Big boxes get big tax breaks as city hoses small retailers

BIAs around the world got their start in Toronto 40 years ago

By Mike Comstock – 

Small merchants struggle to continue with specialty shops on the street, battling aggressive parking police, while thin-walled corporate warehouse buildings with acres of un-assessed parking spaces get away paying the city only a third of the property tax per foot.

No level of government has ever acknowledged the transition over the last 30 years from small-merchant retail stores to large-format corporate retail stores. Large formats now do 80% of all retail sales.

Serious problems exist with the fact that Toronto is limited to pay for everything with property tax dollars. Under the Toronto Act the province has given the city the authority to create various property tax categories. But it hasn’t done that. The Toronto Act should be used to create a new “low-density commercial” category and have big-box retail pay its fair share of commercial property tax.

The biggest opportunity for preserving neighbourhood shops and challenging the sprawl of auto-oriented retail is to acknowledge this transition and reform the commercial property tax imbalance.

Relief on the tax bill for the little neighbourhood guys would help them maintain these older buildings. It would create new opportunities for owner-operated shops and local investment. On the other hand the big-box corporation profits are taken out of the community, often out of the country. Shifting the tax bill toward warehouse stores and 1950s-style plazas would motivate more urbane and environmental development of those lands.

Fighting the fight for the neighbourhood shops are the BIAs. What the devil is a BIA? Even my spell check highlights the term as an unknown. The acronym BIA is a dated, perhaps an inappropriate group of words, Business Improvement Area; kind of implies it was rundown at some time. The “area” is a construct of the City of Toronto dating back 40 years this April.

A loose-knit business association around Bloor and Jane St. created it by asking the city to collect its dues for them; a levy from everyone on the street who pays commercial taxes. And the city said, OK! You see these local leaders could show that every year they tried to collect dues for flowers and benches and banners and some cheapskates never paid. But, they greedily took the benefits from the altruistic others.

The anniversary invite from The Toronto Association of BIAs (TABIA) reads, “ It started with a string of lights, a few potted plants, a street party and one big vision…Celebrate the 40th Anniversary of the inception of BIAs.” As much as we berate the bumbling city, it can do some marvellous things and holds the culture of Toronto in the palm of its hand.

“The success of the first BIA, Boor West Village, served as a model for other retail districts and inspired the creation of more BIAs. Forty years later there are 71 BIAs in the City of Toronto. Patterned on the Toronto BIA model there are more than 270 in the Province of Ontario; some 500 across Canada; over 2, 000 throughout the United States; and thousands more spread through the world including the United Kingdom, Europe, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Japan.

It is typical that our city can salute the commercial neighbourhoods yet not really understand them at the same time. Mainly it’s professional politicians who lead us, with very few business people on council. Diversity is a big word in this city but politically it means the celebration, strength and rights of minority peoples. For BIAs it is local pride. And the BIAs strive to differentiate themselves, to have a neighbourhood personality. The diversity of neighbourhoods here in Toronto is the thing that makes us a unique city.

On the other hand you have the sameness of Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Best Buy…etc. They are the archetype of sameness and low prices.

You can’t really argue that they have low prices of mass-market items. But, we want more than the mall. We want to live in a vibrant, active and diverse urban space where we take pride in the name Toronto; a city where we have a creative culture and succeed in doing things well.

Why must Toronto have to have exactly the same street furniture in every part of the city? Just because we amalgamated Toronto doesn’t mean each part of the city has the same problems and solutions. Why must everyone stop using garbage bags? Giant bins don’t work well in many places. Transit (Streetcar) City is not the only way to better transit. There is no proof it will serve us better, no idea of the real cost.

New areas might have faster service but it is scary and divisive in older established neighbourhoods. Many of these ideas are more political party platforms rather than creative problem solving.

Let us take a diversity lesson from the BIAs and support the remaining local commercial stores. A great neighbourhood requires both the residential and commercial portions to be clean, safe and interesting. I hope the new mayor will begin by strengthening our diversity as the City of Neighbourhoods. Strengthening the four Community Councils’ decision-making powers would also be a move toward diversity.