Burlington Election 2014: Creating a thriving downtown

Healthy cities have thriving downtowns – we’re well on our way with opportunities ahead

VIDEO:  Great things are happening in Burlington’s downtown thanks to the efforts of a team of people working together.  Meet Shaun Pennell of the Burlington Hive and hear his vision for attracting entrepreneurs and startups in our downtown.  Meet Ellen McWhinnie, soon to open the Brant Street Butcher – sure to be popular with residents.

Brant Street BurliingtonYou can assess the vitality of a city by the state of its downtown. Downtown Burlington isn’t better than other neighbourhoods in our city, but it does play a unique role – and faces unique challenges, from paid parking to high real estate costs.

When I was campaigning in 2010, I heard concerns from many businesses about empty store fronts and high turnover; that paid parking was keeping customers away, especially on weekends and at Christmas; and that the new condo towers weren’t delivering the expected “feet on the street” – many of these folks are retirees who have downsized, travel extensively or have second homes elsewhere, especially in the winter months. I received complaints about noise and vandalism from late night activities, and after bar closings, and requests for increased police presence.

So how are we doing? We’ve made significant progress in many of these areas – so much so that other communities are looking to Burlington to copy our success. And yet there is more work to do, particularly in attracting jobs to downtown Burlington.

Here’s an overview of where we’re at and some of the challenges ahead.

Free Parking:

In order to attract more visitors to the downtown, city council approved free parking in December (starting in 2013) and every Saturday (beginning in 2014). A recent survey of residents and businesses found that the free parking attracted 10% more people to visit the downtown. (Read more here) Credit for this initiative goes to the Downtown Parking Committee, which includes business and resident representatives, transportation and planning staff, Tourism Burlington, the Burlington Performing Arts Centre, and the Burlington Downtown Business Association (BDBA). I’m honoured to serve as one of two council representatives on the Parking Committee. In making the case for free parking, the Committee commissioned an analysis of the supply of parking downtown – and found a surplus of over 400 spaces, meaning a new above or underground structure wasn’t needed as early as expected. A separate financial analysis found that free parking would not compromise the parking reserve fund needed to build new parking when the time comes.

Feet on the Street:

Several new initiatives have helped bring people downtown, including Fit in the Core (a free fitness program on Sundays in civic square); Saturdays in the Square (free music); and Shop the ‘Hood – a local shopping initiative that helped the Burlington Downtown Business Association win one of three $10,000 Community Spirit awards given to GTA business associations by the Yellow Pages. The Yellow Pages promoted the BDBA in their recent magazine as a best practise and has asked the BDBA to work with them in 2014 to develop the program further as a year-round initiative. Credit for these and other programs go to the staff and volunteers of the BDBA, a creative and engaged group of people, many of whom both live and work downtown. As the council representative on the BDBA board, I’ve seen firsthand the innovation and commitment of this team.

Condos vs Office Space:

The downtown is an urban growth centre which requires us to meet certain intensification targets. However, we can reach these growth targets through jobs or residential units, and businesses have discovered that residential condo development alone does not deliver the feet on the street needed for a vibrant downtown. Through the work of the downtown task group (which I was honoured to be a member of), office attraction was identified as a priority for the downtown. City Council approved the downtown as one of five hubs in the city for focused economic growth through the Burlington Economic Development Corporation. The downtown business association is also working with the BEDC on a retail attraction strategy for downtown.

Village Square:

Village SquareVillage Square is a unique historic enclave of shops within the downtown. When it was put on the market for sale recently, I worked with the owners, BDBA, BEDC and others to find a way to make the Square viable as is, and not tear it down for development. These conversations are ongoing. City council agreed to commission a review of three historic buildings in the Square; that report found the three buildings worthy of heritage designation (though they are not currently designated). Council also commissioned another report on the overall heritage character of the Square within the downtown context. That report will come to council this Spring. In a rapidly modernizing downtown of glass towers, it will be more important than ever to maintain the historic Square to preserve variety and character in the core.

Downtown Hospitality Working Group:

In response to concerns about noise and vandalism arising from night life activity in the downtown, I formed a Downtown Hospitality Working Group with members from the Halton Regional Police, Alcohol & Gaming Commission, By-Law Enforcement, special events, licensing and planning staff, Burlington Restaurant Association, Downtown Condominium Association, Burlington transit and taxi, and the Burlington Downtown Business Association.  This group meets twice a year to work together to promote a number of initiatives, including smart alcohol service, enhanced police presence, a range of transit and taxi options to clear out the downtown when bars close, and more. Late night transit has been added, and Burlington Taxi ran a pilot program for a late night tax van service. Since 2010, Halton Regional Police have operated an Integrated Summer Response Team to check parks, bars and the beach area; conduct ride checks; and provide a downtown foot patrol between 9pm and 3am. Since the hospitality group formed, the number of complaint calls to my office have gone down.

Night Club Study:

The first motion I brought as a new member of council, one month into the job, was to ask staff to review our bylaws for where night clubs can locate in the downtown in relation to residential areas. The motion came as a result of noise complaints to my office about a late night lounge that opened up in the ground floor of a condominium where a family restaurant used to be. Residents achieved a partial victory: as a result of the study, council made it a requirement for restaurants with dance floors up to 10m2 located on the ground floor of residential buildings to have a floor of office or commercial space as a noise buffer between the night club and the residential units. Night clubs (defined as having a dance floor larger than 10m2) are not permitted in residential buildings. However, noise continued to be a problem from bars located beside residential areas. In two cases, I worked with residents and restaurant owners to attach noise conditions on the liquor license of new bars, which were upheld by the Liquor License Tribunal. The number of noise complaints to my office has gone down.

Vision for Downtown:

Burlington downtown - Lakeshore and BrantThe pressures of intensification on the historic buildings and low-rise character of our downtown contributed in part to the need for a renewed vision for downtown. In 2011, City Council created the Downtown Task Group 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.”

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.

The road ahead:

In the next term of council we will need to deliver on the recommendations from the Downtown Task Group. 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 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 intensification that respects our Official Plan and Zoning.