Thunder Bay·Audio

Storefronts turned into apartments? Thunder Bay biz has concerns

A long-time business owner in Thunder Bay's Westfort area says he worries about the way some empty shops are being redeveloped.
A former business strip on Grenville Avenue in Thunder Bay's Current River area faded away because shops became living space, a business owner in the city says. (Gary Rinne/CBC)
Turning empty storefronts into apartments. Some business owners in Thunder Bay say it could threaten their shopping district. Matt Prokopchuk has more 6:23
A long-time business owner in Thunder Bay's Westfort area says he worries about the way some empty shops are being redeveloped.

Jack Moro, a spokesperson with the Westfort Village Business Improvement Association, said some former storefronts have either been converted into apartments already, or soon will be.

Wesfort business owner Jack Moro. (Nicole Ireland/CBC)
He said that devalues the business district as a whole.

“I've been here at this store for 41 years. At JB Evans, we've had a business community here for more than 100 years. It's obviously a value to the community and the people who live here.”

Moro said he wants a process in place to ensure all efforts be taken to secure a new commercial tenant before turning a storefront into apartments.

A balancing act

City staff have agreed to a meeting to discuss the issue in the new year, he noted.

“There's lots of great shops in our area and, one by one, if they, some of the shops transform into living, we lose some of that opportunity to draw new business to our area,” he said.

Moro said a former business strip on Grenville Avenue in Thunder Bay's Current River neighbourhood faded away because shops became living space.

The manager of Thunder Bay's planning division said there's a balancing act when it comes to redeveloping old properties.

Leslie McEachern is Thunder Bay's Planning Manager. (Amy Hadley/CBC)
“If you do regulate so that you can't have a residential space, for example on a main floor, or on the street frontage, you have to weigh that building staying vacant if there are challenges in occupying it with a commercial space,” Leslie McEachern said.

"Do you occupy it as a residential use or do you leave it vacant as a commercial use and what are the costs associated with that, both from the owner's perspective and to the business community at large."

Not part of ‘strategic plan’

McEachern says the city will consult other business associations in Thunder Bay for their input on the matter.

Representatives from the BIAs that encompass the two downtown cores say they're not noticing the same issue, but it's not something they want to see happen either.

Jim Comuzzi, vice chair of the Waterfront District Business Improvement Association. (Waterfront District Business Improvement Association )
Jim Comuzzi, who owns Roosters Bistro and chairs the Waterfront District BIA said he hopes “that it's not part of our strategic plan here in the downtown waterfront. We're trying to really regenerate and rejuvenate this area and it has been in the last four or five years."

Residential development on the upper floors of the buildings in the downtown is preferable, Comuzzi said, adding he’d like to know how many of the existing apartment spaces on upper floors are being rented out, or are in a condition to be rented.

McEachern noted the city's rental crunch will be an important part of any discussion, but she said she's happy to work with the business community to find a solution. And that could include regulatory changes to zoning bylaws.

‘People are looking for space to live’

The issue came to light at council back in November, when council heard from a property owner in Westfort who was looking to redevelop the old Fun Factor building on Frederica Street.

Results from the Canadian Rental Housing Index say that 38 per cent of New Brunswick renters are spending more than 30 per cent of their income on rent. (CBC News)
Officials from the Westfort Village BIA attended that meeting and speak in favour of the project, which proposes a storefront business. At that time, the issue of storefronts being converted into apartments was raised.

In some cases, depending on how a property is zoned, it's very easy to switch a storefront into an apartment, Moro said.

He noted that, because of the low vacancy rate in the city, this repurposing issue could come up elsewhere in the city.

"Apartments are at an all-time high in low vacancy rates. There's not many openings and opportunities — and people are looking for space to live."

Moro said every property in such a situation needs to be looked at and dealt with individually, "one business at a time, one property at a time."

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