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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=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/40408333@N00/3390807319/”}Simon Remark{/a} from the {a href=”http://www.flickr.com/groups/torontoist/”}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.

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