Time to grow Lindsay’s downtown, says BIA chair
Collingwood helps property owners with a 20 per cent break for fixing up and maintaining downtown properties
Wesley Found has a vision for Lindsay’s downtown.
The Lindsay Downtown Business Improvement Association chair imagines property owners, the city and province coming together to create 50-100 new living spaces above downtown Kent Street stores – a move that will breathe new life into Kawartha Lakes’ largest centre.
But Found wants to do more than just envision such a scenario. He’s hoping to spark serious discussion once an inventory of building usage is completed by the Kawartha Lakes Economic Development, expected in early 2024.
After years of neglect, Found says the main residents of the upper floors in downtown Lindsay “are pigeons.”
“I have heard that 40 to 50 per cent of the second-floor spaces are vacant and 70 to 80 per cent of the third-floor spaces are vacant,” he says.
“But I have had the pleasure of viewing some of these empty spaces and they are big, bright and beautiful, with great potential.”
Found believes that filling those empty spaces with permanent downtown residents would be a success story on all fronts.
“Economic growth starts with population growth,” Found says. “Making the growth dense by utilizing existing infrastructure is economically, socially and environmentally better for our community and the downtown.”
The BIA chair notes that a significant increase in residential units downtown would be a “captive audience (for merchants) and would in turn make the downtown more vibrant. Doing so will also be a buffer for any impending big box stores that will inevitably come with growth.”
Found feels a strong bond to Lindsay’s downtown; his own father was born in an apartment above what is now Burns Bulk Foods in 1942.
“People used to live downtown and there is absolutely no reason that couldn’t happen again.”
Kent Street property owners take a chance
Local entrepreneurs Sandra Falconer and her husband Tom Callaghan took the plunge as property owners and renovators in the downtown when they bought the former home of Yardy’s Office Supply six years ago.
The couple, along with a rolodex of local contractors and skilled tradespeople, gutted the building top to bottom, creating a new commercial space on the first floor where Falconer runs Appleseed Quilt Works, and two long-term Air BnB units located on the second floor.
The two units were 95 per cent rented last year, allowing many new people to experience Lindsay’s downtown.
“I absolutely support downtown densification,” Falconer says. “Our guests love living in the downtown. There is always something happening.”
While their year-long restoration went as smoothly as could be expected, Falconer describes the reality of what they faced.
“The biggest problem for us was ensuring the building met the fire code,” Falconer says. “Both floors of the building needed to be empty to retrofit for the fire upgrades. We had to gut the building to the studs to upgrade the services. We were lucky the building had been tenanted so there were no development charges levied by the city, and that behind the building there were four spaces which satisfied the city’s need for providing parking.”
Falconer says to get other landlords to consider conversions someone must give them the incentive. “This costs so much to do. It has taken us six years to recoup our investment in the building.”
Found believes in municipal incentives, too. He said that city money spent on giving landlords a break would “be a net positive investment in the short and medium term both for the property owners and the municipality because if downtown residential tenancy increases, the municipal MPAC assessment goes up which property taxes are levied on.”
He also believes any provincial money spent would have an impact in densifying the general tax base and the provincial levy on property taxes.
The BIA chair says these kinds of big changes scare landlords, and he wants to see the municipality, through its Community Improvement Plan (CIP), assist landlords taking on these projects.
15 minute communities
Kay Matthews, executive director of the Ontario Business Improvement Association, supports Found’s goal of downtown densification in Kawartha Lakes.
“We want to see more 15-minute communities where everything is within walking distance of where a person lives.”
Matthews agrees with Found that municipal incentivization has to be part of making downtown densification happen. She suggests the municipality could incentivize fixing up properties as part of their CIP. One of those incentives could be a reduction in taxation on a newly renovated property for five or 10 years. She also says there is “red tape and numerous barriers” that need to be eliminated to make builds quicker by retrofitting the buildings that are already there and hooking up to infrastructure that already exists.
The Collingwood and Sudbury experiences
Despite the real costs mentioned by Falconer, when a community gets behind their downtown, anything is possible – at least from the view of cities that have been there before.
Sue Nicholson, the general manager of the Collingwood BIA, is bullish on her downtown.
“We are a designated heritage district (just like Lindsay) and we are seeing many young professionals wanting to live in the downtown core,” Nicholson says. “Condo/commercial developments now anchor both ends of our downtown. People want to live in the city core as it is adjacent to everything they need.”
Collingwood does not have a CIP, rather they assist property owners with money through their Heritage Committee, including a 20 per cent break on taxes for landlords who fix up and maintain their downtown properties and grants of up to $3,000 a year to landlords for property improvements.
Nicholson says only one building remains vacant in the entire downtown core.
“Densification of the downtown brings customers to local business. Local foot traffic encourages businesses to have later evenings and that encourages a safer downtown,” Nicholson says.
For Kyle Marcus, general manager of the Sudbury BIA, he credits several programs funded by the municipality as key to the densification going on in his downtown.
Their CIP has a residential development program that provides up to $20,000 in municipal money for each unit renovated (and rented).
“While it is not nearly enough it is a start,” he says, noting that Calgary, Alberta runs a similar program and provides $100,000 for each unit renovated.
“We also have a façade improvement fund that will assist with repairs and improvements on any part of the building that is visible to the public.”
Marcus also says it’s about municipal leadership.
“Our old mayor told businesses it is not the city’s job to clean up the downtown,” Marcus says. “Our new mayor (Paul Lefebvre) has made it clear the importance of our downtown and the need for the city to invest in the downtown.”
He is particularly proud of Sudbury’s “Welcoming Streets” program that has two outreach workers available from 8 am to 2 am to assist businesses in the downtown core deal with those struggling with addiction, homelessness and mental illness. These outreach workers, rather than police, respond to crisis situations, helping make the downtown a safer and more attractive place to live.
The cost – and the future
When asked by the Advocate about the possibility of new downtown living spaces being created, Kirsten Meehan, communications, advertising and marketing officer for Kawartha Lakes says anyone interested in making changes to their vacant units should “get in touch with our planning team to see how they can move forward.”
But if Lindsay’s downtown will see the kind of development Found is envisioning, the real issue landlords need help with is the reality of having to retrofit neglected buildings – and dealing with the new rules that would apply to the renovation.
“Once a unit is vacant for more than two years, it is no longer grandfathered by the bylaws or building codes that it was built under,” Found explains. “That means converting the old buildings (and their apartments) to match current building (and fire) code, face development charges (during the rebuild) and provide street parking (or apply for a cash-in-lieu minor variance) for each unit before it could be offered to a potential tenant.”
Found also points out that landlords have trouble borrowing the money they need for these new apartment builds because with only the main floor generating income, their property values are significantly depressed. Banks base the amount they are willing to lend on the operating income of the property.
All that being said, Found is optimistic that with “thoughtful collaboration” this vision for the downtown can happen.
He says downtown Lindsay “is faring better than the Ontario average with healthy shops, low vacancy rate and high demand for space.”
“What it lacks is being a community in its own right – but we only have to look upwards to see the potential is sitting right there.”