What makes Burlington great? The city recently held an art contest, asking residents to draw a picture of what makes our city great. All three winning entries focused on the downtown, and in particular our waterfront area. View artwork here
Clearly, residents across the city take pride and ownership in the downtown, regardless of where they live.
Cities are only as healthy as their downtowns, so ensuring a vibrant downtown for Burlington is good not only for those of us who live and work here, but for the health of our city as a whole.
The downtown faces some unique challenges, and unique opportunities. There are several initiatives underway to understand those challenges and opportunities and ensure a bright future for downtown.
Council has struck a task group to take action on the downtown, bringing together representatives from the Burlington Downtown Business Association, Burlington Economic Development Corporation, Burlington Chamber of Commerce, Tourism Burlington, city planning staff, and two council representatives, myself and Ward 3 Councillor John Taylor.
We’ve already met several times. Some of the items we’re discussing include reaching growth through jobs, not just housing; increased property taxes; parking; the merchandising mix; development opportunities outlined in the “core commitment” document, and more.
Reaching growth through jobs, not just housing
The downtown is identified by the province as an Urban Growth Centre, and must achieve growth targets of 200 people or jobs per hectare. A lot of condo development has occurred downtown, but this hasn’t brought the feet-on-the-street that was expected – many residents are empty nesters who travel or spend winters in Florida so aren’t present large parts of the year. The issue: how to bring feet on the street year round, and achieve our growth targets with a mix of jobs and residential units.
Assessing the impact of increased property tax rates
New high-rise and condo construction in the downtown has increased property values, much more significantly than elsewhere in the city, driving up property tax rates by 100 to 150% in some cases, according to a local commercial real estate agent. But there hasn’t been a corresponding increase in revenue to businesses. What can be done in this case to assist businesses?
Reevaluating the merchandising mix
What is the right mix of stores for the downtown, especially with the expansion of nearby Maple View Mall and changes coming for Burlington Mall? A merchandising study was conducted in 2009. The task group will be reviewing and refreshing that study.
Updating the “core commitment” strategies
In 2005, council approved a set of strategies to achieve a vision for the downtown, called the “core commitment.” Some of the outstanding items include attracting a 4-star hotel, office building or post secondary campus; building a new parking garage; attracting a fresh food market, and marketing the downtown as a regional tourism destination.The task group will review and update that document. You can read the document and supporting studies online here.
Reevaluating parking policies
The downtown is the only part of the city where there is a charge for parking on-street and in public lots. Businesses within a defined area are not required to provide on-site parking – although many do. Instead, they pay into a levy to build a future parking structure. All businesses pay, even those who have the required on-site parking. Revenues from parking lots and metres also go toward building a parking structure. Many businesses have said that charging for parking hurts their business and their employees, who often make minimum wage. The city offers free parking to city employees only. As a principle of good governance, the policies we set should not advantage ourselves over others. I do not use my free parking space, but instead make it available to residents visiting City Hall on Ward business. As a separate initiative (see story below) the city is reviewing parking policies in the downtown.
The task group will be seeking public input on the challenges and opportunities in the downtown. Watch for those opportunities. Got an idea or a comment? Please comment below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The task group will be formulating recommendations for action, and divide up “who does what” among the participating agencies, to reduce overlap and ensure nothing falls through the cracks.
My take: A healthy city requires a healthy downtown. A key focus for me for the balance of this council term of office will be ensuring a vibrant downtown, and moving beyond talk to ensure recommendations become actions.