Toronto Financial District BIA works to give collective voice on downtown issues

Toronto Financial District BIA works to give collective voice on downtown issues
New agency integrates businesses on the PATH and the bank towers above.
By: Tess Kalinowski Transportation reporter, Published on Mon Jun 17 2013
It’s the hub of Canada’s business community. But Toronto’s financial district is also about a million miles from Main St.

That distance is what makes one of the city’s newest business improvement areas (BIA) unique.
Most BIAs are dominated by street-level, storefront businesses. They provide a collective voice on issues ranging from planters and public safety to street festivals.
But the Toronto Financial District BIA represents many businesses that are almost invisible from the street — the owners and tenants of the downtown towers and the city’s underground PATH retailers.
“We are a very different animal in terms of the nature of the landscape,” says BIA executive director Grant Humes.
“You’ve got the big bank towers, the large buildings and they’re really well-maintained. In terms of the public realm experience around them, they all have granite sidewalks that are beautifully cleaned. There’s a huge pride of ownership down here which is really important,” he said.
Below the street, the PATH has more than 1,000 stores, more than $1.5 billion in sales and generates $126 million annually in employment income.
What the financial district doesn’t have — and is still developing — is an integrated voice that speaks to its unique identity. That’s what the BIA hopes to achieve by inserting itself in every conversation, public and private, about how the city and developers build property, public space and public transit to service the district.
“How do we make things better for the 200,000 people who work here every day, for the businesses down here? How can we integrate things, collaborate with the city, with private developers, with owners to make sure we leverage every dollar that’s spent to make it as good as we can make it,” said Humes.
Until last year, the 15 blocks — bounded roughly by Simcoe and Yonge Sts. on the west and east, Queen St. on the north and the train tracks on the south — had never had a BIA.
There was some thought given to extending the Yonge St. BIA but it was decided that the financial district, North America’s second largest next to New York, needed its own.
With five full-time staff and an annual operating budget of $1.3 million, the BIA is developing its own voice through social media and a website.
Its approach is businesslike. With help from Ryerson planning students, the BIA has done an inventory and condition reports on 2,300 public space elements that range from newspaper boxes to broken sidewalks. It is working with the city to have patched and pitted sidewalks repaired and mismatched garbage bins brought in line with Toronto’s street furniture program.
For the short term, many of those efforts are being concentrated in the King and Bay Sts. area because there are no environmental studies or major changes in that area for now. It’s the intersection where passersby can see the street banners and anti-graffiti pole wraps that the BIA has developed and will eventually have installed throughout the district.
“We’re talking about an integrated, accessible area that has some degree of uniformity. This is not about making the whole thing the same, but it does have some place-making elements,” said Humes.
“We’re a new organization, but we’re trying to be organized in our approach, not be scattered,” he said.
BIAs are financed through a special assessment on commercial properties in the geographic area. The commercial assessment in the financial district is about $14 billion.
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