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Getting Upfront with Empty Storefronts in Little India

Local community campaign hopes to beautify Gerrard with bylaws targeting neglected storefronts and their landlords.

Photo by {a href=””}Simon Remark{/a} from the {a href=””}Torontoist Flickr Pool{/a}.

Last Wednesday, a group of about 20 people got together to discuss the current state of things in and around Gerrard and Coxwell, an area commonly known as Little India that is home to a diverse and rapidly changing population. If you haven’t been there lately, this might be part of the reason: a significant number of the stores are empty.

The meeting, held in the back of Lazy Daisy’s Cafe, was attended by Councillor Mary-Margaret McMahon (Ward 32, Beaches-East York), local landscape architect Bryce Miranda, an artists’ collective led by Farhad Nargol-O’Neill, several community groups, a municipal lawyer, a few real estate agents, and Star columnist/reporter Catherine Porter, who previously wrote about the troubles that Lazy Daisy’s owner, Dawn Chapman, has faced in Little India.

Discussion about the state of Little India started when Chapman, who has lived in the neighbourhood for six years, saw a local store sign that was in poor shape and had rusty nails jutting out of it. She was concerned about the safety of her children, with whom she walked past the sign regularly, and also did not appreciate the eyesore on her street. A few phone calls to the City later, the sign was replaced. While Chapman celebrated her success, it also irked her that the general landscape of Gerrard Street around Coxwell included so many neglected and vacant storefronts. She wanted to know whether it was permissible for landlords to simply abandon their properties, contributing to a poor first impression of the neighbourhood that is unfair to residents and discourages development in the local economy.

The storefront at 265 Coxwell Avenue is where Chapman has set her sights on beginning community revitalization. It has been empty for at least four years and its landlord has all but disappeared. Recently, a Lazy Daisy’s regular said he had called the landlord at least 16 times about renting the space; he would like to open up a dance school and help bring some life back into the community. During the meeting, similar stories arose of landlords who were dismissive, untraceable, or uninterested in fixing up their storefronts.

Photo by Harry Choi/Torontoist.

While Toronto has some provisions that touch on the treatment of vacant properties in the Property Standards Bylaw [PDF], there are only minimal requirements when it comes to the appearance of vacant commercial properties. (The current provisions only require landlords to guard against accidents, fires, and squatting by boarding up windows and doors.)

One of the meeting’s goals was to consider what programs and bylaw changes might work for Toronto. The group looked particularly at examples from two other cities, Seattle and Winnipeg, that provide incentives for landlords to maintain certain standards of appearance in their storefronts. Seattle, for instance, has a program called Storefronts Seattle that leases vacant storefronts from property owners for a nominal rent, and uses those spaces for art installations and artists’ studios. Others preferred Winnipeg’s tough-love approach: in 2010, that city passed a bylaw that includes rigorous maintenance standards for vacant buildings.

Meanwhile, the group that met last week is looking to bring some community art projects to Little India with the help of Nargol-O’Neill’s collective, and plans to prepare toolkits that will allow residents to understand and discuss community revitalization with the help of the community organizations. (For more information, contact the Gerrard East Community Organization.)

Erin Salisbury has lived in the neighbourhood for 12 years and is about to open up a toy store just west of Coxwell. She said that the neighbourhood has changed a lot since she first arrived, and that there is a bit of an “us-versus-them” tension between the South Asian community and the Leslieville families. “Everyone isn’t using the same places,” she pointed out. She hopes to see a more inclusive neighbourhood and greater engagement in working toward that goal. “If we want nice places to live, we have to put in the effort.”

Second photo by sniderscion from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.


  • Tluton

    FYI , the second photo is at Gerrard & Devon, which is a block east of Woodbine, and a bit outside Little India. (Doesn’t mean a new owner/tenant wouldn’t hurt)

    • Lola356

      and the building has been repurposed since this picture was taken – not sure if its a music studio or what – and its a big improvement.

      • Anonymous

        Our apologies! I’ve swapped in a more appropriate image, and thanks for calling our attention to this.

  • Anonymous

    On every empty building, paint everything except the brick a single vibrant colour. or if the brick is already painted, paint the entire thing.
    The street will look amazing. People will go to take photos. Pedestrian traffic will explode. Neighbourhood will do better.

    • Rachel Lissner

      One of the concerns expressed at the meeting was how to physically alter the neighbourhood without legally stepping on anyone’s toes. The BIA could also take advantage of its status and position of authority, but it seems right now that they are occupied with other things. We’ll see how it goes.

  • Anonymous

    Why would a landlord not return a call from someone wanting to give them rent money???

    • qviri

      From landlord’s point of view:

      1) Expected rent less than cost to rent: if I offered you a dollar or a hundred dollars a month, that might not be worth drafting up the agreement and potential costs when you move out or fall behind on payments and have to be evicted
      2) Value of property might be higher when it’s empty: no lease to contend with, if new owner wants to do something with the space immediately they can

      Not saying these aren’t bad, shortsighted reasons. But hey… we’re in Toronto, where Pages stood vacant on Queen West for over a year.

    • Lola

      the 30% tax rebate they get from the city for vacant properties – must be more then the rent they could possibly get.

      • Danforth Denizen

        That’s probably more the reason, and also: waiting for the condos to creep along. Up north a bit on the Danforth (where this kind of discussion has been going on a bit longer), its just as bad. My barber had been in the same shop since 1965 (Colanglo’s), and four years ago his rent was jacked up. Place has been empty ever since.

        What kind of business model says you can make more money (or lose less, I guess) on an empty building. You still have to pay tax, and unless you’ve shut the water off, you’d have to pay a bit for electricity or gas to heat it.

      • Anonymous

        Why is the city rewarding vacancy and encouraging landlords to create street dead zones?

  • Anonymous

    I have decidedly mixed feelings about these kinds of initiatives, for it seems they inexorably morph into soul-destroying gentrification and homogenization. The texture of a living city includes the old, shabby and dilapidated. Once the yuppies take over, starbucks and shoppers drug mart aren’t far behind.

    Tread lightly, lest you will wind up destroying that which you seek to ‘improve’.

    • Canadianskeezix

      Yes, the texture of a large living city includes the “old, shabby and dilapidated”, but it hardly represents an ideal. In fact, the “old, shabby and dilapidated” undermines walkable, urban neighbourhoods, as it encourages people to get in their cars for every errand and restaurant meal. And in places like this, the gentrification of the side residential streets proceeds unabated, notwithstanding the “old, shabby and dilapidated”.

      The “old, shabby and dilapidated” vs. yuppies taking over with Starbucks is just false dichotomy, suggesting you can have urban decay or homegenous chain stores, with nothing in between. We all admittedly worry about the proliferation of chain stores crowding out independent businesses, but hanging on to deteriorating and vacant storefronts won’t help in that fight.

      • Caligula Jones

        Considering that Shoppers is pretty much the only bright spot in a half dozen blocks between Greenwood and Woodbine, not sure where the hate is coming from. I guess we could all get our drugs from the dealers and hookers who infest those dark and dingy doorsteps, or all those creepy cafes.

        I’ll take my chances with a Starbucks, thanks. Never actually go in (Caketown Cafe, Celina’s and Cozy Cafe get my business) but I’ve never seen a dingy Starbucks yet.

        • Anonymous

          Welcome to Disneyland!

          • Caligula Jones

            You don’t really know what the phrase “false dichotomy” means, do you.?

          • Canadianskeezix

            First, Calgula, why are you giving me crap about Starbucks and Shoppers? I didn’t criticize either. And perhaps an explanation as to what you mean would be better than a snarky/pompous “You don’t really know what the phrase “false dichotomy” means, do you.?” How did I misuse it?

            And, dsmithhfx, “welcome to Disneyworld” is just an insulting reply to people who have taken the time to respond intelligently to your comment.

          • Caligula Jones

            Umm…no. My reply, obviously, was to dsmithhfx. You know, where it says “…in reply to dsmithhfx?”.

            Chill, I thought it was a great, and proper, use of a debating point, that’s all. I know these comboxes can be hard to follow sometimes, but dsmithhfx is the idiot here.

          • Anonymous

            This from someone who self-identifies as a “libertarian”?


    • Anonymous

      The people of the neighbourhood might love to have a (Shoppers, for example) so they don’t have to travel outside the hood to get its goods/services. That that seems to offend you is a tad bizarre.

      Cities change, neighbourhoods change, everything changes. The end.

    • Stoney

      I live slightly west of this neighbourhood at Gerard and Jones and we are going through a similar thing over here. Yes we have a Starbucks but we also have a little Pilipino market, Ruyi Chinese and the Collegiate Lunch, all of which I would love to stay. The problem is with the empty storefronts and there are six or seven of those in a two block stretch.

      • Rachel Lissner

        Apparently rumours were buzzing that the community was going to be kickstarted by the opening of a Starbucks. I haven’t quite seen that happening, but it’d be great to see all of Gerrard East given a second (third! fourth!) wind.

        • Stoney

          Grinder kickstarted it, just take a look at this stretch on Google Street View, it’s still 2009 on there and you can see a huge difference compared to today. In my mind every store front that is not empty is a good thing, whether it’s Wind, Public Mobile, McGugans or whatever Blueberry Boulevard turns out to be.

    • Anonymous

      There’s charming shabby when these businesses are functional, and then there’s the kind of shabby where your neighbourhood is short on useful, thriving businesses and empty storefronts are just a blight on the area.

      • Rachel Lissner

        Precisely. The meeting wanted to encourage people to come to the area and celebrate all it has to offer (or could offer), but right now it’s hard to do that when the landlords are unresponsive and uninterested in contributing to the community.

      • Anonymous

        This is a symptom of a global, structural economic malaise, which yet another clutch of failing small retail shops and some art-y window dressing is not actually going to address. YMMV, of course…

        • Anonymous

          I’m not counting on small retail, failing or otherwise, or arty window dressing to address that. I live in an area where retail of all sorts has long had a hard time because of low pedestrian traffic, and it’s been the few major retail outlets that arrived as well as the local small startups (including the arty ones, incidentally) that have had staying power and made a difference. Meanwhile there’s still an abandoned hardware store, attracting graffiti, posters, garbage and possibly squatters, that no one seems to be able to do anything about and which is progressively deteriorating, offering nothing to the texture of the living city. THAT is soul-destroying. YMMV, indeed.

          • Anonymous

            So… if not a nation of shop-keepers, a nation of shoppers at least. Oh, and you forgot rats.

          • Anonymous

            Not really sure what you’re insinuating there. Failure-prone small retail, homogenizing major chain retail and decrepitude are not the only options. There’s also no requirement for previous retail use to be replaced by more retail.

  • Anonymous

    This is a good example of the drawbacks of Property Rights Über Alles-thinking. Landlords should be required to keep property in a good state of repair and presentation, including the adjacent sidewalk, with stiff fines for failure to comply.

  • Sara

    Writing “South Asian community and the Leslieville families” exarcebates social exclusion. Why are South Asians not considered “Leslieville families”?

  • Aaron

    Well it is Little India and it doesn’t look much worse than most of the dumpy streets in this city. Lovely third-world telegraph poles and all.

  • Justin Gobel

    It seems the vacant store on Gerrard and Rhodes, has been taken under receivership

    • Rachel Lissner

      I saw that, too. Do you know how recently that post went up? That location in particular has been pinned as the poster child of why things need to be shaken up. The pigeons seem pretty comfy above the door frame.

  • Birdie

    Has anyone asked the South Asian community for their opinion and imput on how to improve the neighbourhood? Also, this meeting was held within a private space (a business) and the event was not well advertised. (Why not in a community centre town hall meeting style?) It would be better I think if the whole community was invited to have their say.

    That said I do think that having less empty storefronts would be better for the neighbourhood but why is it that businesses choose not to start up there? Has anyone looked at the other factors such as the income level of the residents in the neighbourhood that may be a factor in supporting new businesses? Is it just because the storefronts are empty and in disrepair?

    • Rachel Lissner

      The South Asian community, for the most part, has packed up and moved to the suburbs. Those who are still in Little India get little foot traffic and they have a lot of serious competition with each other as they all mostly sell food or clothing. The economic diversity of South Asian shops isn’t so vast. As I mentioned in another comment, the BIA was invited to the meeting but did not attend due to a scheduling conflict and being generally unresponsive.

      As for why the meeting wasn’t public, it was to start laying down a serious and viable track for getting change done in the neighbourhood. Clearly this is a community issue – community revitalization is the ultimate goal!) – but it helps to have some core ideas set before it is taken on by a much larger group of people. Any ideas you have would gladly be fielded by GECO.

      One of the reasons businesses aren’t opening is because they simply are not allowed to; many landlords get economic kickbacks from the City for remaining vacant, others are so deep in debt that they make demands of their tenants that they as landlords should be responsible for. And if you take a look at the neighbourhood, you’d have to be a very confident business owner to venture opening something new in the neighbourhood, largely in part of looks. The residents themselves are quite varied, many of whom are young families doing home renovations and looking to stay in the neighbourhood for a long time.

      • Anonymous

        It’s frustrating because empty properties can become magnets for vandalism and worse.

        • Rachel Lissner

          Broken windows theory, my friend.

          • Anonymous

            It might seem like a cliché but most clichés are truths that have become tiresomely obvious.

        • Justin

          the Friendly Super Mkt area has had 2 arsons, before local residents got the city involved concrening dumping etc. that area has only recently become part of the BIA. (in last 120 days aprox.)

          about 15 years ago ashdale village members painted addresses on the back of building so when Fire broke out, they could directed to correct address, as most arson were at the back of building.

    • Tammy Rogers

      This particular meeting was hosted by a business owner to simply brainstorm some ideas with other business and community members. Whereas the Gerrard East Community Organization (GECO) has held a number of public meetings in a local community centre that were advertised and the Gerrard India Bazaar BIA was notified and a liaison committee formed between the two groups. It has been a slow process to bring the two groups together but the day following this Wednesday meeting, GECO held a very successful and positive meet and greet between the business owners and the residents. Efforts are being made on both sides to rejuvenate the neighbourhood for everyone.

      As to why the owners won’t lease, it remains a mystery to me. I’ve been a resident for 10 years and have personally inquired about a few spaces to rent only to be stonewalled by excuses or exorbitant prices. Regarding the particular “pigeon-pooped” location that has now gone into receivership, I personally know 3 people who wanted to open businesses there and the owner wouldn’t deal, now they will lose the place. It doesn’t make any sense.

  • Mike

    As I walk by the Friendly Super Mkt (photo #2 in the article) everyday for my crowded streetcar ride in to work, I look around and wonder how there can be so many vacate and dilaptitated in what I always understood to be a culturally vibrant and distinct neighbourhood wtihin this great city. Broken windows, stores littered with garbage and vermin running around in plain sight are certainly not what comes to mind when I envision little India.

    I am in 100% agreement that something needs to be done to revitalize the neighbourhood and am glad to hear that the community is banding together for change. Just think of when Lazy Daisy first opened … it was flooded by people from the neighbourhood eager for something new. It has been packed every weekend since and is certainly the local hot spot. Whether it be small independant stores or larger retail chains, the neighbourhood needs new life and it’s clear that the residents want it.

  • Guest

    “us-versus-them” tension between the South Asian community and the Leslieville families.

    Almost smells racist to me. I understand that there may be an us vs them thing going on but I believe it’s more a long time residents vs newer residents thing(inevitable if there is to be change). To characterize it as a cultural thing is something that, as someone who has lived in this area his entire life and is richer for growing up with all the diversity that comes with that, makes me quite uncomfortable.
    Good luck making the hood better but remember different is not bad either.

    • guest

      and aren’t we all Leslieville families anyway

    • Babs

      Exactly. As for the comments about the Little India BIA not caring, that’s not true. They have done a lot during the years to improve the area and raise cultural awareness, especially with the annual Festival of South Asia. Many of the storefronts are upscale looking and clean. Why are those pictures not posted? The Gerrard Ashdale Library created that lovely mural around the building. Sidewalks were fixed and the Indian Bazaar banners were added. I know many people who are not impressed with the Lazy Daisy’s store front and find it old looking (which I believe was the intent). I don’t like the slant that Lazy Daisy’s and ‘new’ residents are making these changes because ‘old’ residents (like my family) and the current Little India BIA haven’t make any efforts. It definitely creates an “us-versus-them” feeling. I truly hope that new businesses and the existing businesses, as well as the new and old residents, can work together to rejuvenate the area while maintaining it’s cultural importance.

  • Whyme

    What will the Lazy Daisy do when that part of Gerrard turns trendy & they can’t afford to pay the rent when it’s increased?

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