It’s no secret: I do not support the current SHIFT Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) Plan. It costs too much for the value it provides, and I believe that there are better city-wide mobility strategies available to us.
Because of that, some Londoners may infer that I am against the City’s broader business development objectives of greater intensification, urban regeneration, and the creation of a smart, safe and healthy city that attracts and retains investment and talent.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
I have repeatedly stated my support for the goals and aspirations of the London Plan, including a number of promising downtown intensification efforts that have, in some cases, struggled to secure the support of even some so-called ‘progressive’ council members.
I have also been very clear in my belief that London’s plans for its Business Development Areas (i.e. Downtown, Old East, SoHo, and other Community Improvement Plan designates), will struggle without the City first making a sustained investment in public safety, and a concerted expansion of its social service support infrastructure. In order for London to successfully attract and retain investment, we must ensure that those struggling with poverty, mental health, homelessness and addiction can find their way off the streets and into a better living environment.
I maintain this belief because I share the perspective of many thought leaders in urban development, that London’s Business Development Areas (BDAs) can and will:
- Attract and retain talent and investment in our community;
- Maximize utilization of increasingly constrained civic resources;
- Lend energy and vibrancy that contributes to the commerce, culture, and innovation agenda of the City;
- Develop people-centric destinations where, as the Urban Land Institute suggests, “ordinary streets are transformed into uniquely branded, marketable experiences”.
London’s BDAs, much like those of other increasingly-prominent mid-sized cities, are well positioned to exploit this emerging market opportunity by virtue of our lower cost of living, growing diversity, mix of seniors and educated workers interested in multi-family living, and our rich array of recreational and cultural offerings.
So how do we make this happen?
First, our BDAs should refresh their business plans. A quick review of the Community Improvement Plans for three of London’s existing Business Improvement Areas – Downtown, Old East Village, and SoHo – suggests that all of the plans, while of good quality, are a little dated.
Second, the BDAs in partnership with the City should establish strategies that emulate the business development plans of other successful mid-sized centres. A scan of those plans suggest that our City and BDAs partner to:
- keep BDA streets clean and safe (graffiti trash removal, expanded foot patrol)
- accommodate multiple modes of transportation (pedestrian, bikes, transit, parking).
- market the Downtown as the City’s urban hub, the city’s centrepiece.
- market the other BDAs as urban spokes, offering a unique neighbourhood feel welcoming to Londoners and visitors alike.
- build investment confidence by continuing to offer development incentives that augment and/or improve the BDA’s look, feel and function (façade improvements, development charge rebates, heritage incentives), and approve them in a timely manner.
- Identify, secure and protect open spaces for future public use and develop them as resources become available
- serve as information portals for prospective investors, businesses, residents and visitors.
- facilitate ongoing dialogue and measurement of each BDA’s progress against plan. Examples include: changes in assessment value and net new jobs in each area.
Third, the City should expand the roster of BDAs to include the proposed ‘transit villages’, and other emerging commerce-intense neighbourhoods and enable these areas to properly plan and promote these promising market opportunities.
Fourth, the City should consider augmenting the mandate and resources of the London Small Business Centre, and inviting them to provide a suite of business development and support services to our retail community. The LSBC has a good team in place. Why not leverage it to help build our DBAs?
Finally, the City should provide the BDAs with ready access to a team of specialized professional resources – accounting, legal, and planning – when required. Having spoken with dozens of BDA members and others, it is my understanding that the ideas cultivated by the BDAs and their network of dedicated volunteers often die at the coffee table, because the team has neither the expertise or resources to pursue them without help. London could certainly underwrite the cost of such resources and make them available on-call to the BDAs as opportunities arise and new ideas are fostered.
London is blessed with an impressive roster of highly respected, reputable builders and an impassioned roster of Business Development Area leaders. Together they provide London with a unique opportunity to not only compete in this evolving urban opportunity, but thrive.
We only need to make this sector a priority, resource it properly and then empower these talented teams of builders, retailers, community leaders, and residents to make our shared urban vision for London a source of commerce, culture and civic pride.