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FORUM (APRIL 2017): San Francisco a model to follow

April 10th, 2017 · No Comments

Building diverse and sustainable cities

By Mike Layton

Our city is changing. In some Toronto neighbourhoods, the pace of change is difficult to manage, and even more difficult to get ahead of, because it is so rapid.

Of growing concern is that the character of many communities can be overwhelmed by an influx of chain stores. The diversity of our main streets is in danger of homogenization, which will diminish their unique character — the reason we love our neighbourhoods.

Toronto should consider a similar strategy to grant neighbourhoods the ability to shape their communities directly, rather than leave them vulnerable to being shaped by chain stores.

Walk through many neighbourhoods in Toronto and you will find the same handful of chain stores block after block. The repetition gets monotonous. We need to protect the unique character of our main streets while encouraging a diversity of retail businesses.

At Toronto City Council in April, I requested city staff look into what Toronto can do to support diversity on our retail main streets. The purpose of the strategy is not to stop new chain stores, but instead to direct it in a manner that both serves the day-to-day needs of communities and is in keeping with the character of the streetscape.

Chain stores are also referred to as “formula retail”, which can be characterized by a standardized selection of products, similar facade, and identical signage. These can be centrally owned by a multinational corporation or a brand purchased by a local franchisee. Either way, the products and appearance are largely identical.

A formula retail strategy would be based on determining the locational appropriateness for the use, and ensuring that any new formula retail complements the existing aesthetic character of a neighbourhood.

When San Francisco adopted such a strategy in 2006 it required all new chain stores to go through a process that put conditions on them, in an effort to protect the local character of the community. In some circumstances, new chain stores required approval from the municipal planning commission. Of San Francisco’s 36 neighbourhoods, only three ban formula retail entirely, while the remaining 33 require new applications to undergo a conditional use process.

San Francisco defines formula retail as a retail sales establishment that has 11 or more locations globally, including proposed locations. Formula retail also possesses two or more of the additional characteristics including a standardized selection of products, facade, signage, decor, colour scheme, staff uniforms, and a trademark or service mark.

In San Francisco, a five-fold test is used to determine appropriateness that includes consideration of the existing concentration of formula retail in the area, the availability of similar uses nearby, the compatibility of the formula retail proposal with the current architectural and aesthetic makeup of the streetscape, nearby vacancy rates, and composition of existing retail serving daily needs within walking distance of the site.

This has allowed San Francisco to retain the character of its neighbourhoods, exert some control over the type of new formula retail establishments, and maintain a vibrant and diverse streetscape that is aesthetically consistent and built on a human scale. San Francisco has been particularly successful in preserving local retail that serves the daily needs of residents, such as hardware stores, greengrocers, and independent grocery stores.

Toronto should consider a similar strategy to grant neighbourhoods the ability to shape their communities directly, rather than leave them vulnerable to being shaped by chain stores. In areas like West Queen West, Bloor Street, Little Italy, and Kensington Market the city should be doing everything it can to protect retail diversity and encourage independent small businesses.

Mike Layton is the councillor for Ward 19, Trinity-Spadina.



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