The next hip street

Seventeenth Avenue is cool. So is Fourth Street Kensington and Inglewood. These are the strips known for funky independent businesses art spaces and restaurants that have risen to prominence in recent decades and that are actively promoted by the city. Unfortunately for them many of the businesses that make up these districts may be the architects of their own demise as the hipper an area gets the more expensive it becomes to live and operate there. Ward 8 Coun. Evan Woolley says it’s easy to see this cycle unfolding on 17th Avenue S.W. in his ward.

“What we’ve seen recently is Dick and Jane’s closes Divine closes Mealan closes and what does that say and what do we do?” asks Woolley. He says the margins in clothing are not high enough to support the expense so bars and nightclubs which can afford higher rents are taking over the avenue.

City of Calgary urban planner Thom Mahler says it’s predictable that independent businesses like the clothing store Dick and Jane’s which operated for five years beside Blame Betty on 17th Avenue before shutting down this summer will fail as the street becomes more popular.

Mahler says once developers see an area is becoming fashionable and has a unique character they capitalize on it building more retail and residential spaces. “In order for those developers to make it worth their while to build buildings like that they need higher rents…. The companies that tend to be able to afford those rents are often either restaurants or national brands or larger brands and so that takes away some of that local flavour” says Mahler.

“People are concerned in those areas you know will those small businesses be pushed out? And we’re typically here saying we can’t prevent that.”

“Streets rise and fall” says Woolley who is keen on figuring out where the next desirable area will be and making it easy for those streets to develop a vibe. He is looking at extending rejuvenation east down 17th and 16th avenues as well as helping businesses get a foothold on 10th 11th and 12th avenues by restoring two-way traffic lanes.

“These young cool hip shops like Divine and Dick and Jane’s… either they’re going to evolve and grow up and become richer or they like their small unique hip vibe and they start to act as… the frontiersmen of the business district” says Woolley. “What my job is is to help the pioneers and frontiersmen find a new spot.”

Not everyone wants to be forced into the business frontier. Bernard Drouin has operated 17th Avenue Framing since 1999 and in 2013 he bought the building that has always housed his shop. He says that though he can avoid jumps in the lease rates by owning the place city business taxes are so high they alone may force him from the neighbourhood.

In 2011 the city assessed the value of Drouin’s 4600-square-foot building at $870000 and taxed it based on that value. After he bought it in 2012 it was reassessed at $1.23 million. His business taxes are based on land value not his store’s income so Drouin pays nearly $2000 a month to the city. He appealed the tax bill last year and won a 15 per cent reduction and says he will fight it every year because he does not want to leave the area.

“I think that’s the whole appeal of 17th Avenue is it’s a trendy shopping area and it’s become so — I’m seeing this becoming more like an Electric Avenue of the ’80s where it’s going to be bar after bar after bar” he says.

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business has long criticized Calgary for stifling small business growth with some of the highest small business taxes in the country. Woolley and Mahler say it’s unlikely that will change and business owners would be wise to embrace moving to cheaper areas.

Montgomery may be the next cool place to be despite being far from the city core. North Darling the area’s Business Revitalization Zone executive director is excited about the cycle pushing business out of downtown and the inner city and into Montgomery in the northwest.

“That natural progression where the rents go up — I even take it back further (to) when artists move into a community because they tend to be the ones that move in before the businesses…. When I start to hear that artists have to move out of the neighbourhood I think that’s a success because they’ve lit a fire…. Businesses will move in and ultimately move the rents up they will keep the audience and create new audiences and create this really interesting neighbourhood where there was never anything before.

“So it’s all a progression and the artists go and find the next neighbourhood. Think of Inglewood 10 years ago it was full of artists…. Now there’s not many left but it’s taken off in so many other different ways” says Darling adding he hopes the artists soon take over Montgomery.