, heat, or electricity that are even close to being ready to be activated – not to mention that the thin walls no longer meet more advanced fire codes.

Between those exorbitant costs to make the second and third floors livable, and the fact that it would be a huge disruption to businesses, these issues are inevitably delaying development in the downtown.

“We’d like to do something, but it’s also difficult to achieve when you have a business operating on the first floor. This isn’t like like minor wiring or a clean-up. These places were abandoned so long ago…it’s like starting from ground zero,” says Podolsky.

“How do I do that work and not disturb the business down below?” he asks.

That question, and a few others, is something downtown entrepreneur Ryan Oliver hopes to see answered. Oliver is the owner of Pinnguaq, a not-for-profit company based in both Nunavut and Lindsay that incorporates STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Math) for young people.

“A strong strategy for the downtown in Lindsay is vital to push back against the corporatization of the west end of Lindsay, especially if a Wal-Mart eventually gets here,” says Oliver.

All of this is to say, what kind of vision do we have for the town?

“We need to ask ourselves what sort of things we want to define Lindsay,” Oliver adds, pointing out that the wide streets, local shops, and proximity to public services all available downtown is already a defining aspect of Lindsay, but that this image “is by no means secure.”

“The ingredients are all there. In our (earlier) search for space, rents are fairly low, the downtown looks good and there is available space. Whether or not landlords are taking the steps to make that space available is another story,” Oliver says.

Podolsky is a landlord with a long, familial history in Lindsay. His business, A & L Investments, was started by his grandparents who lived in the area up until the 1950s. He now owns more than 20 buildings in the downtown core, including the Century Theatre, but only one with residential units (the old York Tavern building which has 24 units.)

While he lives in Toronto he is far from being uninvolved in the community, sitting on the Business Improvement Association (BIA) for Lindsay, as well as the downtown revitalization committee and the parking committee. He has been involved with Lindsay’s development for about 25 years.

“We’d like to do more in Lindsay — it’s near and dear to my heart,” he says. He notes that downtown revitalization has happened in other Kawartha Lakes’ communities, too, for the better of the whole City.

“When one area does well it benefits the whole entire city.”

Million Dollar Makeover

Benefiting the whole City is something the municipal government had in mind when they created the Million Dollar Makeover program that provides loans and grants to property owners for this type of project.

City of Kawartha Lakes’ Director of Development Services Chris Marshall points out the funding program was available to support property and business owners in improving the visual and functional aspects of their commercial, mixed-use commercial/residential or heritage designated residential buildings. The City had more than $1 million in financial incentives available through loan and grant programs.

Applications are now closed and 17 applications were approved.

“It can bring the type of workforce and entrepreneurs that will revitalize our economy,” Marshall says.

He notes Council has also just committed an additional $100,000 in the 2019 budget in loans to businesses and property owners looking to enhance their storefronts, facades, and increase the amount of residential units available.

Marshall says he understands that “the main reason that property owners in downtown Lindsay don’t redo the upper floors into apartments is because of the cost.”

“Due to the need to meet modern building code which requires much higher fire ratings for walls and floors and accesses, costs can become very high. The property owner is also required to pay development charges for the new units ($10,000-14,000 per unit depending on the number of bedrooms). The combination of these costs makes it difficult financially for most owners,” Marshall says.

But couldn’t (and shouldn’t?) some of those development charges be waived to help building owners out?

Podolsky says the downtown revitalization committee has made a proposal to abolish those developmental fees to help building owners like him move forward.

“It’s difficult to achieve, but I don’t think it’s impossible,” to make these upper spaces livable once again.

Podolsky says it will have to be part of a greater discussion, and discussing those development fees would be a good start.

“There are lots of great people who work in many City departments. I’m sure they’d sit down and work with us.”

Working with developers must also include the question of parking, although the three largest downtowns in Kawartha Lakes – Lindsay, Bobcaygeon, and Fenelon Falls – are in the middle of a parking study.

Affordable Housing

From an affordable housing standpoint, Hope Lee, manager of housing and CEO of Kawartha Lakes Haliburton Housing, says the City offered funding to assist development of units above downtown stores in 2018 – the Multi-unit Rehabilitation Program.

“We offered $10,000 per unit for up to 10 units without any take-up,” she says, noting the Advocate and other media widely reported on the offer.

To be clear, not a single building owner took the City up on this offer of development money.

“We may have an opportunity to offer that program again, but before we do it would be helpful to understand why there was no interest last year,” Lee says.

The Advocate reached out again to Podolsky to ask why A&L Investments didn’t take advantage of this program.

“I am not sure that I was aware of the $10,000 per unit,” he notes, but acknowledges even if he was he’s not sure his business is in a position right now to undertake a project of that magnitude.

“We would be starting at ground zero when renovating the upstairs portions of our buildings,” Podolsky says, noting he would have had to have completed architectural plans, consultations with the building department and other City departments and a have a full plan in place with regard to his commercial tenants on the ground floor even before starting.

The developer adds, “This is something we would consider undertaking, but right now we have no time frame in mind.”

More financial incentive is obviously an ongoing need, but so is more one-on-one communication between the City and key downtown developers to ensure they are fully aware of potentially helpful City programs.

For Oliver, the entrepreneur who sees Lindsay’s downtown as key, he says his biggest concern about downtown right now “is not that it needs any new ingredients, just that we won’t take advantage of what we have, while the window is open.”

By ‘we’ he means a number of things.

“Anyone who has an interest in the success and sustainability of downtown Lindsay. He points to the ‘Million Dollar Makeover’ plan from the City as “exactly the type of action that is needed.”

He also means the entrepreneurs who are either here already or fleeing the cost of living in Toronto. They may need encouragement and support to set up downtown.

Oliver says he also refers to the general population “who need to be given a reason to…consciously make the decision to make downtown their home and their first choice when shopping.”

The entrepreneur says people are already leaving the cities and moving rural.

“Online jobs mean it doesn’t matter where you live — quality of life is better here.”

He remembers when Pinnguaq recently had a partner company come to Lindsay from Toronto, for the first time for some meetings.

“One of the directors we were meeting with looked at the downtown as snow was lightly falling and said, ‘It’s like you guys live in a storybook!’”

“It’s true. We should make sure it stays that way.”

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