Commercial Vacancies in Downtown Kingston

Death of downtown, store vacancies, commercial property, Kingston, OntarioLast week we launched Kingstonist’s weekly poll, a new feature that aims to gauge public opinion regarding various hot topics throughout the Limestone City.  While we started off with a pretty light and fluffy issue, this week’s question is more contentious, and admittedly a topic we’ve touched on in the past.  Regulars may recall our three part series that took aim at cataloguing commercial vacancies in downtown Kingston.  Two of those posts went on to receive a tremendous amount of feedback, and they now stand within the top five most commented on stories on Kingstonist.  While it’s been a few months since we last took stock of the vacant storefronts in downtown Kingston, we’ve been keeping an eye on things and today we’re taking the discussion one step further.  Without further ado, please weigh in on this week’s poll:
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There’s only so much one can say by identifying a culprit for downtown Kingston’s commercial troubles as of late.  And so, if you’ve got a few more sage words of wisdom or otherwise want to stimulate additional conversation, please don’t hesitate to drop them off below.

Harvey Kirkpatrick

Harvey Kirkpatrick is Kingstonist's Co-Founder. His features curiously explore urban planning, what if scenarios, the local food scene and notable Kingstonians. Loves playing tourist and listening to rap music. Learn more about Harvey...

16 thoughts on “Commercial Vacancies in Downtown Kingston

  • The city can afford to invest 35M in a new pool, subsidizing a few downtown stores to boost the economic growth in this beautiful place wouldn't do much harm! I guess when rental costs go down, stores will come for sure.

    • Agree with previous post… There may be some issues with the municipal act but I would like to see the city buy up some of the downtown retail properties and rent or lease them out at reasonable rates. It might serve to temper gouging by some landlords, promote value added businesses and also serve as a source of revenue

  • I was downtown yesterday for the first time in a while (I live about an hour from Kingston) and I was shocked and appalled at the number of vacant storefronts! If I had been a tourist I would have come away with the impression that Kingston is a city on the way down and if I'd been a potential investor I would probably think twice and be concerned about the future of the city. Whatever the reasons are for these vacancies, city hall needs to act NOW to turn this situation around. I've always bragged about Kingston and its vibrant downtown core… but it looks anything but vibrant right now!

  • Downtown has actually improved a LOT in the last month or so, compared with how it was in January. A lot of previously vacant shops are now leased, with Starling moving into the old Beauty Bar location, Beauty bar filling the old Body Shop, a dance studio has filled the empty Era location, 501 seems to have a lot of work being done on it these days and the storefront is sporting a snazzy new glass front, the old copy shop is leased, etc, etc.

    Downtown will soon no longer have many vacancies on lower Princess. The major hurdle will be getting anyone to invest in larger locations such as S&R, Modern Furniture (when it does close up), Source for Sports, and the still vacant old TD building at the corner of King & Brock. The smaller storefronts never sit for too long, typically. With the economy doing somewhat better, normal service should resume downtown.

    I feel that the poll isn't really the best approach, as there isn't really any specific clear cut answer. Some of the stores were ones that had been on a brink of closing for awhile, and the economy finished them. Other stores have lost a lot of business to online stores, such as the many used book stores that have closed down. S&R may blame the construction and taxes, but let's face it, big box stores put the nails in their coffin. Some places, such as Second Cup and perhaps even Quiznos couldn't keep up with the rent. So really, my answer to the poll is "All of the above", which includes it being blown out of proportion.

    It's been a large peak in closures, but it has hardly spelled the end of downtown Kingston. We still have a lot of great chain stores that not even the Cat centre can boast – big names like Indigo, GAP, Urban Outfitters, Lululemon, American Apparel, Wallacks, and Urban Trade – all serving to draw people downtown. We also have an incredible selection of independent shops that are unique to our downtown, such as Turks, Three, Agent, Blueprint, Dover's, Cooke's, Minotaur, 4colour 8bit, Felicity & fritz and countless more.

    My primary concern with the downtown core is the state of ill repair and presentation in specific areas. Landlords should be held accountable for the posters that get stuck onto their vacant storefronts, same goes for graffiti. Stores should be encouraged to avoid using large plastic backlit signage, and instead opt to use externally lamp lit signage for the more traditional look and feel. We need garbage cans that cannot be kicked over by drunken late nighters, which will stop litter being so common. Crosswalks should be better marked, and sidewalks should be improved to perhaps mimic the wonderful ones down by market square. I wouldn't mind seeing more trees either.

    A little TLC and Kingston could have a really beautiful downtown, moreso than it already is.

    • The ebb and flow of vacancies, closures and openings may have ended up on the positive side of things over the past month or so, but presently the overall picture of downtown Kingston has numerous gaping holes. Modern Furniture, S&R, the former TD Bank etc… are the most apparent, and as you've mentioned the problem also penetrates smaller properties. The main opinion this poll attempts to gauge is why? Votes from our modest readership aren't going to solve anything, however the hope is that they spark further discussion, and possible enlightenment regarding the root cause(s) of our downtown's perils, or lack thereof.

      There are always going to be vacancies of both small and large storefronts. Competition from big box and online retailers is fierce, rent is expensive, the economy was hit hard and so forth. At the end of the day, my main concern is what are we doing about it? Are there enough Kingstonians who are willing to shop downtown instead of hunting for savings at a big box chain store? Are the right stores opening up to accommodate the demographic of downtown shoppers? What about attracting new shoppers? And if rent is so astronomical, what can the City do about it? Can we develop a plan that will see the downtown re-emerge as a centre that balances commerce, entertainment, recreation, accessibility, history etc..?

  • I agree with Ryan about the general state of disrepair in the downtown area. My youngest son and i have, for the the past couple of summers spent our Sunday afternoons touring the downtown area while window shopping and running errands. I have noticed that more and more places are closing and that it is taking longer for new venues to replace them. You would think that this trend, as well as the current economic state that store owners would be encouraged to lower their rental rates to help attract new businesses as well as help keep current ones open. The lower rental rates might also encourage stores to spruce up their storefronts as well as the surrounding area. Therefore encouraging people to stop, look and hopefully buy. A beautiful downtown is one people will spend time in and spend money in. Lets hope the trend reverses itself soon.

  • Make it easier and cheaper to park downtown. A lot of people avoid downtown due to the parking or perceived lack of it. People know they can go to the west end and not pay for parking.

  • I'm not so sure this is a big problem. We live far enough away from downtown (and okay, we're lazy) that we drive down, and there is enough parking, even free parking, if you are willing to walk a block or two – the side streets just south of Johnson, and north of Queen, for example. This is likely the same distance you might walk at the mall, or if you are shopping somewhere like the Riocan and going to multiple stores.

    As for paying – you can get half an hour free at some of the lots, and once you do have to pay, the rates are not exorbitant. The parking revenue both fills the City's coffers, and keeps people from using the downtown parking as their own personal spots.

  • Although widely accepted as a unique part of Kingston, it might help if Tourism Kingston and Downtown Kingston BIA were to acknowledge this special area in their signage and tourist literature. Street signs (Historic Kingston / Princess Street) and a commentary that brings a focus to Princess Street in tourism booklets and flyers would be a beginning. If one is to believe Tourism Kingston, Princess Street has all of 5 shops (they are the ones that advertise). Should this be how our City tourism services market the city?

    Has anyone noticed the shop databases on the Tourism Kingston and the Downtown Kingston BIA websites. The former lists about 80 shops (it relies on self-listing), the Downtown Kingston BIA website has a complete up-to-date database linked to a map (more than 160 shops). How is it that two major Kingston organisations fail to connect to one another?

    What about posting downtown street maps at two or three locations? That's a common approach elsewhere.

    A growing group of merchants plan a carfree day in late July that will bring ownership of historic Princess Street to shops, restaurants, local shoppers and visitors. That will be a fresh initiative for Kingston and one in keeping with Sustainable Kingston.

  • Contrary to popular belief….tourism is waning because US tourists aint coming anymore. Most of the stuff is mediocre..and we can go to Alexandria Bay if we want that. Outside of Queens and the gubamint, the industry is eroding…fast.

  • That's a good point, although we are presently on the fringe of the summer tourism season, so we'll have to wait until then before we can make a real, numbers-based comparison. Later this month we'll be treated to pseudo-tourists (ie parents of graduating students at Queen's, RMC, SLC). They'll begin to shower a bit of coin on the downtown, and other parts of the City. Fingers crossed that the trend continues throughout the summer.

  • I am fairly new to Kingston, having moved here this Fall to attend a Masters of Urban Planning program at Queen's University. One of Kingston's best features is (or should be) its' historic downtown. Coming from B.C. and having travelled to different parts of Ontario, I can say that Kingston has one of the stronger downtowns of smaller cities or metro areas that I have seen. There are still many people walking downtown, still many stores (although many have closed) and still events such as the Santa Claus Parade and Farmer's Market. I recently visited Niagara Falls and Hamilton and I can tell you that Kingston's downtown is miles better than those 'dead zones' of boarded-up buildings etc.

    However, if Kingston's planners, mayors, councils, business property owners etc do not take action to help Kingston's downtown, I am afraid that Kingston's downtown may decline further. I don't see it becoming as bad as Brantford or Niagara Falls, but I do worry about increasing vacancies and decreasing tourism, which would hurt Kingston. Kingston's downtown has beautiful buildings and a great setting on a lake. These attributes help Kingston's downtown and should not be taken for granted.

    Given that most small metro area downtowns in North America struggle (google Filion and small city downtowns for more information), we need to be proactive to make sure that Kingston does not fall into that category. What should we do about it? Perhaps the property owners should lower rents? Perhaps the city should provide property tax credits to new businesses and property owners that move into the area? Perhaps the city should stop building office and retail development on the outskirts of the city? Perhaps S&R and other buildings should be redeveloped as residential so that the number of people living downtown increases? These are just suggestions and given that I have been living here for just half a year (and don't know this city as well as locals), I'd like to hear your opinions on what should be done to help the downtown. What do you think should be done to help the downtown?

  • Kingston should play to its strengths, which are that it has a pleasant, easily walkable or cyclable urban core. There should be a pedestriansed zone* around Brock and the bottom of Princess Street, and perhaps parking (of which there is plenty on the edge of this area, and will be even more once the old police station has been demolished. Rents should be lowered and a more mixed set of shops encouraged, with particular emphasis on distinctive local products and initiatives, but with some encouragement of larger nationals too – a proper department store where SR used to be, would be fantastic.

    * for those who don't understand this concept, it does not mean no deliveries or pick-up, it means a general presumption against motorised through traffic and parking in specific streets. Exceptions are usually made for vehicles with disabled permits too.

  • The realities for small cities and their downtown cores are that retail and dining have to be unique enough to warrant spending time there. Few people will admit to shopping at the Wal Marts and other big box retail..but as the weak economy strains budgets, people will shop in the outskirts of town for better prices. However, niche retail and dining and nightlife are still the strengths of Kingston's downtown
    Kingston has the brainpower and a creative populace to create a very vibrant area. It may be just a sort period of what I call a "conscious flux". Essentially, people are just waiting for a better deal..The next domino to fall in the wobbly North American economy will be commercial real estate. Rest assured the landlords demands cant be met if nobody rents from them…leaving them no rent and a sizeable tax liability. The will have to lower rents and subsequently the downtown area will grow again…we may be just in the holding pattern till the dominos fall.

  • I have been following some of these comments regarding downtown. I am speaking as a candidate for council ( Portsmouth District) Here are a couple things i would like to see. Replace all oil drum garbage containers with a nice lockable container. There is too many garbage cans dumped ( mainly the hub area). Recycling bins..How come there are so few of them? This would at least make it a bit more attractive.

    Also i will be asking each house / apt i visit . If they do not go downtown… Why?. This should get a fairly good representation.

    • It's great that we have a Council candidate reading and participating in the conversation here on Kingstonist. My only request is that comments be kept appropriate to the post topic. Thanks.

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