City's plan to address downtown storefront and office vacancy could take more than a year

Vacant storefronts and offices are both a symptom and a contributor to the current struggles in London’s core area business districts.

In July, city council directed staff to develop a strategy to assist in reducing building and land vacancy in Downtown London and the Old East Village.

A new staff report estimates a comprehensive study and strategy will take many more months.

Specifically, short-term actions will begin to be piloted between June-Dec. 2022, the comprehensive vacancy reduction strategy will be sent to council for approval in April 2023.

But some downtown merchants say waiting up to a year and a half for action is too long.

“Yesterday,” responds King N. Jerome, owner of The Jumpoff London clothing store. “They should have started yesterday, because realistically this [vacancy problem] isn’t new.”

Jerome opened his streetwear shop on Richmond Street three weeks ago in a formerly vacant storefront.

He worries that the drive to help businesses recover from the pandemic will wain.

“The motivation behind it will get lost in the process. That’s one of the biggest challenges for that timeline,” Jerome adds.

At NYC Stylz, owner Dave McCallum is confronted by the vacancy problem every time he steps outside his storefront.

Ground floor commercial vacancy is at 100 per cent across the street on Richmond Street south of Dundas Street.

“At one point I was like, it’s not going to get any worse,” he admits. “Every store owner that’s down here is a survivor. We’ve basically been on our own for long enough.”

Meanwhile, the report going to city council reveals that office vacancy in the core has reached 20 percent, up 23 per cent since the same time last year.

Downtown London’s largest landlord, Farhi Holdings, believes city hall already knows what’s causing the vacancy problem.

Shmuel Farhi says that a lack of parking close to office buildings, and the social issues linked to homelessness, are driving office and commercial tenants from core business districts.

“We lost hundreds of thousands of square feet to the mall and shopping centres,” Farhi tells CTV News by telephone.

When asked what he is doing to reduce vacancy, he’s defensive.

“You ask me what I do? I put a lot of money in bringing high-tech people to 100 Dundas. Autodata Solutions, Voices, Big Blue Bubble.”

City staff recommend supporting some stakeholder-driven initiatives during the study phase including a $300,000 proposal by Downtown London, the London Economic Development Corporation and the Old East Village.

The Strategic Priorities and Policy Committee will discuss the plan to study to core area vacancy at a meeting on Nov. 30. 

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