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On Kenilworth Avenue

11 December 2013 No Comment

Police cruisers, an ambulance and numerous spectators gathered at the corner of Kenilworth Avenue and Hope Street on the morning of November 9th.  The block was enclosed with yellow caution-tape. Police officers took witness statements – “he was just walking his dog,” said one observer. “Next thing I knew, he was on the ground. Dead.”

The victim in question was ex-Hells Angels member Lou Malone, 49. His death was believed to be a gang hit.

This scene exemplifies some of the major struggles of Kenilworth Avenue. Gang violence and excessive crime severely hinder its appeal. Abandoned storefronts, vacant properties and absentee landlords seal the deal.

Over the past 20 years, Kenilworth Avenue has become one of the city’s neglected areas. Yet if you walk ten minutes west, the setting changes drastically. Ottawa Street is one of Hamilton’s destination streets. Vibrant storefronts, walkable sidewalks and public art make it a local attraction. With the close proximity of Ottawa and Kenilworth, it begs the question, “what happened”?

Kenilworth used to be home to a number of butchers, bakeries, appliance stores, restaurants and other small businesses. Directories from the early 1990s show between 60 and 80 businesses that were very diverse in services provided. The street had a retail face.

One of the street’s staples is East Hamilton Radio. Since 1931, EHR has sat on the corner of Barton and Kenilworth and has thrived. Despite its success, Rob Bragdon, General Manager of EHR, said that commercial activity on the rest of the street has declined substantially.

“Nothing has happened on this street. Nothing ever seems to happen here except crime,” he said.

Shipton’s Heating and Cooling has been another business that has survived for decades on Kenilworth. Co-owner Tim Shipton lamented that the street’s decline has been a great tragedy. He places blame on two things: absentee property owners and the establishment of large businesses in the area.

The absentee landlord issue is one that Ward 4 Councillor Sam Merulla agrees is the biggest concern. The city even went so far as to take a number of them to the Ontario Municipal Board to force them to bring their dwellings up to code. According to Merulla, there are about 14 properties north of Cannon Street that are most problematic.

“We’ve identified these areas as a priority,” said Merulla.

The large businesses that impacted the commercial success of Kenilworth include Tim Hortons and The Centre Mall. There were a few small coffee shops that were forced to close after Dave and Maureen Sauve opened Tim Hortons in 1997. At the Centre Mall, A&P Food Store opened, which drew a lot of people away from the independent grocers.  The mall became a one-stop shop that offered more selection at cheaper prices.

“You have to give people a reason to visit the street,” said Bragdon. “The Centre Mall really took that option away from Kenilworth.”

Another reason given for the decline of Kenilworth was the building of the Red Hill Parkway. Prior to its construction, the Kenilworth Access was one of the only ways to get up the mountain. Irfan Dhaliwal, owner of a car lot on Kenilworth, said that the expressway gave people even fewer reasons to come to the area.

Ottawa Street could have easily suffered the same fate as Kenilworth. Twenty years ago, the street was rampant with crime. Large-scale retail outlets also impacted the commercial viability of shops on Ottawa.  Patty Hayes, Executive Director of the Ottawa Street Business Improvement Area (BIA), said that it took a very carefully executed rebranding to revitalize the street.

“This was not an easy transition… it took a lot of people who had a strategy and clearly defined goals,” she said.

Ottawa Street has an advantage – it is the fabric and textile district of the city. The stores attract people because they offer a specific service or product that is hard to find. Aside from the fabric and textile stores, Ottawa Street has destination stores such as Bell Arte Camera, Nadel’s Furs and the Army Surplus Store. These are multi-generational stores that have been on the street for close to a century.

“When people come to this street, they usually have a purpose. Once you give them a purpose, you have to make sure that they enjoy the experience. That’s what we’ve accomplished here…this is a great street to walk,” said Hayes.

The Ottawa Street BIA was started 26 ago. It was the result of business owners coming together to establish a board that would help revive and market the street.  Hayes has worked for the BIA for 17 years and has done a great deal to rebrand the street. She is responsible for organizing the food truck event, Sew Hungry, as well as bringing the Farmer’s Market to the area on a weekly basis. She has organized sidewalk sales, helped create a small public park and forced the city to bring in some basic amenities to keep the street clean, such as cigarette depositories and garbage cans.

The most notable achievement of the BIA has to be the drastic change in vacancy rates over the past two decades.  According to Hayes, when she took on the role as executive director, the rate was over 40 per cent. Now, it is two per cent.

“A lot of the success is based on marketing,” said Hayes.

The BIA does a lot to market the street. It reserves ads in local newspapers and magazines, as well as on local television and radio stations. It promotes itself, upcoming events and most importantly, the merchants. Hayes also helps store-owners by informing them of city incentive programs, filling out paperwork and taking trips to City hall on their behalf.

“They’re storeowners. They can’t get downtown during regular office hours. They have a store to run. I make sure they can do that efficiently,” said Hayes.

Kenilworth Avenue does not have a BIA to help businesses thrive. This is not for a lack of effort. Articles of Merulla trying to establish a BIA in the area date back to 1997. Shipton was heavily involved in this process and was frustrated with the lack of commitment shown by property owners.

“It was the slumlords, if I can call them that. They really hurt the chances of getting one [a BIA] set up. They rent out their properties to whomever and then leave. They don’t care what happens on this street…there’s no enticement to improve the area,” he said.

Property owners who want the advantages provided by a BIA also have to pay a fee. The fee is dependent on the number of properties and square footage. On Ottawa Street, the Bell Arte Camera store pays $3,000 per year, including the parking lot. Owner of the store, Robert Bagliolid, said that the return on investment is worth it.

“The amount of marketing that Patty does and how good she is at attracting people to the street is worth way more than what we pay,” said Bagliolid.

After a 16-year battle to create a BIA for Kenilworth, Merulla tried a new approach. He created a financial incentives program. These programs include grants for facade work, property maintenance and tax incentives. It is essentially the same services that are provided by a BIA.

Hayes was quick to point out that although these programs are helpful, the real challenge is getting business owners to understand the fine print, fill out the necessary documents, deliver it downtown and implement the changes.

Kenilworth also has the advantage of cheap property rates. Locke Street charges $15 per square foot for its property, while Ottawa sits at about $13. According to Merulla, property on Kenilworth goes for $7 or $8.

“If you want to buy buildings, it will cost you close to a million for a property on Ottawa. On Kenilworth, you’re looking at $120,000,” said Merulla. “It is the most undervalued property in the entire east end.

Kenilworth appears to have been neglected by the city over the years. Although it is an arterial street, it has garnered very little attention. Merulla is quick to point out that the east end has undergone a great deal of transformation, including the $150 million rebuild of the Centre on Barton. However, he admits that Kenilworth Avenue has not reaped the benefits of the changes.

“It was heading in a much worse direction ten years ago,” explained Merulla.

According to the Ward 4 Councillor, the area was going to be designated for affordable housing. He fought council to keep it commercially zoned.

“That would have been the death knell for the street,” he said.

City staffers have noticed a neglect of the area and have taken action. The Planning and Economic Development department are undergoing a study of the Barton Street Commercial Corridor. This extends from Gage Avenue to Kenilworth Avenue and from Barton to Main. Project Manager of the study, Alan Waterfield, said it is too early to speculate the results.

“We are just at the very early stages now. We’ve hired a consultant and we’re hosting public forums…we hope to start implementing some changes in the spring of 2014,” said Waterfield.

Kenilworth has never truly had an identity. Prior to its commercial decline, it was always home to small-time business owners, but the services and products offered were varied. With the Centre on Barton offering most of these services and then some, creating a unique identity for the street will be quite a challenge.

This has been the dilemma of Kenilworth Avenue for years. However, progress is steadily being made. The Barton Street Commercial Corridor study should garner some results that turn into tangible action. In addition, the lack of available space on surrounding streets and the low property rates on Kenilworth will hopefully attract investors.

“There isn’t one magic pill…it takes a lot of work stretched out over a number of years,” said Hayes.

The first step has already been completed – the area has been identified as a priority. Now the city needs to take the necessary steps to make Kenilworth Avenue a destination street.

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