Tuesday November 21 , 2006

Downtown's largest landlord is glad to see the city ready to help ailing Dundas Street.

Downtown's biggest property ownerexpressed relief city hall is finally paying attention to a deteriorating Dundas Street, but warned yesterday politicians have to move more quickly than usual.

Despite his cautious optimism. Shmuel Farhi gave no guarantees a massive plan to fix the spine of downtown London would prevent him knocking down the former Capitol Theatre for parking.

"I don't want to demolish, but having said that, we have to work together," he said.

"To bring the Capitol Theatre back to life, you have to spend $500,000, $600,000. Whose account? Within this block, we have over 150,000 squar feet of vacant space, so why would we go fix another building?"

The potential demolition of the building at 204 and 206 Dundas St. helped hurry up a planning department report on fixing the downtown street.

Farhi said he's been trying for years to get council to help the struggling street.

"In Windsor, it took me three weeks to do a deal for $84 million for an area. Here we are talking for two years and we are going little by little by little. I hope things will change," he daid.

"The retail on Dundas street from Richmond to Clearacne is the worst ever."

Board of control hasn't yet seen the report obtained by The Free Press Saturday, but controllers said

yesterday they support making Dundas Street a priority this term.

Controller-elect Gina Barber, however, warned that fixing the core of the city won't work as long as unchecked development rages along the city edges, creating a doughnut effect with the downtown as the hole.

"You can't just work on the hole doughnut," she said.

"That way, you are just throwing money down the hole."

It's clear the city has to do something different with Dundas, controller Bud Polhill said.

"I don't think we should be spending a pile of tax dollars."

But with $100 million to $200 million in prvate money invested, the city has to help, Polhill said.

London is fortunate its downtown area is not geographically large, Controller Tom Gosnell said.

"The difficulty is that there are so many differnt property owners."

That makes agreement on key issues, such as parking hard to come by, Gosnell said.

Parking the protection of heritage building and incentives for specific kinds of businesses are key recommedations in the report by the city's planning department.

Property owners must have some incentives to renovate or repair buildings Farhi said, citing his experience with the former Fairweather store.

"I spent over $1 million to refurbish heritage building and my taxes rose by 300 per cent," Farhi said. "So I am not going to do stuff lie this anymore."

Even with the city help, the right businesses have to fill the building, he said.

"You can offer someone a filet mignon,but if they want to eat a hot dog, then what do you do?"

Farhi thinks the key to Dundas Street are residential and office space and parking.

He wants government to step in and rent space in the core.

And he wants the city's help to create more parking for office workers and residents.

"We have 350,000 square feet if buildings and 21 parking spaces downtown." he said. "We need 1,400,"

Dundas Street merchants welcomed a new city plan to improve the street.

"I think they are going in the right direction, but they have to be selective about what they put in," said bookstore owner Marvin Post. "We don't need a dental office facing Dundas Street and we don't need another soup kitchen.

Jonathon Bancroft-snell, owner of an art studio, supported the report's call for me more protection of heritage buildings downtown over creating more parking.

"You don't solve anything by a gap-toothed solution. I have never once heard any of my clients complain about parking."