Times are changing: let the businesses back in

November 27, 2009

Guelph Mercury, 25/11/09Schippling

When Schippling’s Bicycle Service first opened for business, it fixed wagon wheels and other funny things that you can only see now on Anne of Green Gables re-runs.

It was 1908. Schippling’s was still a few years away from getting into the mode of transport that would become its namesake: bicycles. By 1913, the two-wheeled contraptions were the little shop’s main focus.

As its Kitchener neighbourhood grew up around it, the little business built up its reputation and its customer base. These were the days when businesses were often small and independent, and they dotted neighbourhoods across Ontario, including those in Guelph.

Back then, no one blinked at the thought of a blacksmith or a grocer operating next door to family homes. Then times changed. City planners began to see businesses as something that needed to be kept apart from residential areas.

In many cases, this made sense. There was a need to separate homes from heavy commercial activity, or loud or hazardous factories. But all kinds of other businesses also got caught up in these new zoning regulations. And the problem with that is it creates segregated islands of development, which favour cars and discourage walking.

In 1994, Kitchener decided the Duke Street neighbourhood Schippling’s had been in since the turn of the century should be zoned strictly residential. They gave the tiny bike shop an exemption, but decreed that no other business should ever be allowed in its place.

Now it’s 2009. The man who owned Schippling’s has died and his relatives are stuck with a building they say they can’t sell, thanks to these zoning restrictions. They say they’ll probably sell to a developer who will demolish the shop and build a townhouse.

To amend the bylaw, the relatives were looking at an $8,450 fee just to get the ball rolling, with no guarantee of success. Time seems to be limited for the quaint bike shop in the old neighbourhood.

All of this makes one wonder what’s so bad about a small business, like a bike shop, rubbing shoulders with houses?

Zoning bylaws govern nearly everything about how our city looks and why certain buildings can only go in certain places. They have incredible power in shaping our communities and the way we live. And, as citizens, we need to start demanding more flexibility.

In Guelph, zoning bylaws are the rules that tell you where you can put your pool, why you can’t live in a trailer, why your satellite dish must be on the back of your house, or how tall your hedge can be — 0.8 metres above the street.

These zoning bylaws also govern what kind of businesses can go in residential areas. These are the rules that would allow a bed and breakfast or a day care, but not a small bike shop like Schippling’s, to open alongside a row of homes in the south end.

Like anti-clothesline covenants and rules that dictate what colour you can paint your front door, the thinking behind bylaws like this is increasingly old-fashioned. This kind of approach led to neighbourhoods where you can go a mile without seeing anything other than beige garage doors and identical front porches.

Despite all the talk about making smaller Ontario’s cities more walkable, most of us still live in neighbourhoods where restrictive bylaws prevent us from actually walking to all the things we need, such as bike shops. That’s too bad. As our cities absorb more citizens and grow denser, it’s something we’d better get used to.

Greg Mercer is a Guelph-based freelance writer. His column appears Wednesdays. He can be reached at greg_mercer@hotmail.com, and past columns can be read at gregmercer.ca

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