Three years ago this week, the coronavirus pandemic hit Toronto. Looking back, it’s hard to feel that we’ve come out of this painful period stronger, or more resilient, or, given how the virus continues to circulate, even that we’ve come out of it.
Have we rebuilt our healthcare system to make it stronger? Have we emerged from isolation unified by our collective sacrifice? Not so much.
Some of us learned how to make sourdough bread, so I guess so. But silver linings have seemed rare.
One of the few bright spots in this dark age, here in Toronto and elsewhere, has been how the requirements to stay outdoors and keep our distance from each other showed us some ways to reimagine our use of public spaces Roads closed for hiking and biking, streets turned into playgrounds and makeshift parks brought a spark of joy to familiar places. Along the way, many of us wondered why we hadn’t done all of this before. And I hoped we would continue to do so after the fever. A new normal, better than the old one.
In some cities, such as (famously) Paris, local government embraced the transformation, giving old arteries and even highway spaces a permanent makeover into vibrant and bustling public squares. Carlos Moreno, an academic and consultant to the mayor of Paris, said the pandemic served as “an awakening” for people to see new possibilities.
One begins to fear that here in Toronto the awakening of possibility is giving way to dreaming back to the grinding habit. It already happened with the “ActiveTO” weekend road closures that saw people wandering the city and waterfront roads, legitimately enjoying places that are more often the site of induced road rage by the traffic Last summer, as my colleague Shawn Micallef complained loudly at the time, that initiative was killed. Toronto can only allow so much fun before it has to get back to the business of (barely) moving cars.
CaféTO, the initiative that transformed the sidewalks and road lanes of main streets into patio spaces for restaurants and bars, seemed to have a sunnier potential future. Local businesses loved participating, and everyone found it profitable: the city estimates the program “brought $203 million in economic benefits to Toronto by 2022.” Many residents, encountering a three-season street party in their neighborhood, were eager to get used to it.
In fact, next week the mayor’s executive committee is hearing a report from city bureaucrats on how to make this all permanent. The question is whether, by trying, the municipal government will be able not to strangle the project in the cradle.
The potential problem is that the city, reasonably enough, wants standards that make these patios accessible, safe and aesthetically pleasing, which means for the first time it will require participating companies to build standardized platforms for sidewalk patios. In addition to this, again quite reasonably, the City Council thinks that if private companies use public property to generate income, they should pay some rent in the form of fees. During the program’s pandemic emergency test period, the city waived all potential fees and even increased infrastructure costs. The plan is to change that.
Nothing in this logic of the city is wrong, per se. But the result is that many small businesses that participated in the past could have a significant cost to continue.
Specifically: The average cost of building a deck to city specifications is estimated at $14,000 (of which, in 2023, half could be reimbursed by a federal matching funds program); the city asks for a one-time application fee of $865, and then annual fees per square foot that add up to an average of $1,500 a year for sidewalk patios and $3,077 a year for sidewalk patios.
So a business that had a curbside yard the past two years could face upfront costs of nearly $11,000 to participate this year, and then more than $3,000 annually after that. in addition to off-season storage costs for their infrastructure. Barriers to new entrants rise further after the federal subsidy program expires at the end of 2023.
None of these fees seem unreasonable in principle. But in practice, the question is whether small businesses feeling constrained by the costs of inflation and staff shortages will succeed. The thing is, if companies leave the program because of the costs, it’s not just their loss: the people of Toronto will see the great transformation of their neighborhoods reversed.
The total cost of the program, according to the city, is estimated at about $4.3 million, of which they expect to recoup about 68% (or just over $2.9 million) in fees. $2.9 million is a lot of money for most of us, and the city is strapped for cash right now. But it seems to me that in the context of the city’s $15 billion budget, and given the cost of any kind of public realm improvement (a recent renovation of a downtown park, for example , took four years and cost almost 5 million dollars), we are talking about a relatively small amount of money compared to the impact it has on the life and economy of the city.
In principle, participating private companies should pay their fair share. In practice, the value to the city of seeing this initiative continue to thrive is such that a longer runway to introduce fees would be worth it.
Virtually everyone agrees that CaféTO is a success worth building on. As we get closer to making it permanent, we’re just trying to make sure it stays viable enough to last the whole year. Even if motivated by love, a warm bureaucratic embrace offered in the form of regulations and fees can be suffocating.