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Kingston and it’s Downtown Shops

Downtown Kingston

Downtown shops currently face tough prospects. Losing S&R Department Store, the large business and 50-year old commercial anchor at the bottom of Princess Street, is one of three major disruptions taking place concurrently. The same area on Princess Street is due to be dug up this summer to replace ageing water and sewerage mains, and similar infrastructure work is planned for next summer. The third issue is the general downturn in business due to the downturn in the economy and fewer visitors from other countries. How much bad news can merchants survive?

At last count, there are more than 165 shops, large and small, in the historic area, and I have been into almost all of them to learn more. More than three-quarters are merchant-owned and operated. That’s really unusual in an age of big box stores and shopping malls. About one in four offers clothing, fashions and shoes. The fashion boutiques are often small delightful places with specialised imports from Europe and Eastern or Southern Asia. There are some really excellent gift shops, jewellery makers, several art galleries and a few unique stores such as Tara’s Natural Foods, Minotaur Games and Toys, Gwin Gryffon and the Kingston Guitar Shop. Within the same small area you can watch glass being blown, pottery shaped and silversmiths at their benches designing earrings, broaches and neckpieces.

These merchants and artists are all dependent on trade that comes from Kingston people and visitors from near and far. Except that there are fewer visitors these days and less money with the economic downturn.

This special shopping area is as much an asset to Kingston as its other glories that so attract visitors. The commercial buildings exude the visually splendid architecture of an earlier age, with interior walls of exposed stone and brick. By way of contrast, in the late 1880’s, Vancouver’s “city hall” was a tent. How extraordinary Kingston must seem to visitors from British Columbia and the Prairie Provinces.

Does having a unique shopping area in the historic core matter? Does it have a future or should it be allowed to wither and die? You don’t have to travel far to see what could happen. New shopping malls drove out the merchants in Brockville’s lovely historic core on the waterfront, of which little remains but the occasional pawnshop and empty storefronts gaping like bad teeth. Why visit such decay?

What can be done? One is for the city to recognise the intrinsic value of the shopping area in the historic core as more than taxable property. The shops deserve promoting as an alternative to big box stores and shopping malls, as a tourist asset, and generally to expand the reputation of the area amongst all Kingstonians. Downtown Kingston provides crowd-drawing summer events, and Tourism Kingston publishes a high standard of tourist publications for hotels.

What do you think? Better still, what would you do? Constructive comments invited.  Thanks to elasticcamel for the photo of S&R.

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7 thoughts on “Kingston and it’s Downtown Shops

  • April 29, 2009 at 5:37 pm
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    I think the city should restrict future growth in the suburban areas of Kingston in order to prevent a hollowing out of downtown. Developments like Kings-Crossing are what destroy urban cores. There is PLENTY of empty space on upper Princess St. (Division St. to Bath Rd.) where many businesses have long since disappeared. The city should look at promoting the redevelopment of this area of the city through tax breaks and increased public transit in this area.

    Although large box stores like Canadian Tire would be hard-pressed to develop this area (unless they are willing to build more 2-3 story stores like in larger urban centers), smaller outlets like the Reebok and Tommy Hilfiger stores could easily adapt to this area. Think about how vibrant Princess St. would be if medium density developments stretched all the way up to Bath Rd. Eyesores such as boarded up buildings and empty lots could easily be replaced by beautiful shopping/residential developments. Upper Princess St. could become a tree-lined blvd. connecting the downtown region to the west end.

    Developing this area would not only help ensure the survival of the downtown core, but it would also work to prevent the destruction of prime agricultural land that surrounds Kingston.

  • April 30, 2009 at 1:21 am
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    “By way of contrast, in the late 1880’s, Vancouver’s “city hall” was a tent.”

    I’m sure you just forgot to add perspective here, right? It was in a tent because they had a fire that razed much of the city, so they were forced to convene there.

    By the way, that’s indomitable spirit – does Kingston have it?

  • April 30, 2009 at 12:17 pm
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    @That Guy Is that a rhetorical question? As you’ve shown off your historical prowess regarding Vancouver, certainly you must be familiar with the tribulations endured by Kingston. For starters, over 1,400 Irish immigrants died of typhoid back in the 1850’s. About ten year’s later, a significant fire destroyed the market wing, and at the close of the century St. Georges Cathedral nearly burned down. Both were rebuilt. In the meantime, like many other Canadian communities we contributed to two world wars, and survived the ebb of the manufacturing sector. Is that indomitable enough for ya? Maybe not, but keep in mind that’s all contributed to our ranking as the 4th best place to live in Canada.

    Regarding the hollowing out of the downtown. The departure of S&R, the Body Shop, and The Card Merchant do not leave me feeling warm and fuzzy. Further up Princess Street (near the old Toyota dealership) the scenery is even more embarrassing. Sure it would have been great to see some of the big box stores end up downtown, but do we have enough parking for that? Moreover the taxes are way higher downtown than where the RioCan and King’s Crossing ended up. Clearly City Hall doesn’t perceive the state of the downtown a problem, because if they did, concessions would have been made to draw them in. Although it would be nice if we focused on filling downtown vacancies, and re-imagined Princess (from Division to Bath), I doubt our current trajectory will make a ghost town out of the core.

  • April 30, 2009 at 5:00 pm
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    Nations of millions of people ponder the best solution to resolve economic conditions, millions of people are out of work, billions of dollars are being spend to aid countries and their people, and we have privately owned store deciding this is the best time for them to close, and you call kick the taxman in the crotch or our city is in peril. Good work, when you all get this sorted out in your little pseudo-intellectual-back-seat-urban-planning-kingdom-of-super-powers, let me know and I’ll pass it along and make you all the heros. In the mean time a little perspective is in order Chicken Littles. It is not perfect, it has it’s problems, but at the end of the day we are most fortunate to have people who care enough to step away from there keyboards long enough to take action and work to keep what we have, and to those people, I would like to say thank-you, and keep up the good work, some of us realize it is a tough job, and we support you.

  • May 2, 2009 at 8:52 am
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    @trebor Well I for one am not some sort of lethargic keyboard jockey, and I agree that the core has not reached the tipping point. Sure things for downtown Kingston will work out in the wash, but is that honestly good enough for you? You’re pretty quick to tear apart our constructive visions, but your only real contribution is a slow clap for people doing their jobs. So I want to throw it back to you, and ask you to flex your pseudo-intellectual-back-seat-urban-planning-kingdom-of-super-powers (lol), and address the state and future of the downtown. How do you think it should be developed, should it be protected etc…

  • May 2, 2009 at 4:11 pm
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    The thought of Belleville’s downtown makes me shudder. I laugh when reading comments on The Whig about how Rosen favours spending downtown. Well of course!! Do you want us end up like Belleville????Without the downtown, Kingston would be another typical suburban city sprawl with no heart. You can bet your butt Kingston wouldn’t be #3 on Money Sense list. Kingston is very lucky to have such a lively, interesting and concentrated downtown area. It was honestly a large factor for why I’ve decided to stay here after doing an internship and make Kingston my home.

    It’s sad that S&R is going out of business but honestly that place always seemed like on the verge of being condemned. I’m crossing my fingers that Kingston’s downtown is lively and still healthy enough to attract new retail interest even in a recession.

    Kingston does already have it’s share of empty real-estate that’s sat empty for far too long. Take for example the old bank (?) King and Queen anyone. Prime location with view of market square but the building is atrocious for anything less then a bank. So lets hope the unusual structure that S&R occupied doesn’t suffer the same.

    Also add Ben & Jerry’s to the list of ‘for lease’ retail. That one surprised me. It’s been there for what a year? And closing just in time for summer, prime business?? I wasn’t a huge customer, I maybe visited 3 or 4 times based on my girlfriends request but it served as a warm (ironic for icecream isn’t it) and welcoming stop after a dinner or movie downtown on a nice summer evening. Even on times when I didn’t enter it’s colour and smell was always enjoyed.

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