Toronto

Yonge Street vacancies hurt small businesses during transformation phase

The city's most renowned intersection is going through a transformation. Yonge and Dundas has always been a big tourist destination, but right now vacancies are hurting the surrounding smaller businesses, and some owners say they won’t survive the transition.

Downtown Yonge BIA says vacancy rate is up from 8% to just over 12%

The Downtown Yonge BIA says the retail landscape of Yonge Street is going through an evolution that will benefit both residents and tourists.

The city's most renowned intersection is going through a transformation.

The Yonge and Dundas streets area has always been a big tourist destination, but right now vacancies are hurting the surrounding smaller businesses, and some owners say they won't survive the transition.

"I plan on maybe two years, then I'll be done," said Ming Lau, owner of Shoe Tree on Yonge.

Lau opened the doors to his business 21 years ago and has met people from all over the world since. Lau often reminisces on what business used to be like in the area.

"Twenty years ago, there were so many shops, right? The chain stores, the small guys. Now all those are gone," he said.

Lau says the vacancies across the street where a condo will be built have resulted in more people loitering in the area, which is deterring tourists from shopping on the street.

A couple visiting from Germany told CBC Toronto that people recommended they visit the area, but they weren't impressed.

"It looks sketchy," Jana Hill said. "We went to different places because this is kind of awkward scenery."

The retail scene is changing

Mark Garner with the Downtown Yonge BIA says Toronto's core is expecting a 45 per cent increase in population in the next 10 years, and the retail on the street needs to reflect that.

"With that intensification, the retail changes to be able to support that lived experience," Garner said.

Garner admits that the high cost of property taxes and the size of some of the vacancies may be more suited for larger retail outlets.

"A lot of those old-style businesses here are evolving out of the neighbourhood. To be on this street is very expensive," Garner said.

Garner believes the end result in the next few years will be positive, and there will be a good balance of retail suited for both residents and tourists.

"This is still the number one tourist destination in Toronto. Our pedestrian volumes are actually on the increase."

Garner says the additions of Saks Fifth Avenue and Nordstrom have brought in a new clientele and allowed Yonge Street to compete with the main downtown streets of major cities across the world.

"As we go through this phase, there's a very bright future for downtown."

Pedestrian traffic not the problem

Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam, who represents Ward 27, Toronto Centre-Rosedale, said the challenge is that the smaller shops have to compete with the Toronto Eaton Centre and online shopping.

"It's important to look at the street in its totality," Wong-Tam said. "This is not an area that has an absence of foot traffic."

Wong-Tam said she recognizes Yonge Street is in transition and the city is planning to repurpose and redesign the street for the future.

In September, an environmental assessment study will be launched to have a conversation with the community about what Yonge Street will look like.