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The state of downtown – and what we can do to make it better

Kelly's Bake Shop and Lettuce Love Cafe are taking the customer experience to a different level - all while offering great food with healthy ingredients
Kelly’s Bake Shop and Lettuce Love Cafe are taking the customer experience to a different level – all while offering great food with healthy ingredients

It’s recently been reported that 21 businesses have left downtown Burlington since January. In the same period of time, 23 businesses have come to downtown Burlington.  Some of these businesses have closed; others have relocated for a variety of reasons (including elsewhere in downtown).  What does this tell us about the state of the downtown, and more importantly the role each of us can play to make the downtown better, including City Council, Burlington Downtown Business Association, Burlington Economic Development Corporation, businesses and residents?

The answers might surprise you – as they did me.  I learned that turnover is normal and can benefit a downtown – and that our vacancy rate of roughly 5% is well within industry standard for a healthy downtown. But these numbers only tell part of the story – and can be misleading. Downtowns are fluid, constantly changing environments. The good news is that the downtown has turned a corner, becoming in recent years the envy of municipalities throughout the GTA.

Retailing itself is in a state of change. Ward 2 resident and downtown business owner Barry Imber recently wrote:  ” In my professional experience, working extensively with businesses and business areas, I am seeing a revolution of change that is affecting the retail market environment. This change is bringing pressures such as rising costs associated with high land values, internet and foreign competition and rapidly evolving consumer trends and rising expectations. Simply, business is having to adapt like never before and it isn’t easy.”  Our downtown businesses are not immune, and many are adapting and innovating –  enhancing the customer experience and building loyalty through in-store events and online communications.

That said, there is always room for improvement. No one celebrates when a store goes under – these are stories of pain and loss, and they are happening across our city and province. Our role as a community is to clearly understand what has happened – and what can be done. Some of the reasons businesses fail are out of our hands, but there is also much we can do to contribute to business success downtown. A key opportunity is to work toward implementing the 33 recommendations from the Downtown Task Group, outlined below.

In this article, you’ll find specifics on how to accurately assess the health of the downtown, where we’re at, the opportunities ahead, and what role each of us can play to contribute to success (and avoid contributing to failure). I’m also interested to hear from you: what’s your take on the health of downtown, and what can we do together to make downtown better? Read what’s already happening below, and leave your comment at the end.

Turnover and vacancy rates:

Several months ago I sat down with representatives from the Burlington Downtown Business Association (BDBA) and the Burlington Economic Development Corporation (BEDC) because I wanted to learn more about the level of vacancies and turnover happening downtown. What I found out surprised – and reassured – me: turnover is good for any downtown, said the BEDC representative. In fact, turnover is good in any commercial district – witness the turnover of new stores at the Mapleview Mall (including the loss of many Canadian retailers). You won’t find the same offerings as a few years ago, with new stores making the mall a regional destination – and competitor to downtown.

Turnover downtown can be beneficial, says the BEDC, if it frees up space for new businesses to locate here, businesses that will bring foot traffic, add to the mix of retail or business offerings, and fill important niches that are missing.

brant street butcher video
Video introducing Ellen McWhinnie of Brant Street Butcher

A prime example is Girgenti Windows, which left the downtown and thereby freed up the space at Brant and Lakeshore that within a few weeks will become the new Brant Street Butcher and Market – something downtown residents have been wanting for years. If there was no turnover downtown, there would have been no available space for this market that most of us can’t wait to be opened. See my interview with the owner here: Interview: Ellen McWhinnie, Brant St Butcher owner

There are other examples: Ya Man Caribbean’s old space will become a corned beef restaurant; the Downtown Digital space is making way for Rawlicious, a raw food bar; Heavenly Gourmet’s space is becoming a Poutinerie; and the Tweed & Hickory site will soon see a new tenant, after the landowner had multiple offers for the site.

The vacancy rate for the Burlington downtown business area is less than 5% – well within the industry standard definition of a healthy downtown.

For a complete list of businesses that have left and come to downtown visit: Business turnover downtown Burlington 2014

 The story behind the numbers:

Statistics only tell part of the story – and are subject to misinterpretation or hyperbole, particularly when selectively choosing some facts and ignoring the rest. In a recent open letter, the BDBA said: “The BDBA does not subscribe to the myopic view that the number of businesses leaving is, alone, an indicator of our business community’s vitality/viability. We put stock in the opinions of the real entrepreneurs that have chosen to do business here.”

It’s critical to go beyond the numbers and talk to business owners themselves to get a more accurate understanding of what’s happening in our downtown, and the opportunities for improvement. The BDBA (which I serve on the board as the council representative) keeps detailed statistics on membership openings, closings and vacancy rates, and regularly conducts exit interviews with businesses to understand why they’ve left, and if there is a role for the BDBA. I’ve also contacted businesses over the years to learn what makes them come, the challenges they face, and the role for City Hall.

As you would expect there are a variety of reasons why businesses leave or close, some of which are beyond the control of the city, BDBA or BEDC. However, we have collectively listened very carefully to the areas that we can influence. Some of them include parking, office development, a safe environment, and more local events.

Read more below about the challenges, what we’ve done to play our part and the opportunities that are ahead:

Building on success:


FreeP video
The BDBA’s award winning campaign, successfully raised awareness of free parking offered in the month of December and Saturdays.

One of the biggest complaints I heard from businesses and customers when I joined council was that paid parking on Saturdays was literally “driving” their customers to the malls, and the 2 hour on street limit wasn’t long enough to have lunch, visit stores, or get your hair done. Customers were complaining about tickets. Working with the BDBA and the Downtown Parking Committee I brought a motion supported by council to implement free parking on Saturdays, and free parking the entire month of December to help our retailers and restaurants during the critical Christmas season. We extended the on-street limit to 3 hours, and are replacing on-street coin meters with pay and display machines that will allow residents to “top up their time” with their mobile phones if they’re still enjoying their lunch or spa appointment. We’re also implementing measures this season to encourage people who work downtown not to take up the on-street parking but continue to park in their usual lot – and leave spaces close to businesses for visitors to the downtown.

Finally, there continues to be a perception that there is not enough parking downtown. The reality doesn’t match the perception based on statistics collected by the city, but part of the issue is people don’t know where to find city parking lots. The city has a role to play in communicating where parking is available; we now have a counter to track the use of the parking garage and it is rarely full – but many people don’t think to park there. We need to promote the use of the garage, or even better, alternative transportation to get downtown, including links with the cycling path, and transit. There have been some preliminary conversations with local tech companies about partnering on a parking app for the downtown. Stay tuned for more on that.

Grid versus linear downtown

Burlington’s downtown is a grid of a number blocks, versus a linear strip (like Oakville). We have heard from some businesses off of Brant Street that they struggle to get foot traffic, including businesses in the Pearl St area live/work units. These businesses have also been affected by the lengthy construction of the Pine/Pearl retirement home development. The city and the BDBA has installed signage that these businesses are still open, offered temporary free parking incentives, and tried to speed along construction. Longer term, our goal is to encourage foot traffic off of Brant street, through pedestrian linkages, signage, and events that draw people off Brant, including Treats in the Street, downtown carolling, and the Burlington Sound of Music Festival pod on John Street.


Joelle's and Jeff's Guy Shop are mainstays of the downtown. They've recently re-designed and plan to expand. They successfully use email and social media to bring customers to their store.
Joelle’s and Jeff’s Guy Shop are mainstays of the downtown. They’ve recently re-designed and plan to expand. They successfully use email and social media to bring customers to their store.

Some of our long time downtown businesses have much to offer our new startup businesses in terms of wisdom and keys to success downtown, especially in an evolving global economy. At the same time, new businesses are bringing with them new ideas.  The BDBA is helping to bring businesses together to learn from each other through the Mix at Six networking events, and through the Business Accelerator learning series initiated this year. Conversations are ongoing about additional mentoring programs.

Residential Development, and spiralling land costs

High-rise residential developments that have been built in the last decade downtown haven’t delivered the promised “feet on the street” because these condos have been purchased largely by retirees who are downsizing or aren’t around for six or more months of the year because they travel or have vacation homes elsewhere. Building more of this type of product won’t help the downtown – to quote Einstein, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing again and again and expecting a different result. The easiest thing for City Hall to do would be to continue to approve residential developments that go well beyond our existing Official Plan and Zoning – in some cases approvals have been double or triple the height and density limits.

But that’s not a long term strategy for success downtown, and in the short term approving extra density contributes to land speculation and soaring land prices. These costs get passed on to our businesses in the form of increased property tax assessment, and increases their cost of doing business downtown. We have also heard that some landlords are asking for very short leases – banking on eventually cashing out of their property to sell for redevelopment. Short leases don’t benefit our downtown businesses and create a disincentive to invest downtown.

City Hall is contributing to this spiralling problem by approving developments that go well beyond our Official Plan and Zoning. The solution is to stick to the plan, which has been approved by three levels of government (city, regional, provincial) and takes into account growth targets we must meet downtown. My commitment is to support residential development that is in keeping with our existing Official Plan and Zoning, and to encourage my colleagues on council to do the same. When we follow our plan, we take the pressure off land speculation, create more certainty in the marketplace about what can be built, and help to preserve and protect our unique neighbourhoods which provide the variety of housing for families, young people and seniors that we need for a healthy downtown.

City council also dropped the ball on affordable housing when it allowed the Carriage Gate group to back out of its commitment to over 70% affordably priced housing units in their proposed project at Caroline/John/Maria/Elizabeth Street. These affordable units were negotiated as part of a Section 37 Community Benefits agreement in exchange for double the height and extra density (the zoning was for 4 storeys, 8 with community benefits; the apartment was approved at 17 storeys). If we want more young people downtown, we need to ensure that some of the new units are priced at a more affordable rate; in addition, more affordable units would have allowed the region of Halton to purchase some for assisted/affordable units for people on the housing waiting list. The Region is already partnering with other developers, purchasing five units at the Fairview GO lands development. It would be great to see more of these purchased downtown – but for that to happen the units need to be modestly priced. City Hall can help by ensuring developers stick to their commitments, not backing down after the fact.

Office Development

Visiting Village Cigar is like being in a GQ photo shoot.  In business only since 2012, they've built a thriving business through a one of a kind retail experience.
Visiting Village Cigar is like being in a GQ photo shoot. It’s a one of a kind store offered only downtown.

The best opportunity for the downtown is office development, which will take longer to land than residential, but will bring year-round, weekday foot traffic to the downtown. This has been the conclusion of the detailed research on healthy downtowns undertaken via the Downtown Task Group. Further, we can reach our provincial growth targets through jobs or residential units; we need to focus on jobs downtown, so more of our residents can live and work here. City Council approved the downtown as one of five hubs in the city for focused economic growth through the Burlington Economic Development Corporation. In the next term of council, we will get a report back on the possibility of setting up incubators for start up businesses, including downtown. Further, the downtown business association is working with the BEDC on a retail attraction strategy for downtown.

The city-owned parking lot across from Village Square is a prime location for office redevelopment. City council’s role is to hold on to that land, not sell it for residential development (the easiest solution, but not the right one) and to solicit the right office development to come forward. Working toward that goal is a top priority for me in the next term of council. City council can also help by partnering with developers to build more underground parking, as the city did to build the parking garage. There is an existing parking reserve fund for that purpose; revenues from parking fees and tickets go into that reserve fund; downtown businesses pay into the fund through a parking levy.

We also need to preserve the unique enclave of Village Square downtown, promoting it for events and working with others, including the BDBA and BEDC, to attract new businesses here. We all got a scare a few years back when Village Square was on the market; several developers met with me to share their proposals for residential highrises of generic glass and steel. I told them all I wouldn’t support tearing down Village Square. I worked with council and our Heritage Committee (which I sit on as council representative) on a motion to commission studies of three of the historic properties in the Square, and to prepare a report on the unique historic contribution Village Square makes to the downtown. We’ll review that report in the next term of council. As the downtown develops, Village Square will become increasingly important as a unique destination and it is starting to turn around with new businesses that have come recently including: the HIVE, Son of a Peach, Quilt Shop, Tamp Coffee, Village Cigar, Blyth Academy, Stinson House. The Cirque event in September, which was a partnership with the city, drew thousands of residents and visitors to the Square showing the potential of this unique part of downtown.

Safe place to live and do business

The downtown must be a safe place in order to attract people to live and do business here. Early in my term, I heard many complaints from residents about noise and vandalism, especially at bar closing time, which compromised their quality of life downtown. Some residents have moved out of the downtown; businesses have told me they are wary about investing in beautification of their properties only to be vandalized. Something had to be done, so I formed the Downtown Hospitality Working Group to bring together representatives from the police, alcohol commission, restaurant association, downtown condo association, transit, taxi, and planning, special events and bylaw departments, to work toward solutions together. Late night taxi and transit service has been added to clear out the downtown after bars close; more police presence has been added downtown to guard against vandalism. Since the hospitality group formed, the number of complaint calls to my office have gone down.

The city also reviewed our night club rules, after I brought a motion to council after hearing multiple concerns from residents who lived in a condo where a ground floor restaurant was turned into a late night lounge.  Despite efforts to mitigate the noise, the tenant immediately above the club ended up selling and moving out of the downtown. But his experience led to new rules, initiated by my motion and approved by council, to require a level of office or commercial space between residential units and ground floor restaurants with small dance floors (up to 10m2). Night clubs (defined as having a dance floor larger than 10m2) are not permitted in residential buildings.

 33 recommendations to make downtown better

Fairhome has just celebrated its 10th anniversary.  They've evolved over the years and have since become a destination store for home accessories.  They've just expanded, adding a second floor furniture showroom.
Fairhome has just celebrated its 10th anniversary. They’ve evolved over the years and have since become a destination store for home accessories. They’ve just expanded, adding a second floor furniture showroom.

The search for answers over anecdotes led to the creation by city council of the Downtown Task Group in 2011, to review of the health of downtown, identify current challenges and opportunities and develop a set of recommended actions. Members included the Burlington Downtown Business Association (BDBA), Burlington Economic Development Corporation (BEDC), The Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Burlington. I was privileged to serve as one of the advisors to the task group. The group worked with businesses, residents and visitors – more than 1,800 points of interaction – to form 33 recommendations around a renewed vision of the downtown as “an active waterfront downtown destination that showcases the cultural heart of Burlington.” Our task for the next term of council is to implement those recommendations.

Recommendations include:

EMPLOYMENT: Attracting more employment and niche office uses downtown, including reviewing the city’s land and parking lots as potential locations. Recent research suggests that the typical office worker spends $102 per week on goods and services in immediate area.  Adding jobs also helps residents by providing more opportunities for employment in their own community.

EDUCATIONAL INSTITUTION: Explore opportunities to attract an educational institution to the downtown.

PARKS/OPEN SPACE: In recognition of the need for urban greenspace, review park dedication policies to add urban plazas, parks and open spaces as intensification occurs.

RETAIL: Develop a retail attraction strategy.

FARMER’S MARKET: Explore the feasibility of a year-round farmer’s market downtown.

CULTURE: Add smaller-scale, local festivals, events and cultural activities; potentially create a cultural district downtown. Develop a pilot program for a seasonal road-closures including programming; waive or reduce fees for use of civic square and other downtown public spaces for small scale events.

TRANSIT/CYCLING/WALKING: Maintain a high level of transit service to the downtown, which is identified by the Province as a Mobility Hub; enhance cycling linkages downtown, including extending the Centennial Bikeway with clear markings through the municipal parking lots; complete a pilot pedestrian priority program for downtown.

Council approved these recommendations, and a staff team has been established to begin to implement them. Read more below:

Vision for downtown & recommendations of task group

My Take:

In the next term of council we will need to deliver on the recommendations from the Downtown Task Group, and continue to take steps to improve the downtown. I will continue to champion bringing niche office employment and/or an educational institution to the downtown; bringing more unique retail; maintaining free parking, while improving the concerns about the program; providing better links with the cycling path and more pedestrian-friendly streets; maintaining a strong transit presence; promoting Village Square; developing the downtown as a cultural district, including more local and small-scale events in Civic Square; preserving urban greenspace as the downtown develops; and exploring a year-round farmers market. We need to preserve the unique charm and historic buildings of downtown Burlington, while allowing for appropriate residential and commercial intensification that respects our Official Plan and Zoning.

Your Take:

Do you see an improvement in the downtown? Do you have concerns? What are your ideas for making the downtown more vibrant? What’s the role of your city councillor? City Hall? Business Association? Economic Development Association? Please share your ideas below, or email me at


Written by Marianne Meed Ward

A Better Burlington began in 2006 after my neighbours said they felt left out of city decisions, learning about them only after they’d been made.

As journalist for 22 years, I thought “I can do something about that” and a website and newsletter were born. They’ve taken various forms and names over the years, but the intent remains: To let you know what’s happening at City Hall before decisions are made, so you can influence outcomes for A Better Burlington.

The best decisions are made when elected representatives tap the wisdom of our community members, and welcome many different perspectives.This site allows residents to comment and debate with each other; our Commenting Guidelines established in 2016 aim to keep debate respectful.

Got an idea or comment you want to share privately? Please, get in touch:


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