The recently released State of the Downtown report has suggested development in the city’s core has started to not only move forward, but even accelerate towards levels not seen in decades.
Colin Foster has experienced first-hand the ups and downs of living and working in downtown London.
Growing up, Mr. Foster worked at several downtown stores before eventually becoming a business owner himself – first of the Daily Grind coffee shop and then later, the Braywick Bistro. Mr. Foster owned the Daily Grind for over two years before moving on to open the Braywick, which he has operated for over seven years now.
Whether the streets have been full of shoppers or nearly empty because of business closures or large-scale construction, Mr. Foster says his commitment to the downtown has proven to be justified.
“Most of my working career has been on this block (the Braywick is located at 244 Dundas St.). It was 10 years ago we had the Bay across the street; the mall (Galleria at the time, now Citi Plaza) was full. People were quite enthusiastic around the time when I took over the coffee shop,” Mr. Foster says. “But then half the block closed when the Bay closed. The Free Press wrote about how the downtown was dying and here I was as a new business owner feeling like an island, it was very scary. But I was fortunate to have members of this community pointing out to me the big picture.”
The big picture, Mr. Foster says, would see the eventual construction of big draws like the London Convention Centre, the Covent Garden Market, the downtown library and the John Labatt Centre (JLC).
“It’s been a wondrous evolution. This (the Braywick) had been a diner for 67 years, it was a tired building in need of a lot of love to bring it back, but I was seeing beyond the short term. I see the downtown in a very similar way,” Mr. Foster says. “I believed in the downtown, I knew there were opportunities. It wasn’t just that they built the JLC and the next day everything was all right, but it has been a hundred tremendous opportunities opening up. Within three blocks there were 3,000 people to draw from. I definitely saw the opportunities with One London Place, TD Tower, Citi Plaza now. Busy begets busy and I think that is what you are seeing now.”
Marvin Rivas is someone taking advantage of those opportunities Mr. Foster refers to.
Mr. Rivas has purchased the building at 225 Dundas St. and is currently preparing to open a restaurant beneath the apartments he has already fully renovated and rented out.
“I spent 15 years in the restaurant business, everything from bussing tables to managing. A friend of mine who is a professor at Western (University of Western Ontario) came into the place I was working in Toronto and said that London needed a place like this. He later invited me to London, showed me around, and I like the city right away,” says Mr. Rivas, who is originally from El Salvador and moved to Toronto in the early 1990s. “The restaurants, the clubs, the bars, I have seen communities where their downtown’s had turned around and I see London being in the same place. You look at this block, there are no vacancies. It’s a busy, exciting place.”
Mr. Rivas says he expects to have spent $1 million by the time all his renovations are finished and the restaurant opens its doors later this year. However, he is quick to say the investment is one he believes will pay off.
“This building was in terrible shape, but I saw potential. I believe in the people that are attracted to the downtown. If you have a great concept, they will come. I am hoping they will come into a fun, energetic place with fabulous food and a great atmosphere,” Mr. Rivas says. “And I hope Londoners look at the downtown in the same way. As a great place with a lot of positives. People have this misconception the downtown isn’t safe. But I don’t think that is the case. That is definitely not my experience.”
It hasn’t proven to be the case for Eddie Phimphrachanh either.
In 2005, at 20 years old, Mr. Phimphrachanh opened his Thaifoon Restaurant across from the JLC at 120 Dundas St. The success of the restaurant would lead Mr. Phimphrachanh to purchase another building, 238 Dundas St., where he would eventually open Lavish Nightclub in 2008 while also fully-renovating the upstairs for his own residence.
Mr. Phimphrachanh says his time in the downtown has shown him his faith in its future was justified.
“When I was first scouting for locations I looked at foot traffic in the downtown, the day was fairly steady, but the night was pretty dead. But the JLC was there and it was having an impact, it became the foundation for that restaurant. The concerts, games, it’s visibility, it made sense to be near it,” Mr. Phimphrachanh says. “Slowly you could see things beginning to turn. I saw a lot being down there. There was a mix of people coming downtown, students, hockey fans, concert goers. There was a buzz building and I never doubted that would grow.”
That growth would see Mr. Phimphrachanh move further down the block to open Lavish while also renovating his own residence.
“The prices were good, the opportunities were there, so I purchased the building. At first I was just going to live upstairs and rent out the bottom, but then I started crunching the numbers. I realised I could make more with my own business than I could make renting out the space,” Mr. Phimphrachanh says. “So we went forward with the club. It’s been very exciting. We have a very mixed crowd at Lavish. Very eclectic, fashion forward, trendy. You don’t have to be gay, straight, you really see everyone downtown now.”
Mr. Foster also knows a little something about the opportunities that come with working and living in the downtown. Mr. Foster not only owns the Braywick – and the catering business Wicked Catering that has grown out of it – but he purchased the building itself and renovated the apartments above it as well.
“You see the vibrancy in the people. You see young people, young vibrant people who are involved in the community. There are great urban units downtown that people have put the time into fixing up, that wonderful people have moved into,” Mr. Foster says. “When you live here 24 hours a day you really see it. It went from that construction period where there were not many people living downtown to now there are wonderful people living downtown, people who want the experience of living here. My parents moved from Oakridge to a condo downtown because they wanted this way of life. It is a totally different way of life and I am one of those who feel fortunate to be a part of it.”
As a businessman, Mr. Foster says he knows downtown London has seen its ups and downs, but he adds the investment that has been made in recent years has started to create something very positive.
“City council took a big risk by investing in downtown and I think we are seeing the result. There are more people working downtown, living downtown. It is frustrating when people say those things about downtown not being safe, about there being nothing to do here. It’s so not true,” Mr. Foster says. “This isn’t the core of 20 years ago, consumers have different shopping patterns now. But there are so many opportunities. I am someone who definitely believes in the downtown, in looking long-term, and I think you can see all the grassroots investment paying off.”
Mr. Phimphrachanh agrees the investment made downtown by both public and private investors has created something many Londoners remain unaware of.
“Personally I love being downtown. Everything is just footsteps away, everything is very accessible. It’s never dull. Yes you will run into panhandlers, homeless people, but you run into that in every city. It’s unfair to think of that as a London problem. It’s unfair to focus on the negatives,” Mr. Phimphrachanh. “I think the people who don’t come downtown would be surprised by what is here. All the unique shops you can’t find anywhere else. The restaurants. The city invested in the downtown and that is paying off. It’s an eclectic mix for sure, it’s definitely not cookie cutter. If you are open to experiencing new things, it is a great place to be.”