The last 18 months have been rough going for consumers and businesses alike. Sure, signs of a rebounding economy are beginning to appear, but the ravages of the recession are apparent in the growing number of empty storefronts in the Church-Wellesley neighbourhood.
Il Fornello made a name for itself for affordable fine dining with locations across the GTA. Expanding to Church St seemed like a no-brainer to Ian Sorbie and his associates. They poured substantial resources into their gay village location.
But they closed their Church St location last month. Sorbie says rents are high in the area, but he feels the changes are reflective of a deeper shift in the attitudes of consumers.
“The area has changed, but a lot of people don’t want to admit it,” he says. “They want to think it’s still the centre of the gay universe, but gay couples are now living throughout the city and in the suburbs. That’s wonderful, but it hurts Church St businesses.”
Il Fornello’s Elm St location is closed too.
Piano bar Statlers also closed in November. The beleaguered boîte has seen its share of drama with temporary closures and disputes with musicians. The owners couldn’t be reached before press time.
As Zelda’s settles into its new home on Yonge St, its former coveted Church St patio location remains vacant, at least for now.
One of the saddest closures is the Carlton Cinemas, on Carlton between Church and Yonge. Known for playing art-house, festival and queer films, the Carlton will go dark on Dec 6.
“The Carlton is not representative [of] the quality of theatre we have,” says Cineplex spokesperson Pat Marshall of the company’s decision not to renew its lease. “It would be prohibitively expensive to remodel it up to our standard.”
Marshall says the downtown Scotiabank and Varsity Cineplexes show many of the same films the Carlton did, but virtually all limited-release gay titles play at just one theatre in the city: the Carlton.
City councillor Kyle Rae says local businesses are under undue pressure from landlords and the municipality. He says he’s determined to offset business taxes with an increase in home owners’ property taxes — something he says is long overdue.
“The assessment ratio between the homeowner tax and commercial is skewed,” he says. “Homeowners in Toronto are paying far less than they should be. We have been shifting that ratio for four years so the residential owner pays more in comparison to the small business owner.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if council gets the blame,” he says, “but out of every tax dollar, six cents goes to paying city taxes, and the rest goes to federal and provincial.”
Taxes aren’t Rae’s only concern when it comes to preserving neighbourhood shops. He points to property owners who hold out for fast (though fleeting) cash from a hot new bar, or let buildings fall into disrepair while waiting for big bucks from condo developers.
“We have the world coming in 2014 for World Pride and in 2015 for the Pan Am games,” says Rae. “I don’t want to be embarrassed by the failure of Church St to stand up and be proud.”
Enza Anderson, an outspoken advocate for the gay village, recently announced her candidacy for Ward 27 in the 2010 municipal elections.
“High property taxes are the work of city councillors who are more interested in big development projects instead of community revitalization,” says Anderson.
Still there are bright spots.
One scene columnist (okay, it was in Xtra) recently wrote about speculation that Zipperz/Cellblock wasn’t paying its bills on time.
“It’s not true,” says owner Harry Singh, who worries about the effect on customers. “It’s hard enough running a business without your own community shooting you in the foot.”
Sorry Harry, people talk and want to know.
Also, as Xtra goes to press, Ryerson University, Loblaw and the federal government announced a $60-million deal to turn Maple Leaf Gardens into a supermarket and athletic centre. It should open in the spring of 2011.
The closures represent opportunities for fresh energy in Church St’s nightlife when new bars, restaurants and retailers open. But just what that will look like depends on who leases the spaces.