Modeled after an Australian project called Renew Newcastle, the Danforth East Community Association’s first of two pop-up shops took over 1948 Danforth Avenue, across from East Lynn Park, last weekend.
Birthia, a shop on Dundas West that sells locally-made jewelry, clothing, art and home decor, set up for two days in the space, which was cleaned up and painted by DECA volunteers. Osvaldo Sales, who owns Birthia with his family, said the weekend was a great success for their first venture into the East End, which was sort of a test for a possible future expansion.
“We had to open ahead of time on Saturday because we had so many people lined up outside waiting to get in,” he said.
The second two-day business that will set up shop, Mrs. Darling’s Imaginarium, is set to run this coming weekend, Oct. 27 and 28, in the same space.
The Renew East Danforth project aims to temporarily fill empty storefronts for free; landlords donate the space (which must be vacated once a permanent tenant is found), and in return, volunteers and the short-term tenants work to physically improve the space, and to make it more attractive to potential renters simply by bringing life to the space.
Earlier this year, DECA, along with younger sister organization GECO (Gerrard East Community Organization) brought the founder of Renew Newcastle to Toronto to speak on his experiences at home. Many left that meeting feeling inspired to take action on the amount of closed-up storefronts in their respective areas. DECA covers Danforth from Monarch Park to Main, while GECO sprang up around the Gerrard India Bazaar.
A few weeks ago, DECA sent out a request for proposals to its email list, asking what people might do with free space on the Danforth. There were more than 50 replies, ranging from art galleries to temporary shops for those who already sell products online, to those with an existing business idea, to proposals to offer free services and computer skills workshops.
“This pop-up shop is what we hope is a precursor to what we want to do more broadly in that part of Danforth,” said Natasha Granatstein of DECA.
While the enterprise gets free space for grand ideas, and the landlord gets improved and more attractive commercial property, the members of DECA, who live in the neighbourhood, also benefit.
“We as a community will get a more vibrant, walkable commercial strip, and that’s sort of our end goal,” said Granatstein.
As they expected, the first few people are the hardest ones to get on board, she said. However, there are a few potential owners that may be willing to work with the group.
“It’s not that we have landlords crawling over each other to be involved, but we do have a few who are keen to work with us,” she said.
One of the issues DECA members – including Toronto Star columnist Catharine Porter – have identified is financial. There are property tax breaks available for commercial property owners without tenants, and if a building owner has residential units rented above a storefront, it can be easier to simply price the storefront out of the market, and let the apartments pay the bills. Granatstein said the Renew East Danforth team has been attempting to appeal to the social conscience of owners to try to bring more life to the street.
Although the first two pop-up shops are both businesses, financial return isn’t the only criteria DECA uses to measure success; they also don’t necessarily expect tenants to use money as the main measure of success. For Granatstein, an increase in foot traffic would be one measure of success, as far as DECA’s goals are concerned.
“People vote with their feet, essentially,” she said. “The goal has always been to make the neighbourhood more vibrant, walkable and safe.”
That goal was part of what made the Birthia proposal attractive – increasing foot traffic is one of the objectives mentioned in that proposal as well. Sales said the reaction from the neighbourhood has been very encouraging.
“We’re very pleased that we got in,” he said.
The weekend of Oct. 27 and 28 will see Mrs. Darling’s Imaginarium for Girls and Boys take over the space, offering creative craft workshops for children. The mornings will be drop-in sessions, while the afternoons will consist of classes for those who preregister at www.mrsdarlings.ca.