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Independent retail still thriving at street level in Toronto: study

If you think new residential development is turning Toronto's ground floor into a sea of Starbucks and Subways, think again.

While there’s a common perception that downtown condo retail is all chain stores like Hero Burger (left), they’re actually the exception, not the rule, a new study says.

Liz Beddall/Metro

While there’s a common perception that downtown condo retail is all chain stores like Hero Burger (left), they’re actually the exception, not the rule, a new study says.

A Toronto planner is discounting the theory that downtown storefronts are turning into a sea of chains as condos boom overhead. 

“I live downtown, and I walk downtown, and that’s not what I see,” said Sean Galbraith, president of the Galbraith and Associates planning firm.

Plus, he’s got the raw numbers to prove it.

Galbraith recently completed a study of downtown Toronto retail, comparing the make-up of stores in older buildings with their newer counterparts. The study catalogued 478 commercial units across 138 locations downtown.

“The results surprised a lot of people,” he said.

Independent retail and commercial stores are still thriving in Toronto’s downtown core, he said. In fact, 64 per cent of businesses located at the foot of mid-rise or high-rise buildings downtown are independent, he said.

The ratio of independent businesses to chains or franchises is slightly lower in developments built after 2006, but only by about 10 per cent, Galbraith said.

“Contrary to the perception, development is not leading to a monoculture of chain stores,” he said.

The study specifically pulled out data about Starbucks and Subway — companies he said are commonly linked in people’s minds to new developments.

Galbraith found the chains were present in almost equal numbers in both old and new buildings. He found Subways in 13 per cent of all buildings. Ten per cent of old buildings and 12 per cent of new ones were home to a Starbucks.

“Basically, these things are everywhere,” he said.

Tips for better street-level retail

Galbraith said city policy around ground-level retail has been successful at maintaining a mix of different businesses.

However, more could be done to ensure condo developments contain smaller commercial units, which are more attractive to independent retailers, he said. Developers and condo boards may also need to lower the rent if they want to attract a diversity of tenants.

“Ultimately, it comes down to retail economics. We need to make sure these spaces remain affordable for independent businesses,” he said.

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