A historical assessment of the world's first Business Improvement Area (BIA): the case of Toronto's Bloor West Village.

Author:Charenko, Melissa


Over 60,000 Business Improvement Areas (BIAs) (1) exist worldwide. Generally, BIAs seek to revitalize their shopping districts, finance services, and improve and promote their area. The first BIA started in Toronto's Bloor West Village in 1970 and its model is now employed worldwide. Despite the global popularity of BIAs, there is controversy about what they can achieve. Some boosters argue that BIAs can revitalize urban streetscapes and allow small retailers to compete with urban malls. Opponents disagree and allege that BIAs are an unnecessary burden on small businesses because they achieve few tangible results. Amidst this controversy, this paper analyzes the effects of longest-running BIA to help resolve some of these questions. After offering a history of the creation of the Bloor West Village BIA, this paper assesses the impact of the Bloor West Village BIA over a 35 year period and suggests some of the limitations of long-term studies of BIAs.

Keywords: Business Improvement Area (BIA), Bloor West Village, urban revitalization, small businesses


Plus de 60 000 zones d'ameliorations commerciales (ZACs) existent a travers le monde. En general, les ZACs ont pour but de relancer leurs zones commerciales, financer des services et ameliorer et promouvoir leurs quartiers. La premiere ZAC a commence a Bloor West Village a Toronto en 1970 et le modele est maintenant employe autour du monde. Malgre leur popularite globale, les ZACs soulevent de nombreuses controverses concernant leurs accomplissements. Certains soutiennent que les ZACs peuvent relancer les espaces urbains et permettre aux petites entreprises de rivaliser les centres commerciaux. D'autres sont en desaccord et pretendent que les ZACs sont une pression fiscale inutile puisqu'elles obtiennent peu de resultats tangibles. Parmi cette polemique, il est grand temps de revisiter la premiere ZAC puisqu'une etude detaillee de l'impact de ce ZAC a long terme est possible. Apres avoir raconte l'histoire du ZAC Bloor West Village, j'examine l'impact historique du ZAC Bloor West Village au cours de 35 ans et je suggere quelques limitations des etudes de ZACs.

Mots cles: Zone d'amelioration commerciale (ZAC), Bloor West Village, rehabilitation urbaine, petites entreprises


According to long-time Business Improvement Area (BIA) organizer Bradley Segal, BIAs usually function by assessing "property within a defined geographic boundary. Revenues from this assessment are directed back to the defined area to finance a myriad of services, including security, maintenance, marketing, economic development, parking and special events" (2002, 1). A BIA on Toronto's west side was the first to use this model. In the Toronto model, a by-law requires every commercial and industrial property within a given boundary to pay a levy, based on the proportionate value of each property's commercial and/or industrial assessment, to the city on behalf of the BIA. This levy is then returned to the BIA to reinvest back into the retail quarter. In 2014, taxes raised by the city on behalf of Toronto's BIAs totalled over $26 million (calculated from Business Improvement Areas--2014 Operating Budgets). BIAs then use these funds to promote their areas, improve the facade and streetscape, introduce benches and plantings, establish a particular look to attract shoppers and increase the desirability of their neighbourhood. They also petition for grants from the city for murals, banners, festivals, special events and market research. Fundamentally, BIAs are a legal mechanism to raise funds to supplement public services and enhance the appearance of a particular place (Houstoun 2003; Hoyt and Gopal-Agge 2007).

At first it seems strange that normally tax-averse businesspeople, such as small retailers and shop owners, would voluntarily choose to be assessed an extra tax to finance a BIA. Yet the global popularity of the movement (the growth of which has been documented by Hoyt 2006; Wolf 2006; Gross 2005; Houstoun 2003; Mitchell 2001) implies that many business districts see the idea as beneficial and are willing to invest both time and money in the BIA concept. In Toronto, the number of BIAs has risen from just one BIA in 1970 to 42 in 2001 and 81 in 2015, which the City of Toronto views as a sign of "the success of Toronto's BIA program" (City of Toronto 2014). The following paper seeks to determine whether the popularity of the movement is justified by asking if BIAs can achieve the goals they set out to achieve: improving vacancy rates, store turnover rates, property values, and the aesthetic of the area, as well as gaining governmental and corporate influence and increasing the number of shoppers. Using the case of the Bloor West Village BIA, the world's first BIA, it will attempt to determine whether BIAs are a form of modern boosterism that achieve few tangible results or are a driving force of urban renewal for business districts, as they claim.

Such a study is particularly timely given that some of the academic literature condemns BIAs for being only minimally effective (Lloyd et al. 2003) or for ignoring certain stakeholders and creating social segregation (see Briffault 1999; Lavery 1995; Ross and Levine 2001) while other studies indicate that the model is successful in many different contexts (Gopal-Agge and Hoyt 2007; Birch 2002; Page and Hardyman 1996, Ross and Levine 2001). Often, any evaluation of the effectiveness of BIAs is difficult because so few have established performance indicators. Only 38 percent of Canadian BIAs collect this data, while in New Zealand the figure is 22 percent. In South Africa, 89 percent assemble performance data while in the United States just over half of Business Improvement Districts gather this data (Hoyt 2005). Even collecting this data may not be enough, as there is no agreement as to what aspects to measure and how to specifically tie this data to the work of BIAs (for two attempts, see Mitchell 2008; and Donaghy, Findlay, and Sparks 2013). Many unanswered questions about the impact of BIAs thus remain, and answers to these questions are even more unknown over the long term since no long term evaluations of BIAs exist. This lack of assessment has caused William Mallett (1994, 285) to worry that "some BIAs report successes including [...] dramatic improvements in the cleanliness of downtown area," but it is unclear yet whether these programs will have enduring success. (2) Others, most notably Thomas J. Lueck (1994), argue that BIAs lack accountability for their performance so can make claims in favour of their organization without enough public transparency to accurately scrutinize their work, which is particularly problematic because BIAs manage "regular city streets" (Mallett 1994, 285).

Looking at the case of the Bloor West Village BIA should provide insight into the long-term impact of BIAs, since it is the longest running example of the BIA concept and broader trends should be discernable in this case. This paper thus offers a historical perspective on BIAs through this case study, evaluating some of the long-term effects of the Bloor West Village BIA, that are not visible in newly formed BIAs. It also suggests some of the problems with evaluations of BIAs, even over the long-term. This kind of historical study has been called for in the literature, with Rachel Meltzer (2010; 511) arguing that BIAs "have been in place long enough to produce measurable outcomes." Policy makers, store owners, municipalities and BIAs would also stand to benefit from understanding the effects of BIAs on turnover of businesses, neighborhood upgrading, and services provided by the municipality over the long term as they implement the BIA concept. This paper aims to provide analysis of the case of the Bloor West Village BIA over a 35 year period. (3)

The Bloor-Jane-Runnymede Shopping District in 1970

Located in the west-end of the City of Toronto, the Bloor West Village BIA was the first in the world when it started in 1970. The model introduced in the Jane-Runnymede-Bloor retail strip was adopted to solve some of the problems facing the area. In the late 1960s, the neighbourhood was in decline and businesses were struggling. The expansion of the Bloor-Danforth subway line in 1966 was just one problem facing the area. Before its construction, the shopping district enjoyed end-of-the-line status and was "a hive of activity" ('Inside Scoop' 1995). After its completion, shoppers allegedly "sped downtown on the newly opened subway line, or reversed field and headed for suburban malls" (Varangu 1984). The two shopping centres believed to pose the biggest threat to local businesses were the newly developed Cloverdale Mall and the soon-to-be-opened Sherway Mall, both to the west (Redmond 1995). These malls could entice shoppers with a huge selection of products and services, year-round climate-control, and acres of free parking (Bloor West Village BIA 2008). Businessmen who took the time to walk down Bloor West saw many 'For Rent' signs hanging in the windows (Ling 2009). A sample of businesses along Bloor Street West in 1960 found that close to 2 percent of businesses were vacant. By 1965, 1.4 percent of businesses were vacant, but by the time of the creation of the BIA in 1970, this figure has risen to 4.1 percent (see Appendix A). In addition to the high vacancy rates, shop owners and retailers were concerned with the high turnover rate of stores. Family businesses, which had characterized the area for generations, were forced to close. In 1970, 57 percent of the businesses present in 1960 had been replaced by a different store or were vacant (see Appendix B). (4) These conditions made it very difficult for shops at this time to succeed.

The hardships faced by shopkeepers were also exacerbated by a less-than-ideal streetscape. Alex Ling, who bought a storefront in the Village in 1971, describes the street when he was looking for property as follows:...

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