Corp Comm Connects

Bringing economic vitality downtown - Destination Milton

July 15, 2015
By Edward LaRusic

The Town of Milton and the downtown BIA, hope that a new study of its historic core can help weave together a cohesive plan to create a destination for its residents.

Mayor Gordon Krantz told NRU that Milton has a great downtown save for one glaring issue: there are not enough people shopping there and it’s impacting the downtown’s economic vitality. Rather than having residents shop at places like the Milton Mall to the east, he wants to draw them back to the downtown.

“[We need to start] promoting and getting people educated to say ‘hey, there are restaurants and there are shops in the old downtown area ... ’ We as a society have gotten used to those great big malls and kind of forgotten about our old downtown areas.”

The historic core of downtown Milton is generally bounded by Bronte Street to the west, the Milton GO line to the north, Ontario Street to the east and Oak Street to the south. Buildings range between one and three storeys in height, and many are historically significant, dating back the 1800s.

Improving the economic vitality of the core is one of the goals of the study launched June 29. Downtown Milton BIA executive director Katrina Lemire told NRU that there is about a 10 per cent vacancy rate among businesses in the town’s downtown.

“A balanced market would [have a vacancy rate of] 5 to 7.5 [per cent] ... 10 is certainly on the higher side; it’s higher than we think it should be,” she said.

The study’s related goals are to protect and enhance heritage character, enhance walkability and connectivity, optimize parking and create a sense of place for the historic downtown.

Milton planning policy and urban design senior manager Gabe Charles told NRU that there are numerous challenges that will need to be addressed through the study.

“Council is concerned about the vacancy rates and the ongoing challenge of trying to ensure we have that vibrancy and vitality throughout the downtown. It wanted [staff ] to really have a concerted look at the land-use mix,” said Charles. “[Milton is] also faced with the challenge of having the urban growth centre boundary go into our historic downtown, which also has a flood plain there where we can’t do any development ... There’s a lot of threads that are interwoven. We want to make sure we’re looking at all of them. We don’t want to pull one thread and have them all unravel.”

Permitted land uses are a particularly important economic development issue. Currently, buildings in the downtown are not permitted to have office uses on the ground floor, which Lemire said should change. Overall the BIA wants to see more flexibility in the zoning by-law.

“There are a number of properties in the downtown that property owners told [the BIA] would have been rented or leased out 10 times over had professionals or offices been allowed in that space,” she said. “The more solid our mixed use is, [the] better [the] environment for everyone to come down, because no one wants to come to a downtown where there is a 10+ per cent vacancy rate. There’s no vibrancy in that.”

But Krantz cautioned that while lawyer and insurance offices might fill up vacant spaces, they could fail to draw people to the area.

“The average individual out there, they’d like to see little boutique shops, coffee shops and stuff like that on a main street. Not necessarily lawyers or insurance offices ... Is there a big draw for downtown with that type of use? Probably not. So you get caught on the horns of that dilemma.”

Another aspect of creating vibrancy downtown will be through opportunities for intensification.