As vacant storefronts abound, has Queen West’s reputation as a hip retail hub outpaced what the market can actually bear?
Kingi Carpenter is used to opening her door for strangers.
In fact, the front door of her Shaw Street semi stays unlocked and slightly ajar during the day. A purple welcome sign leans against the railing of the home’s front porch, out of plain sight.
Inside, Carpenter designs dresses for her company, Peach Berserk. But the space looks less like that of a dressmaker and more like that of a frenzied collector: Paintings grace every inch of available wall space (she owns 500 in total), books are stacked in a haphazard pile on a nearby bookshelf and a stick of deodorant sits atop a green sewing machine.
The sewing machine, it seems, is the only remnant of Carpenter’s past as a retail guru. Since the late ’80s, the 51-year-old ruled Queen West in her own shop. But last spring, she moved out and began running the business out of her home—a far cry from the eye-catching storefront she once leased at Queen and Augusta.
After nearly two decades, the Queen West veteran found she could no longer afford to exist in the neighbourhood she helped shape as a 20-something fashion designer.
Carpenter’s story is a familiar one. With rent prices skyrocketing, setting up shop on Queen West is no longer a viable long-term option for most up-and-coming entrepreneurs. Instead, small businesses open only to inevitably close within months and, while landlords wait for a big chain to swoop in and commit to a five-year lease, the spaces remain vacant. “For Lease” signs grace the storefronts and often end up vandalized, covered in graffiti. Passersby pay no mind, and neither do the local business owners who should be jumping at the opportunity to rent the space.
Queen West is beyond gentrifying, it’s slowly emptying—and it’s become too expensive to fill.
A walk down Queen Street West yields evidence of this decline: Between University and Bathurst alone, there were 13 empty storefronts at the time of this writing; only two were reportedly leased out by a major retail franchise. Just a bit further west towards Shaw Street, where Carpenter now lives and works, another three storefronts remain empty.
For many business owners, the rent alone is too steep for most upstart businesses to afford, resulting in widespread vacancies.
It’s not uncommon for leasers to pay upwards of $10,000 a month for a ground-floor shop. Prices for empty storefronts currently on the Queen West market, according to listings agents, range anywhere from $7,581 per month for the 2,166 square-foot main floor and basement of 573 Queen St. W. that is soon to be vacated by Curry’s, to $9,516 per month for the 2,379 square-foot ground floor space of 552 Queen St. W., formerly Dusk. These rates don’t include monthly tax, maintenance, and insurance costs, which can average near $3,000 for properties like these. And these sorts of commercial spaces are often located in old buildings that require lessees to do major upkeep.
But most Queen West storeowners say that’s par for the course. During her decades on Queen, Carpenter’s rent was jacked up to $8,000 a month in a “crappy” building before she decided to call it quits.
“In order to stay there, I had to make $1,000 a day,” she said. “So I thought, ‘Screw you, I’m moving.’” (In contrast, at her new home-and-workplace hybrid, Carpenter pays a mere $3,000 a month for rent.)
June Croken, owner of Hairdresser on Fire at the corner of Queen and John, reiterates Carpenter’s sentiments. After almost five years of financial struggle in the neighbourhood, Croken says her salon may soon be another of the local shops to close down.
“Everyone is being spread thin,” she said. “What happens then? Do all the cool [local] places close down?
“Are we going to be stuck with The Gap?”
Queen West was not always the expensive retail hub it is today. As far back as the 1860s, small-business owners dominated Queen Street, providing local services to the nearby community before the advent of the car. Blacksmiths, tailors, and grocers populated the street. And despite the construction of the Yonge subway in the 1950s, local entrepreneurs continued to open up shop along Queen Street, which managed to maintain its Victorian charm throughout the urbanization of downtown Toronto.
The late ’70s and early ’80s saw a boom in both small business and artistic activity in the area. The Toronto Star deemed Queen West a shopping hotspot known for the “spirit of trend.” Due to low rents and the accessibility of the area by transit, small businesses offering products and services unavailable elsewhere thrived. But, naturally, as the area became more popular, the small-business dynamic Queen West established started to wear off.
In the ’90s, bigger corporations began moving in, The Gap being among the first. By the late-2000s, the transition was stark, with Queen West increasingly overrun by major franchises: In the summer of 2007, for instance, H&M opened its doors at Queen and Spadina while, just a block west, Urban Outfitters followed a year later.
“What happens is artists make a neighbourhood and they make it cool,” says Carpenter, outlining an all-too-familiar process. “And then all the big businesses come in because they want the cachet of the neighbourhood.”
With a growing number of big companies dominating Queen West, rents inevitably soared—far beyond the reach of both existing and prospective business-owners. Today, these people are left to cope with the changes.
Many are making their way westard, where rent is slightly lower and competition from major corporations slimmer (for now). Even a popular retailer like Stussy, for instance, moved from its Spadina and Richmond location over to Ossington late last year. And Curry’s, a small art franchise, is heading even further west to Dufferin from its location just west of Augusta.
Unfortunately, unique retail concepts like Lomography, Hell’s Belles and Carpenter’s Peach Berserk no longer exist as public storefront shops; instead, they are forced into private or online retail because they can’t pay the rents that the big chains have brought to the area.
But while the issue is both predictable and pressing, there are still no solutions in place to protect small business owners. Melissa Lam, executive director the Queen Street West Business Improvement Area (BIA), says that such closures are expected in a neighbourhood like Queen West.
“Queen Street West goes through cycles,” she said. “Because it’s a street that tries out new retail concepts, it comes with the territory.”
Still, there have yet to be any formal discussions about the growing number of empty shops in the area.
“I’ve had casual conversations on the street about it,” Lam said. “But because the BIA doesn’t focus on the real-estate development aspect, I don’t expect that we’ll have a formal discussion.”
For those in the real-estate business, the state of Queen West isn’t out of the ordinary.
Alex Edmison, a sales associate with CBRE Canada who has leased several commercial locations on Queen, says prices on Queen Street are fair.
“There’s always turnover,” he said. “In any retail situation, there’s a natural vacancy rate, and I think Queen Street has a natural vacancy rate.”
Edmison adds that the long process of leasing commercial properties keeps them empty for longer than usual, “dissimilar to residential sales.” For instance, he says the ground-floor space at 315 Queen St. W will not be occupied until spring 2014, despite being leased as early as June this year.
Regardless, Edmison says prices will continue to soar. He argues there will always be demand on Queen West—no matter how high lease rates go.
“It’s absolutely not cheap on Queen, especially if you’re a small local business,” he says. “But, relative to other areas, it’s not astronomically expensive.”
According to Edmison, rents near Yonge and Bloor or Yonge and Dundas can reach almost double the amounts found on Queen West, and are always in demand.
Today, Carpenter’s old dress boutique at Queen and Augusta is unrecognizable: Once painted hot pink with hand-written signs out front, the space is now home to the White Squirrel Snack Shop, painted (naturally) a clinical white that is stark in comparison to its former shell.
While she’s still nostalgic for the location’s past charm, Carpenter is reassured she made the right move on days she strolls by the old shop.
“I really started my business at the right time,” she said. “Now, I go down Queen Street every day and I pass by those shops, and I never see people coming out with shopping bags.
“Any way I look at it, all I can think is, ‘How can these [small businesses on] Queen West possibly survive?’”