The Commercialization of Toronto’s Queens Street
Toronto’s famous shopping area on Queen Street between Spadina and University has changed dramatically since the first time I lived in Toronto in 2002. Back then, Queen Street was the place I would take visitors who associated downtown Toronto with the Eaton Centre to show them we had a great diversity of independent retailers only a few blocks away. Every year since, the independence of Queen Street has eroded bit by bit as new major brands jockey for space and push out small operators. Gap, Zara and H&M and many other international retailers now operate on the street – their presence just as much about brand awareness as it is about actual retail sales. When you start looking at prime space as a marketing opportunity in addition to as a retail outlet, there is no way an independent can compete on rent price.
I often read people about Queen Street as an area in decline with a dwindling sense of character and identity. Although tragic for some small retailers, there is little reason to be concerned from a broader city perspective. What we are witnessing is a societal transition of values where street retail and urban environments are becoming increasingly desired. Instead of more malls being developed, we are now seeing “mall-type” retailers take to the streets to find new space and new customers. Several decades ago this demand would have been dealt with by demolition city blocks and building enclosed malls. Today, we see this trend manifesting in the uptake of street retail space, supporting pedestrian environments, and creating vibrant urban streetscapes.
Small independent retailers are being pushed progressively further west towards Toronto’s trendiest districts. New, more relevant independent stores which respond to changing consumer preferences continue to be opened every month. Toronto has one of North America’s most intricate street retail networks, which creates a vast infrastructure to house displaced independent retailers over the long term.
At the end of the day, Toronto has always desperately needed a strong retail main street which appeals to the masses. Bloor Street’s luxury stores generate limited foot traffic, and combined with the incredible adjacent density, can sometimes feel desolate (despite having Canada’s highest rent per square foot). Yonge Street now shows signs of life, but is simply too close to the Eaton Centre for most retailers to consider opening a second location. With the addition of some second floor restaurants, Queen Street has the right location, scale, and density to become the Robson Street of Toronto.