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Toronto mayor-elect Olivia Chow speaks to media outside City Hall in Toronto, Tuesday, June 27, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Arlyn McAdoreyArlyn McAdorey/The Canadian Press

When I started at The Globe and Mail in 1991, our old offices at 444 Front Street West were surrounded by a whole lot of nothing. The King-Spadina district had been the centre of the rag trade, but that was mostly gone.

What remained were acres of underused industrial buildings, few residents, fewer restaurants or stores – and great seas of parking. Parking was something like $3 a day at the huge lot next to The Globe. It was cheaper than taking the TTC.

The area was a 15 minute walk from the bank towers of King and Bay but nothing – not street life, economic activity or real estate values – reflected that.

Three decades later, the King-Spadina district is one of the city’s most desirable locations, filled with offices and condos, scads of bars and restaurants, and busy sidewalks. In 1996, a mere 945 people lived there. Twenty years later, the population was just shy of 20,000.

There’s a lesson here in how to reimagine, and restart, downtown Toronto.

The geographic heart of Canadian capitalism is in a bad way. The office vacancy rate has risen to 15.8 per cent, according to CBRE, and looks poised to go higher. The University of Toronto’s School of Cities says foot traffic in downtown is at 47 per cent of pre-pandemic levels. The rest of the city is busier than ever – but not the vital blocks radiating out from King and Bay. There, it’s like lockdown never ended.

The answer for a better future for Toronto’s downtown, and all downtowns, may lie in the history of King-Spadina. A generation ago, the city made a miracle happen. It did it, mostly, by getting out of the way.

There are few people more familiar with that story than Toronto’s new mayor, Olivia Chow. She was the area’s councillor from 1991 to 2005. She was there when the decision was made that turned things around.

But first, let’s talk about Ms. Chow’s signature promise in last month’s election: her pledge to raise the city’s comparatively low (yes, really) taxes. Despite being saddled with all kinds of costs not borne by neighbouring municipalities, Toronto is a relatively low taxer. According to an analysis of 30 Golden Horseshoe jurisdictions, from real estate site Zoocasa, Toronto has the second-lowest residential tax rates.

The average home in Mississauga sold for $1.076-million in April, and carried property taxes of nearly $9,000. Next door in western Toronto, the average home price was almost exactly the same, yet property taxes were almost $2,100 lower.

Ms. Chow touched the third rail of Canadian politics by promising higher taxes and still won. Good. If you wonder why most Toronto libraries are closed on Sundays, or why the TTC has cut back service, lack of money is the answer.

But some of the best things in city life don’t need much, or any, public money.

The King-Spadina area became increasingly run down and empty in the 1970s and 1980s because city zoning, in a bid to retain industry, prevented the conversion of vacant industrial buildings. The main thing standing in the way of a better city was the city itself.

Then in 1996, Toronto abruptly liberalized zoning in King-Spadina. Private developers started turning underused industrial land and buildings into condos, offices and retail. The city stepped back and let it happen.

Downtown Toronto is not the same as King-Spadina of a generation ago, but there are echoes. Today, city zoning rules are designed to discourage empty office buildings from being converted into things like condos or apartments. Developers who want to repurpose office space as residential must build an equivalent amount of new office space. It’s nuts.

Simply ditching that rule isn’t the answer to everything that ails downtown. But it is a piece of the puzzle. Why wouldn’t we want more people to live downtown, near offices? Ever heard of New York City?

Ms. Chow is right to be reaching for more revenue from taxpayers. She’s right to want to keep libraries open seven days a week, and to reverse TTC service cuts. She’s right to talk about saving hundreds of millions of dollars by not rebuilding the east end of the Gardiner Expressway.

And she’s right to push higher levels of government to pick up costs their policies impose on Toronto – as she did earlier this week when she accused the federal government of “not paying a cent” for the large number of refugee claimants in the city’s homeless shelters.

But not all things that make city life better are costly. Some are cheap, and even easy.

Each summer, Montreal turns Mont-Royal Avenue into the most beautiful and packed pedestrian mall in North America, at a cost of around $1-million. Small business loves it, and helps pay for it.

A few years ago, Toronto sped up service and boosted ridership on the King Street streetcar – Canada’s busiest surface transit line pre-pandemic, carrying more people than the Sheppard subway – simply by limiting cars on the highest-volume stretch of route. Cost: A few concrete barriers and some cans of yellow paint.

And then there’s CaféTo – a four-year old program to let neighbourhood restaurants install summer patios on sidewalks and in curbside parking spots.

During the pandemic, the city was permissive (at least by Toronto standards). Then it decided to “improve” the program. Uh oh. “We’re from the government and we’re here to help,” as a famous conservative once said. Restaurants have been slapped with heavy bureaucracy, onerous rules, endless delays and thousands of dollars in unnecessary costs.

Ms. Chow knows all that. That’s why, though opponents paint her as the second coming of Fidel Castro, she just might be the mayor that Toronto business – Bay Street and main street – needs.

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