A vandalized version of Wrongbar's "don't be an idiot while you're at our awesome establishment" sign. via Flickr.
Last October, the perpetually up-and-coming Toronto neighbourhood of Parkdale (also the home of the Toronto VICE offices) was hit with a surprise temporary ban on new bars and restaurants, while city staff conducted a study on Queen West nightlife on the strip from Dufferin to Roncesvalles.
These kinds of measures are becoming increasingly popular in North America: In Sarasota the city council approved one such ban, and then changed their minds; in San Francisco a ban was successfully passed; Bloomington considered one, but decided against it; residents of Encinitas, San Diego have been pushing for one; and you're seeing similar discussions happening in every city experiencing gentrification. Some have pointed out that the results are rarely what proponents are hoping for, but that hasn't diminished the appeal of these types of measures for people who see busy nightlife as a problem that needs to be fixed.
After a year of emotionally charged and divisive debates, the ban in Parkdale is about to end, and now city council will consider the recommendations of the Queen West Restaurant Report on July 16. However, other city councilors are already expressing enthusiasm for the idea of implementing similar changes in other neighbourhoods, making this case potentially just the beginning of much larger changes to Toronto's nightlife, and possibly a model that will inspire other cities as well.
Gord Perks is the local councillor pushing for the changes, and he's already got a reputation for opposing nearby nightlife. Most famously he caused controversy over his attempts to block Wrongbar's 2010 extended liquor license for that year's Gay Pride celebrations, as well as opposing the bar's efforts to increase their capacity (he failed at both). Nevertheless, while he can sometimes come across as opposed to all nightlife, he insists his concerns have more to do with ensuring there is a diversity of businesses that serve the people who actually live nearby.
To try and accomplish this goal, the report recommends dividing Parkdale’s bar and restaurant-heavy strip of Queen West into four sections, and prohibiting a bar and restaurant concentration of more than 25% in any one of these small areas. Depending on how negotiations go with the provincial authorities, this may end up applying to both licensed restaurants and ones that don't serve alcohol, but preferably just those selling booze. The most eastern end of the strip is already over that percentage, but existing licenses would not be affected.
Perks believes that the influx of new bars and restaurants in the area are driving up rents and threatening to create a monoculture of nightlife with no daytime uses serving those who live in the area. However, many critics have pointed out that restricting new liquor licenses is only going to increase the value of the ones that already exist, which could just as easily lead to an acceleration of this process of commercial gentrification.
“That claim may or may not be accurate, but I would dispute it because it's based on a market model where Parkdale is the only place you can get a liquor license in Toronto,” Perks insists. “If you're saying a commodity will have its price increase because of scarcity, you have to look at what the market actually is, and the market is all of downtown Toronto, not just Parkdale. I can sit down with any economist in Canada and they'll agree with me.”
It is important to point out that these proposed changes will be re-evaluated in three years to assess the economic impact. While perhaps overly certain of his own opinions on how to control the market forces of gentrification, Perks admits that this is an experiment. Besides, while it seems naive to expect that within a two minute walk you should be able to expect some ideal mixture of businesses, the 25% cap still leaves a lot of room to grow outside of the Brock to Nobel area that was identified as a problem, with a 33% density of bars and restaurants.
However, while that stretch is unquestionably the busiest, it's also far from the nightlife monoculture that it's been portrayed as. There are four larger bars, but most of them are really just overgrown pubs. There are about a dozen restaurants that don't operate as bars, and three small bars mixed in alongside them. There's also a soup kitchen, a few hair salons, some jewelry shops, a multicultural community centre, a couple vintage stores, some clothing boutiques, a mosque, an appliance store, a sewing workshop, an alternative health clinic, a real estate office, a dentist, a fire station, a floor covering store, and a couple of convenience stores. Compared to most neighbourhoods, even this “problem area” is exceptionally diverse, and that's not even counting the galleries, recording studios, and community services that are immediately adjacent.
You'd think a study like this would attempt to compare Parkdale to a more ideal mix, but Perks bristles at the suggestion that a more scientific method could be used to determine whether there is indeed a crisis.
“Planning is as much an art as it is a science, and if we make it strictly into a science we would create a city no one would want to live in,” he says. While that’s all well and good, Perks also dodged my attempts to get him to identify the daytime-use businesses that are supposedly being forced out by bars, or to get him to explain why Parkdale deserves a smaller concentration of bars than similar mixed-use neighbourhoods elsewhere in Toronto.
Eddie Chan, who is bar manager at the Beaconsfield (just outside of the study area) and co-owner of the Parkdale coffee shop and gallery Mascot is able to offer some rational as to why this situation is deserving of special attention.
“The thing that’s different about Parkdale is the concentration of low income. If you look around Mascot, there is nothing for the local kids to do. Now I don't think these proposed changes are actually going to help that either, but you have to try something.”
While it's the proposed concentration restrictions that are getting the most attention, it's actually the latter part of the report that could potentially have a much larger impact on the city, especially if similar measures are adopted across downtown. The recommendations are to further restrict new patios, to heavily restrict the sizes of any future dance floor and performance areas, and to restrict all new bars to a narrow one-floor storefront size. While a bar owner could attempt to get variances to these restrictions, Perks is clear that they would have a very hard time opening up anything resembling a music venue in Parkdale ever again, and that new patios would be extremely unlikely as well.
“I personally think we have too many patios, so I would oppose any new ones. And if you want live music, go to Wrongbar. Sometimes the Sister has bands too, and so does the Cadillac Lounge.”
Given the huge influx of new local residents moving into condo towers nearby, it seems a bit naive to think that demand for entertainment is going to go down. But this is an experiment, and one we should be watching closely, since this battle is much bigger than just Parkdale.
Follow Ben on Twitter: @benjaminboles