Commercial space: growth in certain neighborhoods, stagnation in the city center

Representatives of several local business development groups, SDCs, report falling vacancy rates, even as high inflation and rumors of a recession threaten their post-pandemic recovery. (Photo: The Canadian Press)

Wellington Street in Montreal’s Verdun neighborhood is booming, with beautiful storefronts lining the lively pedestrian district.

With a commercial vacancy rate estimated by the neighborhood’s trade association to be around 6%, Time Out magazine’s 2022 “coolest street in the world” is a success in the city’s fight against the empty storefronts that plague several of Montreal’s main arteries.

Marie-Ève ​​Girard, business development adviser at the Wellington Commercial Development Corporation (SDC), said Wellington Street benefited not only from the influx of tourists following the Time Out magazine review, but also from aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic that galvanized citizens. in Verdun to explore their local streets.

“Because people were at home, they rediscovered their neighborhood,” she explained in a phone interview. There was also huge enthusiasm for local shopping.”

To further stimulate demand, SDC rents a previously empty storefront for a month to entrepreneurs who want to test the surrounding business environment.

However, the situation is not the same everywhere. Montreal has a store vacancy rate of 13.1%, according to the city’s open data portal, down slightly from 15% in 2019, when the administration launched a public consultation on the issue.

Most of the hardest hit areas are in the city center. The Ville-Marie district, which includes parts of the main shopping streets such as rue Sainte-Catherine, has a vacancy rate of 19%. A healthy range is between 4% and 7%, City says.

“The fact that there are no more looser interpretations than before, despite the fact that we had a pandemic, is great news,” Luc Rabouin, president of the Montreal executive committee, said in a recent interview.

Many streets reported fewer vacant stores after renovations to make them more attractive, he said. The vacancy rate along Avenue du Mont-Royal in the Plateau district dropped from 14.5% in 2018 to 5.6% this year after the street was closed to vehicular traffic and rebuilt to add seating and greenery.

On the other hand, the city center has suffered a loss of foot traffic due to the increase in telecommuting caused by the pandemic – a situation that all major cities face, Mr Rabouin said.

Representatives of several local business development groups, SDCs, report falling vacancy rates, even as high inflation and rumors of a recession threaten their post-pandemic recovery.

Even rue Saint-Denis, long plagued by empty storefronts, saw vacancy drop from 24% in 2020 to around 16%, according to SDC rue Saint-Denis CEO Julien Vaillancourt Laliberté.

Mr Vaillancourt Laliberté said things were going “rather well” thanks to the completion of major road works, the completion of the Express Bike Network (REV) in Saint-Denis and provincial funds to help urban centers recover from the pandemic. The street is also one of the few that allows residents to rent out their homes on short-term rental platforms like Airbnb.

Challenge of abandoned buildings

Mr. Vaillancourt Laliberté and Patrick Legault, president of the SDC of Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, confirm that one of the challenges in further reducing the vacancy rate is the presence of stores that have been closed for a long time, often in poor condition, and that the owners do not want to rent.

“In general, landlords can talk to us, have us set up meetings and meet potential tenants, but some … simply leave their buildings,” Mr. Legault said. The section of Ste−Catherine Street he oversees has a vacancy rate of 14%, partly due to buildings too abandoned to be occupied.

The city has introduced new rules that require owners of empty buildings to register them with the city and meet higher maintenance standards or face fines. Business association groups welcome the rules, but say it’s unclear whether the city will enforce them.

While SDC leaders are proud of the work being done to reduce vacancy rates, they warn that a difficult economic climate, rising council taxes, lack of commercial rent control and delays in business loan repayments during the pandemic threaten to reverse progress.

All is not rosy on Wellington Street either. A “For Rent” sign sits in the storefront of Boutique Sauvé, also known as JayMart, which is closing its doors after more than 100 years. Owner Amit Natalia says the main reason for the closure is his health, but adds that business is harder now than he can remember.

“With COVID and the economy, people don’t have money, they don’t spend money,” lamented the 67-year-old.

Ms. Girard said the street is not resting on its laurels. Ultimately, there is a chance that it will become a victim of its own success as building owners raise commercial rents, pushing out tenants. The difficult economic situation is even more pressing because people are spending less.

“Our street is doing well, but we always remain vigilant,” she said.

Across the city, SDCs work with their boroughs to host events, including a comics festival on Saint−Denis Street and an outdoor sugar shack and giant puppets on Wellington Street. In Ville−Marie, artists, businesses and nonprofits can apply for a permit to temporarily occupy an empty store.

Attracting customers in person in the age of online shopping requires not only selling goods, but also creating a unique experience, Vaillancourt Laliberté said.

“Are we going to stay at home, pull out a credit card to buy something delivered to our door with no human warmth, no imparting of value, no emotional connection to our street? I think (that experience) is what people want,” he said.

Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press

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