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Finding ways to measure a successful downtown (Sept. 15)

Community & C0rporate Services Committee Meeting
Date: Tues. Sept. 15, 2015
Time: 1 & 6:30 PM
Location: Council Chambers, Level 2, City Hall

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Each year, city council receives an update on the State of the Downtown, and how progress is being made toward ensuring a vibrant, viable downtown. This summary is collected in a document called “Core Commitment.” The current Core Commitment includes more than 40 recommendations that arose from two years of research and public input organized by the Downtown Task Group, of which I was a member. The task group explored where we’re at, what other successful downtowns do, the role of the city, what the public wants downtown and more.

The resulting Core Commitment outlines progress toward existing initiatives, as well as new initiatives. A summary of both is below and includes attracting office uses downtown, 3D modelling to assist with development planning, updated streetscape design guidelines, a multiuse path from Martha Street through downtown (Elgin promenade) and a pop-up patio pilot project. New initiatives include exploring seasonal road closures.

Staff were also directed to report back to council on ways to measure and evaluate the success in achieving the objectives of the Core Commitment. The process included a number of workshops which I attended, and resulted in a set of performance measures outlined in a staff report that will be considered by council sitting as the Community & Corporate Services Committee Sept. 15. The report is Item #6 on the C&CS Agenda Sept. 15. Residents can register as a delegation to speak to the item at committee.

Staff have explored collecting data on land use mix, percentage of businesses that meet profit targets/business plans, year over year percentage increase in event attendance by event type and season, ratio of public investment to capital investment in the downtown, and year over year Satisfaction Rate with the downtown experience by residents and visitors.

However, staff have cautioned that there will be difficulty collecting and interpreting the data, it will require additional staff and resources and in the end may be of limited value to evaluating the downtown experience.

As staff note in the report, “measuring the “health” of a downtown is not a science.”

“The vibrancy and activity of a downtown area is difficult to quantify because downtowns are experienced by the people who use them. The successful experiences of a downtown’s residents and visitors cannot be measured solely by the number of building permits issued or the assessment value of the properties. There is an experiential quality to a downtown environment …[and] downtowns are constantly evolving experiences.

“It can take years to observe improvements in downtown environments and year over year data may not be helpful until multi-year trends become available.”

Should council wish to proceed with data collection, staff will prepare a business case for consideration during the 2016 budget to collect data regarding land use mix, sidewalk activity, year over year satisfaction rates of downtown visitors and percentage of businesses that meet their profit targets/business plans.

Downtown Initiatives

Attracting employment downtown:

We know from our Downtown Task Group research that one of the keys to a successful downtown is a vibrant professional, office sector. We need more of that downtown and one of my goals will be attracting office, preferably on one of the vacant parking lots in downtown Burlington, such as the Elizabeth Street lot across from Village Square.

A downtown employment strategy has yet to be completed. The employment strategy is the responsibility of the Burlington Economic Development Corporation (BEDC). BEDC has advised that it intends to develop a strategy for the QEW Prosperity Corridor and use it as a template for a future downtown plan.

I do have concerns about this approach which I will share with BEDC and at committee. The downtown is unique in a number of ways, including our compact built form and the fact that new surface parking is prohibited. We have walkable amenities, access to the waterfront, and a Downtown Business Association (along with associated levies, including a parking levy and a BIA levy). The QEW corridor is more stand alone office park with lots of parking, at cheaper real estate and business rates than downtown, along with different amenities. The kind of client attracted to that environment will be different than the office employer who wants to be downtown. As such a strategy developed for the QEW corridor won’t necessarily be applicable in the downtown environment.

Other initiatives currently underway, but not identified explicitly in Core Commitment, include exploring opportunities to enhance employment growth in the downtown.

Leveraging city-owned real estate for jobs downtown:

A strategic review of downtown real estate, led by Capital Works has included an assessment of development options for each of the city’s surface parking lots, including employment uses. This work is the topic of a confidential Council workshop scheduled for September 14, 2015. Additionally, as part of the Official Plan Review, Planning and Building staff is considering potential policy approaches to encourage more office space in the downtown. These findings will help inform the BEDC’s employment strategy.

I will work with staff to publicly release as much of this information as we can, so the public can participate in this important discussion.

Development of a Computer 3D model:

Working with the Special Business Area Coordinator, Capital Works staff has prepared a Request for Proposals to develop a 3D computer model of the downtown. The model is intended to capture existing conditions and be continuously updated as new developments are approved and built. The model will provide an excellent tool for community engagement and visioning exercises for the downtown and will assist staff and Council in assessing development proposals and options.

Updated Streetscape Design Guidelines

The current downtown streetscape guidelines were approved in the 1980s and are outdated. The guidelines establish standards for sidewalks, street furniture and lighting. A consulting team has been retained to prepare new guidelines reflective of contemporary design standards.  Standards for sidewalk and pop-up patios are also included in the scope of the study. Final recommendations are expected later this fall.

Residents are invited to a workshop focused on updating these guidelines on:

Date: Wednesday, Sept. 30
Time: 6:30 – 8:30 p.m.
Location: Burlington Lions’ Club Hall, 471 Pearl St.

Elgin Promenade

This proposed multi-use path takes advantages of the existing TransNorthern Pipeline/Trunk Sanitary easement which runs east-west through the downtown from the Centennial Bike Trail at Martha ultimately through to Brant Street. Preliminary designs have been completed in-house and the first phase of the project is tentatively scheduled for completion in the spring of 2016, in association with the rehabilitation of the surface parking lot between Pearl and Elizabeth Streets. Funding for the path enhancements will be included in the 2016 Capital Budget for Council’s consideration. The Burlington Downtown Business Association (BDBA) is committed to providing additional funding for beautification elements such as benches in keeping with its mandate to beautify publicly owned spaces in the downtown. Through the Canada150, the Government of Canada has approved a non-repayable contribution of $36,979 towards the project. An application for funding was also made in August 2015 through the Ontario Municipal Cycling Infrastructure Program.

Test Kitchen's pop-up patio is a one-year pilot project to help animate the street.
Test Kitchen’s pop-up patio is a one-year pilot project to help animate the street.

Pop-up Patio Pilot

A pilot to allow a patio within on-street parking spaces is currently underway at one location in the downtown, Test Kitchen. At the end of the summer season, staff will consider feedback from the public and stakeholders as well as the restaurant operator and report back to Council with recommendations for continuation of the pilot.

New Initiatives

Seasonal Street Closures

One of the goals of the Core Commitment was to explore opportunities for temporary and seasonal road closures with the goal of increasing activity and animation in the downtown. To be successful, road closures must be accompanied by programmed activity, whether formal or informal, provided by the City, private businesses, community groups or other organizations. The BDBA currently runs several successful programs that benefit from road closures. This includes Downtown Streetfest, in conjunction with the Sound of Music Festival, which includes street closures of Brant Street from Lakeshore to Caroline and John Street south of Pine. The BDBA also executes an on-street musical/cultural program in the summer, called Saturdays in the Street, which closes the leg of Elgin Street from Brant to Locust for a fixed three-hour period. Building on this success, the BDBA has recently become aware of business owners along Pine Street between Pearl and Elizabeth Streets interested in considering a seasonal road closure program for the summer of 2016. The BDBA is pursuing this potential initiative with its members.

BDBA is currently canvassing members on their interest in seasonal road closures. Staff will report back to Council with recommendations for a broader street closure program for 2016, as part of the Pop-Up Patio pilot reporting this fall. In addition, the Events Strategy will engage both residents and businesses on the topic of seasonal street closures.

My Take:

Though I believe data can help to inform and guide decisions, I don’t support data collection for the sake of it. We need to heed staff’s cautions on the limited value coupled with the cost of collecting all of the data outlined. That said, the one measure I do believe is worth collecting is the land use mix. Our research has found that a downtown too heavily weighted to commercial uses, or to residential uses, struggles. We need to know what the ideal residential/commercial mix is, know where we stand, and strive to achieve our goal through development permits and incentives if need be.

My personal view is we need more office development downtown to balance the ongoing residential development and to bring a more varied, year-round, demographic of people downtown, including young professionals. More jobs downtown would also help our residents live and work closer to home rather than commuting far afield for employment.

I was inspired to seek public office because I believe, like so many of you, “I can do something about that” on the issues we face. As councilor, my role is to take a stand on what’s best for residents and go to bat for it. Pushback is inevitable from those who don’t have the community’s interests at heart. I will stand with you and for you, to achieve the best interests of our city, without caving to unacceptable compromise in the name of consensus.

One Comment

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  1. I wonder who is advantaged by the multitude of Downtown Street closures. Certainly not the residents of the Downtown Core!

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