In the spring of 2012, the east Danforth commercial vacancy rate was 17 per cent and nearly one in five stores lay empty. It was a quiet section of an otherwise bustling city neighbourhood.
Thanks in part to a few local leaders, the Danforth East Community Association (DECA) and their “pop-up shop project,” this stretch of Danforth Avenue is now a vibrant commercial business area with a vacancy rate of just six per cent.
Gay Stephenson, community economic development co-ordinator for DECA and WoodGreen Community Services, said before the project, the area didn’t provide a welcoming environment.
“It felt deserted and dirty,” she said. “Even though there were some great local businesses, there were a lot of dead zones and people didn’t feel safe on the street all the time.”
The project aimed to create more foot traffic on Danforth East and revitalize the area by filling the vacant storefronts with vibrant new small businesses.
DECA would put business owners in touch with landlords to negotiate a deal for their space. Leases were short term and would vary in length depending on the business owner’s needs.
“Businesses would stay for as short as a weekend to as long as six months,” Stephenson said.
After the six months were up, the business could renegotiate its lease with the landlords or take the opportunity to move to one of the other pop-up shop spaces available.
As the project grew, Stephenson said, more and more spaces were being filled with attractive new stores, which drew a different group of people to the area. However, gentrification of the Danforth East strip was never the project’s intention.
“We were seeking to revitalize without gentrifying,” she said. “We didn’t allow any corporate people to use our pop-up shop spaces. A lot of our work was a ‘shop local’ campaign to get people to shop at all the local businesses, not just the pop-up shops.”
Stephenson admits that despite their efforts to mitigate gentrification, some signs of it did pop up in the area during the life of the project.
“Housing prices are soaring, just as they are everywhere in the city, and we are seeing income levels rise a little bit in our neighbourhoods,” she said. “There was a Starbucks that moved into the area, so I suppose that’s a sign.”
Over the four years the project ran, 32 pop-up shops were in business. Now, with the vacancy rate of the Danforth’s commercial strip at six per cent, there are no landlords with space available to keep the project going.
However, it will live on. The cities of Oshawa and Hamilton have shown interest and the Metcalf Foundation wants to expand the project to other parts of the city that need economic revitalization.