Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Picture-perfect plazas? - National Post

Picture-perfect plazas?

Adam McDowell
National Post

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Tenants have come and gone at the strip plaza on the northwest corner of Bathurst Street and Wilson Avenue --Szechuan King out, Starbucks in--but one thing has stayed the same for at least two and a half decades: It looks like hell.

The owner of Marky's Restaurant and Delicatessen, which has remained at its double-width storefront on the Wilson Avenue side all that time, is fed up with the ugliness.

Because the units in older strip plazas are under separate ownership, Erez Karp explains, most deteriorate when someone refuses to pay for improvements. Karp has disputes with his neighbours but refuses to name names. For example, he says he's the only owner at his strip plaza with a snow removal contract. "There are people who don't pull their weight."

Now help is on the way -- maybe. Enter Councillor Howard Moscoe with a preliminary plan to crack down on owners who let strip plazas crumble. Ask him what he'd like to fix and the Wilson Heights area is the first that comes to mind: "Just drive along Wilson Avenue from Bathurst on west.

"Strip plazas always deteriorate to the lowest common denominator," Moscoe says, echoing Karp's analysis of the problem. "What happens is, the merchants in the plaza realize the plaza's deteriorating. They try to get together to get some paving. There's always two or three guys in the strip who say, 'I don't have the money. I?m not participating.' "

Moscoe proposes to create mini-business improvement areas that would group the owners together and collectivize responsibility for appearances. He says the plan is still in the detail hashing-out phase; it's only public now thanks to a scoop by the Town Crier. He says he'll spend a couple of weeks circulating it for feedback before he formally presents it to the city's licensing and standards committee. The plan "would allow those merchants and property owners who want improvement to impose their will on the deadbeats," the preliminary document says.

"I've wanted to do this for many years, but we didn't have the authority to do it," Moscoe says. The City of Toronto Act, legislation that gave the city new powers when it came into effect on Jan. 1, will allow him finally to do something, he says, adding: "What I'd like our staff to do is evaluate the cost of the city coming to do the work and put it on the [plaza tenants'] tax bills ? to help themmake the decision" to improve their property.

The city's union labour, of course, "is enormously more expensive" than using private contractors for the same job, as Moscoe points out. "And if they don't pay, we take the business."

That kind of talk worries Karp. His fear is that the city will download the cost of the cleanup to the mini BIAs, which would divide the bill equally among its members instead of trying to figure out which particular owner should pay. "It doesn't seem just or fair. We should each bear responsibility for our own actions."
Strip malls are good for our urban environments. Rather than drive to the large big-box store, these small plazas can be closer to the residential areas, giving residents that opportunity to walk to the corner store. However, when left to decay, they can have the opposite effect. They can make an area seem much more run-down and dangerous than it actually is (the typical concrete jungle).

Some might argue that the BIA concept are like a mafia, while other might argue that they are more like a co-op. It all depends on your view of individual responsibility, and how much influence the collective should have on your personal decisions - but I believe that one dissenter should not prevent a clear majority from improving the attractiveness of the area. When a homeowner refuses to care for his property, the municipality can enter onto the land, do the work and bill the owner. Why shouldn't we subject businesses to the same standards?

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