Time running out for arts haven
401 Richmond hopes for survival hinge on tax break
On a steamy pre-summer evening this week, Coun. Joe Cressy stood beneath the raw wooden beams of a common space at 401 Richmond St., looking grave. He had every reason to.
The fate of the building, a long-time sanctuary for dozens of the city’s non-profit cultural organizations, is hanging in the balance. He wasn’t the only one feeling anxious.
All around, dozens of the building’s tenants had gathered. At issue was the building’s tax bill, a figure that has more than doubled since 2012, putting pressure on tenants and UrbanSpace, the building’s owner, alike. This year alone, taxes will jump another 21 per cent, due to an assessed value that reflects the overheated property market surrounding it. UrbanSpace has borne the brunt of the increases, shielding its thinly funded tenants as much as it can. But with the new tax bill due in July, time is running out.
“There’s no question: There’s a fierce urgency of now,” Cressy said. It’s the full boil of an issue that’s been simmering publicly since December when it was first revealed that the building, an unofficial cultural landmark, was near the breaking point, holding the line on modest rents for its tenants while its tax burden expanded.
In 2012, UrbanSpace, the building’s owner, paid close to $447,000 in property taxes, with its rate increasing steadily to that point at 1 per cent per year. Then in 2013, it jumped to $520,280. By 2016, the bill was within a few hundred dollars of $700,000. Without some kind of intervention, the building’s 2017 tax bill will be $846,210.73. While UrbanSpace has absorbed the worst of the increases, tenants have shared some pain. And with taxes projected
who are hoping for some kind of legislative tax break. The building is has a number of non profit, cultural enterprises which may lose their home. to go as high as $1.29 million by 2020, there’s only so much that UrbanSpace can swallow and ample reason to be concerned.
An oasis of difference now walled in by high-end retail condominiums and office space, 401 — with its modest rents and non-profit tenants — is a holdout in a commercial property market driven skyhigh by rampant development.
Cressy, acknowledging the building’s significance to the city’s cultural life, exhausted all of the city’s tax-relief measures earlier this year, but they’re stopgap at best. His efforts to broker a permanent solution with the province — a new tax class for “cultural incubators” like 401 — have dragged on. He had come to the building this week to offer an update: he had spoken with the premier’s office and had received an encouraging, if imprecise response.
If no relief comes, the tax increases would likely spell the end of the lifelong vision of its owner, Margie Zeidler, who rehabilitated the decrepit hulk of an old factory in 1994 into an affordable refuge for its arts-minded tenants.
A new tax class would not just assure their survival but might encourage the blossoming of like-minded ventures, thanks to a tax regime based on a building’s actual use, not its potential maximized value. (The province currently assesses properties based on a “highest and best use” measure: the value of a maximum-envelope condominium tower, say, regardless of the actual structure on the site.)
Coun. Joe Cressy, centre, stands with tenants of 401 Richmond Street West, from left, Marc Gassman, Jennifer Bhogal, David Plante and Bruce Pickton