Tourism traps downtown Kingston

Our contributor argues that Kingston needs to make its downtown more liveable

Many businesses on Princess St. have closed, leaving many storefronts waiting to be leased.
Many businesses on Princess St. have closed, leaving many storefronts waiting to be leased.

Alexander Radcliffe , Sci ’14

The recent closure of downtown staple retailers such as the Empire Theatre and Indigo have brought issues about the area’s urban design to the attention of many — yet this isn’t a new problem for the community.

Growing up in Kingston, I’ve seen this cycle repeated time and time again, with stores that cater to people living and working downtown, like S&R — a multi-story general store with a wide selection of practical day-to-day goods — closing and being replaced with restaurants and attractions aimed primarily at the tourist market. When these stores close, they generally aren’t replaced. Instead, they relocate to malls and box stores in the west end of the city. This is what occurred in the latest two cases: The old Chapters uptown and the new Empire Theatre location both offer the same services as their downtown equivalents did, but are much less accessible to those of us who live in the city’s core.

Many of the City’s current policies appear to focus on tourism downtown. The Downtown Action Plan, adopted by the City in 2004, aims to “identify opportunities for tourism, recreation, and entertainment” and “improve traffic movement” in the downtown area.

An excessive focus on these policies is harmful to the long-term health of the city in several ways.

The tourist season is only one part of the economic cycle of the city. During the rest of the year, the health of the downtown core depends on locals and university students. These groups are going to be customers of cafes and restaurants more often if they’re already in this part of town buying books, going to movies or shopping.

Kingston isn’t a city well-designed for people to

commute downtown. The public transit system is remarkably inefficient and there’s already a chronic lack of parking in the core areas of the city.

This lack of effective motorized transport means that it will be hard to have a vibrant commercial area without having high-density residential areas near a pedestrian-friendly commercial area. In Kingston, downtown is the only area that comes anywhere near fitting this description.

Given the fact there’s a captive customer base downtown, why are companies moving to the west and north ends of the city? A large part of the problem appears to be the taxation that downtown businesses endure. The central region of the city pays a municipal property tax rate which is proportionally five to seven per cent higher than the rates for the other regions in the city. In addition, downtown businesses pay the business improvement area levy.

When this is considered, the proportional difference in rates rises to 12-17 per cent higher. The tax system also favours more remote stores due to the fact that the value of property on the outskirts of town is lower, meaning you can get more square footage and still pay similar taxes.

There have also been tales of assessed property values undergoing sudden changes. In particular, S&R was reported to have had a 100 per cent increase in its property taxes shortly before going out of business. The result of all of this is that it’s harder to maintain profit margins downtown.

Additionally, the old buildings and infrastructure downtown can make the prospect of a new building in other neighbourhoods more appealing.

There have been some developments supporting a strong downtown. Notably, the large number of new apartment buildings approved and under construction around the downtown core, which will serve to increase the number of people that live within easy walking distance of area retailers.

The City is currently replacing and upgrading a large amount of subsurface infrastructure and resurfacing roads and improving sidewalks downtown.

It also has a strategic plan that provides a framework for how to address problems such as the parking shortage. This should alleviate some of the factors driving businesses elsewhere, however it’s unlikely that the trend of businesses closing or moving will be reversed without significantly changing the financial incentives.

The Kingston Cultural Plan, approved in 2010, made the recommendation that, “the City should seek to limit excessive commercial land use development outside the downtown so as not to undermine the retail viability of the downtown.” This is a reasonably strong statement and could form the basis of a set of sound policies; however, as a long-term resident of Kingston, I have yet to see any evidence of our City Council acting on this.

The continued migration of businesses shows that the City has failed to implement policies of sufficient strength aimed at refocusing day-to-day commercial activities in this part of town. This will limit the impact of the construction of new apartments and housing.

Without an environment that lets businesses operate profitably, downtown inhabitants will still be faced with long commutes to reach commonly-accessed services.

If the City wishes to create a truly liveable downtown core, it needs to be willing to alter its taxation policy and restrict the development of remote commercial land.

The government’s willingness to allow the development of high-density housing and its renovation of downtown infrastructure are steps in the right direction, but are not sufficient.

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