As COVID took hold of the city over a year ago, it hollowed out Toronto's downtown core. Two-thirds of the area's employees were required to transition to working remotely from home, while others lost their jobs as restaurants closed their doors and tourism came to a halt.
To highlight how the pandemic has unevenly impacted different business sectors in the city, new research from the Toronto Region Board of Trade's Economic Blueprint Institute (EBI) released a series of reports as part of its Business District Report Series that provides a baseline for reopening and recovery plans for different business districts within the city.
To better understand the complexity and diversity of the regional economy, the uneven impact of COVID-19, and strategies to support recovery, the EBI -- the Board’s data and research arm -- has broken down different parts of the region into five Business Districts.
The districts, which span various industries, include the Metropolitan Centre, Goods Production and Distribution, Services and Mixed Use, Regional Centres, and Knowledge Creation.
Jan De Silva, President and CEO of the Toronto Region Board of Trade, said, “Understanding how we survived – and in some cases thrived – during the pandemic is key to understanding how we will recover. We’ve discovered that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to recovery.”
The reports present a clear picture of the economic impact of the pandemic on Canada’s commercial capital and provide actionable next steps for its recovery.
For example, the Financial District emptied out the majority of its workers as they transitioned to work-from-home models, while businesses that relied on the thousands of commuting workers to the area lost their customers overnight. In contrast, districts with major warehouse and logistical hubs required workers to be onsite and manage the dramatic growth in transportation and delivery of e-commerce products as well as medical supplies, including vaccines. As a result, the workers within these areas were more exposed to COVID-19.
The section of the report focusing on the Metropolitan Centre revealed that Toronto’s downtown core has the highest proportion of workers who can work remotely (67%, or more than 370,000 workers).
As you could imagine, when the pandemic took hold, this sheer volume of workers disappearing from the downtown core to work remotely from home had a serious impact on the remaining 181,000 workers in the area that have faced a greater risk of losing their jobs. The report noted that the departure of daytime workers, combined with the collapse of leisure and business tourism, has dealt a devastating blow to the area.
Subsequently, office vacancy rates in downtown Toronto increased during the pandemic, reaching 7.2% in the fourth quarter of 2021 from a pre-pandemic level of 2%. The same period saw a further weakening of demand for suburban office space where vacancy rates were already more than double and sometimes triple that of downtown Toronto pre-pandemic.
However, the report noted that a potential shift towards hybrid work-from-home models and potential relocation of workers to the suburbs provides an opportunity to re-imagine the suburban office park.
“What we are about to experience is not a single recovery. It is going to be a series of recoveries. And each requires a different plan to lift up businesses, its workers, and acknowledge the very different challenges that each has faced,” said De Silva.
“For a swift recovery, the region needs to look past municipal boundaries and engage in place-based recovery planning and regional investments in express rail, high speed broadband, skills development programs, land-use planning, and affordable workforce housing,” added De Silva.
You can read the full report here.