How to Save Downtown (Victoria BC)

May 30, 2011 at 8:16 pm | In affordable_housing, architecture, dying_downtown, FOCUS_Magazine, land_use, urbanism, victoria, writing | 2 Comments

Below is the real version of my article, How to Save Downtown (it’s about downtown Victoria BC, but applies to many city centers crushed under the weight of overly needy – and stupid – municipal governments as well as strapped economies…).

I submitted this article to FOCUS Magazine for publication in its June 2011 issue. I was subsequently horrified to see that the publisher truncated the article so severely as to make it nonsensical. After I complained, he put a more-or-less intact version online (at last reading, there was at least one paragraph still missing), but the print version of the article has unfortunately already gone to press. I wish I could have taken back my submission, but I couldn’t. I’m much embarrassed (and angry) to see my name attached to it.

Here’s the article  as it was intended to appear. Readers might notice that it grew out of my previous dying downtown series:

How to Save Downtown

Victoria City Council recently offered the business community an olive branch when it addressed the tax ratio of commercial to residential rates by voting to reduce marginally (very marginally) that ratio by 0.004% in favor of commercial rates. While the Chamber of Commerce responded with tepidly mumbled words of encouragement for council’s decision, the daily newspaper merely reported the other side of the coin: that residential property taxes will rise by 7% compared to 1.1% for businesses.

Anyone who bothers to walk around downtown Victoria can see that many businesses are struggling. Take Fort Street’s Antique Row. Start at Cook, continue to Douglas, and note the number of “for lease” or “going out of business” signs. Too often, though, we ignore the plight of businesses and focus instead on the rise in residential taxes.

I recently posted photos of the many empty Fort Street storefronts to my blog. The comments that came in were instructive. Readers (including business owners) blamed downtown’s desuetude on many things: big box stores; tourism downturns; street people; lack of community support for independent merchants; problems related to overzealous parking commissionaires.

Everyone cited high rents, worsened by excessive property taxes:

“I have been perplexed that while we saw a recession start in 2009 retail rents continued to rise right through it as though there was nothing happening.”

“There is certainly no shortage of eager, creative and motivated entrepreneurs in Victoria. If they can deal with the impossible rents, along with the fact that the City is inherently anti-small business (zoning, permits, etc), they may have a chance.”

Comments repeatedly cited the City of Victoria’s lack of business support, noting that it burdens businesses with adversarial inspectors and bylaws.

Others noted that there is too much emphasis on tourist retail and not enough on incubating innovation for the homegrown market.

And people asked: if so many storefronts are empty, why are rents still so high? Bound to triple-net leases, tenants are typically on the hook for property taxes, and even building improvements. For paying property taxes, the City delivers nothing in services, not even garbage pickup.

In 2005 Greater Victoria had a retail vacancy rate of 3.5%. By 2010, that rate had climbed to 5.9%, and it doesn’t look better for 2011. According to Colliers’s Market Report, “2011 is likely to be a year of ‘status quo’ for Greater Victoria retail.” While the forecast admits that “2010 was a year of uncertainty,” it also posits that “the overall market has remained relatively healthy.” Downtown’s empty storefronts suggest otherwise.

Perhaps macro-analyses of Greater Victoria, which include data points around “secure federal and provincial employer presence” (read: consumers) and Uptown or Westshore shopping mall expansions (read: vendors), don’t speak to what’s going on specifically in our downtown.

I asked Graham Smith, who looks after Greater Victoria retail for Colliers, about lease rates and their responsiveness to the market. Smith pointed out that every property is different, each has its unique qualities. Whether it’s on this or that side of the street or in this or that block affects its lease rates. And just as properties are unique, so are owners. Smith likened it to selling a house: most people are convinced that their property is uniquely valuable, and some owners will insist on getting their price, while others just want it rented.

Why would a property owner let his property stand empty instead of offering struggling tenants a rate reduction? Smith’s market-based answer seemed cruel, albeit realistic: if a business is struggling, there’s something wrong with the business model besides leasing expenses. A 10% rent reduction isn’t going to help that business thrive if there either isn’t really a market for what it’s retailing, or it’s not open when customers want to shop.

However, consider the tax burden imposed on business. Take 789 Fort Street, a property assessed at ~$2 million; its 2010 property tax was $49,130.18. A comparable ~$2 million residential Victoria property (1989 Crescent Rd., for example) is taxed at ~$13,685.00. That’s a difference of nearly $35,000.

Who pays the property tax on commercial buildings? Typically, the triple-net lessee.

According to sources at City Hall, Victoria relies equally (50-50) on residential and commercial property taxes, but commercial property is clearly carrying the brunt. Nor is Victoria alone. 2010 Tax Rates reveal that Victoria taxes businesses the most, but Saanich and Langford are close behind:

Victoria Residential: 3.6581
Victoria Commercial: 13.1471
Ratio: 3.59
Langford Residential: 2.3343
Langford Commercial: 7.3764
Ratio: 3.16
Saanich Residential: 3.2697
Saanich Commercial: 11.6980
Ratio: 3.58
Oak Bay Residential: 2.9305
Oak Bay Commercial: 5.0610
Ratio: 1.73
(source)

True, every municipality has a pro-residential bias. After all, residential taxpayers elect the politicians. However, the difference is very much skewed against City of Victoria businesses in absolute terms: a lessee will pay much less property tax for a similar property in Langford since the property has a lower assessed value. This difference can be the make-or-break factor for a business, and partly explains the exodus from downtown. Let’s also not forget that fewer than ten years ago, Victoria’s ratio of commercial to residential taxation was 2.63, while it has now climbed to 3.59. (source [PDF])

An effective way to reduce the currently painful ratio would be to increase the number of residential properties on the City’s tax roll.

Recall my conversation with Graham Smith of Colliers. From his 11th floor CIBC Building boardroom we could see 789 Fort Street, a one-story building with two storefronts. Presently, half the building is rented, while the other languishes.

I pointed out that this building should have rental apartments on top, which would provide both customers and even employees. The newer building next door (at Fort and Blanshard, southwest corner) was built within the last fifteen years. Although newer, it’s also just a single story, with zero residential above the store. It seems we haven’t been adding mixed-use buildings with a view to bringing a diversified demographic into the downtown.

So why don’t we encourage more development that brings residents into the downtown, which would help “spread the pain” of property taxes on mixed-use commercial/residential buildings and would benefit retailers who need steady repeat customers? Consider that downtown Victoria’s population has actually declined since the 1970s when new seismic regulations left buildings vulnerable to unaffordable code upgrades. If you’ve ever wondered why some buildings downtown don’t have people living on the second or third floors, it’s because they didn’t remain “continuously occupied” since new codes came into effect. If a building remained continuously occupied, it’s exempt. If it’s vacated, however, it becomes subject to the new rules, and requires fearsomely cost-prohibitive seismic upgrading.

As for new buildings, condo towers (which target just one small slice of the larger demographic pie) have added some population, but we’re still below 1970s population levels. Newer one-story buildings, as well as older one-story buildings, represent a missed opportunity to diversify the downtown and to bring its residential levels back up to what they used to be.

There is a new proposal that’s heading in the right direction. The Cosmopolitan is a 5-story development for the 600-block of Fort. Currently making its way through City Hall, it includes ground-floor retail, with 4 stories of rental housing above. If the project is approved (it needs a minor height variance), it’s an opportunity to build exactly what Victoria needs: residential over the store. I asked the developer, Jurgen Weyand, how the numbers work when building rental. The short answer: they don’t, really. Compared to building condos, building rental is an investment on his part that may pay off for his grandchildren. But retailers will benefit from having residents that live where they work and shop.

So let’s look out Colliers’ 11th floor boardroom window again. Sometime in the last 15 years, a new building went up at Fort and Blanshard. But it’s just one story and has no apartments above the store. Sometime in the last few years, tenants came and went at 789 Fort Street, but it’s just one story and there are no residents living above the store. There are scores of downtown buildings that have no one living over the store. The Cosmopolitan will hopefully contribute to reversing that trend.

Clearly, we need more development downtown, whether it’s condo towers or five-story walk-ups above ground floor retail. New condo towers may attract retiring empty-nesters who want to shop and re-create in a walkable downtown. Rental apartments above ground-floor retail diversify the demographic, to attract a younger, more mobile tenant who works in those businesses for her day job (and shops there, too), while incubating the next great thing in the creative economy after hours. Win-win.

Bottom line: if we want to save downtown, we need people living there, right over the store. That would provide customers for businesses, as well as defray the property tax burden currently off-loaded via triple-net leases solely on businesses.

 

Creative Commons License
The How to Save Downtown (Victoria BC) by Yule Heibel, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.

2 Comments

  1. Makes sense re: your “bottom line” Yule. Too bad about the Focus situation… its actually where I first read your article (to your dismay!)

    I’ve just read Jan Gehl’s Cities for People. How close do his ideas for a liveable downtown jive with yours?

    Comment by ben ziegler — June 6, 2011 #

  2. Hi Ben – sorry about the long response lag… Re. Jan Gehl: yes, I agree with probably 98% of what Gehl writes, although I find myself a bit more on the side of metropolises than he seems to be. He always tends toward smaller cities – but that’s fine for Victoria. I mention him (with links) in my 1/30/11 links post; as well as the 3/7/08 links post; and I mention him in my Deadlines in December blog post from 12/26/06 – four-and-a-half years ago. He’s been on my radar for a while. But not as intently as Jane Jacobs – she’s the one! Jacobs really grokked economics, and that’s key. One thing that annoys me about the printed version (vs the complete version) of my article is that what could be called the “corporate” p.o.v. was edited out. That is, the references to Graham Smith of Colliers were expunged, and I find that really sad. Instead, the emphasis shifted to the “poor” mom-and-pop stores that have a hard time – but don’t forget that Smith bluntly said that if stores are failing, it’s not just because the rents are too high. They’re also doing something else wrong, possibly several things. I really think Victoria needs some tough love around economics. Smith’s comments alluded to it: that it’s not just a question of applauding every single indie store that comes along – sort of like welcoming another facade to our little Potemkin Village – but of really thinking about markets here, and how things fit together (or fail to).

    Comment by Yule — June 12, 2011 #

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