A major obstacle to revitalizing Norfolk County’s struggling downtowns appears to be crumbling.
In recent years, some have suggested that the key to downtown revitalization lies in shrinking the central business districts and giving over vacant storefronts to housing.
Resistance has come from those who believe the downtowns have comeback potential. Opponents hark to a time when tobacco was king and official plans protected local cores from big-box retailing.
A decision at Norfolk council last week suggests resistance is fading.
“I see a whole evolution in our downtown cores coming,” said David Roe, a planning consultant with Civic Planning Solutions of Delhi.
“It’s happening all over North America because of big-box stores and online shopping. What we’re losing is our independent, private retail venues. What we are getting in our cores are traditional services – coffee shops, office-sharing and the like.
“That’s the evolution, and that’s where we’re going. The thing is to get rid of the empty storefronts. Get people living there instead so they will sit in these coffee shops and use these new services.”
Norfolk took a step in this direction on May 14 with the rezoning to residential of a former commercial storefront in downtown Waterford.
Roe was agent for the applicants Michael and Tracy Bancroft, owners of the building at 38 Alice St.
The Bancrofts bought the five-unit apartment building 11 years ago. At the time, they did not know that the ground-floor apartment fronting onto Alice Street had not been rezoned for residential purposes. Their lawyer missed the illegal conversion and they only learned about the problem after a mortgage broker asked for a zoning search.
The Bancrofts responded with a zoning application, which was approved.
“This is not going to be a detriment – having people live in our downtowns,” Simcoe Coun. Ian Rabbitts said. “I would like to see further applications.”
Rabbitts qualified his support by saying approved property owners must take steps to buffer street-level traffic from activity inside.
Rabbitts has seen converted storefronts where rags and towels are put up in the window instead of proper blinds or other buffering devices.
Port Dover Coun. Amy Martin said most anything is preferable to neglected storefronts.
“There’s merit to our downtowns having foot traffic when you use empty storefronts as a comparator,” she said. “That said, we have to be strategic about this.”
The other four apartment units in the Bancrofts’ building comply with Norfolk’s zoning bylaw. Forbidden are street-level apartments in the central business district.
Roe told council that shrinking the central business district and converting obsolete storefronts to housing is a potential remedy to homelessness and a shortage of entry-level housing for young people starting out in the workforce. Haldimand and Norfolk’s health and social services division has identified this as a serious problem in recent months.
For his part, Josh Tucker, 20, the resident of the formerly illegal unit at 38 Alice, breathed a sigh of relief the next day when told the county approves of his apartment. He has lived there since he was 18.
“This is perfect starter housing,” he said. “Nice scenery, clean, refurbished – everything. It’s perfect – good price and a good view.”
Norfolk planning staff recommended approval of the Bancrofts’ application.
Senior planner Shannon VanDalen said the May 14 decision is not necessarily a precedent. Each application is unique and is weighed on its own merits, she said.