So what’s the lowdown on the downtown? I recently reached out to the Burlington Economic Development Corporation (BEDC) to get some data to provide an objective perspective on key indicators of economic health city-wide, to compare that to our experience downtown.
The good news is that Chicken Little need not apply: based on the data, the downtown is healthy, with vacancy rates that mirror and in some sectors are lower than those across Burlington. This is in spite of the fact that the downtown faces some unique challenges, detailed below.
What we’ve learned
- commercial vacancy rates hover at 24.2%
- industrial rates are 4.6%
- 34% professional sector
- 36% service sector
- 15% restaurants, eateries and other members of the hospitality sector
- 15% retailers
According to BEDC, it has been a challenge to get retail-only vacancy rates. These rates are not published by the major brokerages. In the past, brokerages have cited difficulty in tracking a reliable number. As of 2014, the Urbanmetrics study identified that Burlington has 10.6 million square feet of retail and service space and that the vacancy rate was 5% at that time. The study is located here: Urbanmetrics Commercial Strategy Study
Competitive turnover rates
- paid parking: downtown businesses don’t have to provide on-site parking, in order to preserve the walkable, small-town appeal of our storefronts, close to the street. Instead, businesses pay into a parking levy to provide shared municipal parking, onstreet, in city lots and in the garage. The Burlington Downtown Business Association paid for 1/3 of the garage construction, with the balance paid by parking rates and fees, and a city contribution (the city receives ongoing rent revenue from tenants of the parking garage street-level and second floor commercial space). Many downtown businesses do have onsite parking, but receive no discount to the levy. Some businesses also pay for monthly permits for themselves or employees. So, downtown businesses can pay up to four times for parking: 1- through the levy; 2- to maintain their own onsite parking; 3-through monthly permits for employees; and 4- through general taxes when a new structure is built.
- development: downtown redevelopment has created both pros and cons for downtown businesses; more (potential) customers, but also sharply escalating land values due to land assembly and price speculation for development, forced relocation when a site is redeveloped, and difficulty in some cases getting long term leases due to planned redevelopment. All these factors contribute to vacancy rates and churn. Overdevelopment in height and density only magnifies these challenges, which is why sticking closely to the Official Plan and Zoning is so important. It’s also critical to attract a variety of housing types with redevelopment, to attract a healthy mix of new residents (recently we’ve seen one highrise format built, that mainly appeals to empty-nesters who often leave town during the winter months; we also want to attract more youth and families to live downtown,). And we need commercial redevelopment, not just residential, so people can both live and work downtown, providing year-round, feet-on-the street.
- Business Improvement Area levy: On top of the usual costs of doing business, downtown businesses pay a levy to the Burlington Downtown Business Association – mind you, they get great value in return, which I’ve seen up close as the council representative on the BDBA. Member benefits include: beautification (flowers/Christmas lights); numerous events to bring customers downtown, either direct-delivered or offered in partnership with others; member networking and mentoring, sharing expertise to keep every business thriving; advocacy to City Hall on policies, development and other issues affecting the downtown community; and a business recruitment specialist to attract new businesses to the core, just to name a few benefits.
Downtown (like the rest of the city) will always be in a state of change, which, if managed with purpose and care, will keep downtown healthy and vibrant now and for the future.