Back in 1970, a group of businessmen knew they had to do something to keep Bloor West Village alive. Their idea was to start Toronto’s first BIA.
The year was 1970 and a novel idea was taking shape at the Petit Paris, a Bloor St. W. bakery popular for its cream cakes.
In the back room, a group of local businessmen would gather to chat quietly over coffee and sticky buns. Two men remained fixtures in the ongoing conversation: Neil McLellan, who owned a jewelry store on Bloor St. W., and lawyer William (Bill) Whiteacre, who had recently run for parliament.
Everyone was worried about area businesses, which were rapidly losing customers to the lure of suburban shopping malls. The Bloor line had also just been completed and every time the subway rumbled underfoot, it was a painful reminder of the potential customers no longer passing storefronts on the streetcar.
But Whiteacre and McLellan were incubating an idea: to start collecting taxes from ailing businesses and use the money to promote local commerce and beautify the area. In other words, they wanted to create a business improvement area (BIA) to enhance the image of the stores along Bloor St. W. between Jane St. and Runnymede Rd.
The pair persuaded several businesses to support the idea but many people were skeptical, to say the least.
“The first person I went to was Bill Dennison, who was mayor at the time,” Whiteacre recalls. “He said, ‘Let me get this straight, Bill. Are you trying to tell me that these guys want to pay more tax?’ I said, yeah!”
This Saturday, Whiteacre attended a celebration commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Bloor West Village BIA. On May 14, 1970 — shortly after Whiteacre baffled the mayor with his proposal — the City of Toronto passed a bylaw designating the boundaries of Bloor West Village as a businesses improvement area. The plan was subsequently approved by the Ontario Municipal Board, making Bloor West Village the first BIA in Canada.
Today, countless neighbourhoods have replicated the concept, including communities in Japan, Germany and the United States, according to current BIA chair Paula McInerney. Toronto also has 71 BIAs across the city now, with the most recent addition being Kensington Market.
The BIA concept is simple: have the city collect an annual levy from businesses, hand over the funds to an elected board of volunteers, and then use the money to market the area and improve the streetscape.
The first initiative for the Bloor West Village BIA forty years ago was to string lights on the trees and install flower planters on the sidewalks. The small cosmetic changes were enough to draw Alex Ling, a Hong Kong immigrant and gift shop owner, to the village.
“I drove by Bloor West one evening and I saw the lights in the trees and the flower boxes and everything,” he remembers. “And I said wow, what a nice place. I want to have my store here.”
He relocated his store, Ling’s Importers, to the intersection of Bloor St. W. and Beresford Ave., where it still stands today. Ling also eventually succeeded Whiteacre in becoming BIA chairman, a position he retained for 24 years.
Today, the “small village in a big city” is a bustling strip where people wave hello on the street and shoppers can find everything from a butcher to a barbershop. Roma Zyla, a retired teacher, moved out of Bloor West Village when she was four but still returns to the area every week.
“I just love the area, there’s everything here,” she said while buying $1 coasters from Ling. “I’m just drawn to this area.”
Zyla bemoans that smaller shops are getting driven out by ever-rising rents, however. Indeed, Ling says he bought his store for $51,500; today, he thinks he could probably sell it for a million at least.
McInerney acknowledges that part of the BIA’s job is to change with the times. She now owns McLellan’s old jewelry store.
“It keeps it vital,” she says. “My favourite saying is, ‘It’s not about me, it’s about we.’ It’s about the whole neighbourhood.”
And certainly, big-name chains have moved in to the area, with Starbucks rubbing shoulders with mom-and-pop cafes. The street lights are now powered by solar panels and the flower planters are also on their way out, soon to be replaced by flower baskets that will hang from faux “gas” lamps.
And what about the Petit Paris, where it all began? A sleek hair salon now stands in its place. As for Whiteacre, he no longer works in the area either but continues to marvel at how the neighbourhood has flourished.
“I’m amazed,” he says. “It’s a far cry from the moribund thing it was when I took over.”