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How Real Estate Trends and Zoning Bylaws Are Threatening Canadian Nightlife

From Vancouver to Halifax, we talk to city planning experts to find out the challenges facing clubs and venues.

by Benjamin Boles
Sep 15 2016, 9:40pm

Ethan Ts

While the recent closing of legendary London nightclub fabric may have officially been tied to issues around drug use and safety, many see it as part of a larger issue surrounding the dramatic reduction in the number of large music venues in multiple major cities worldwide. Surprisingly, one of the people sounding the alarm is the mayor of London himself, Sadiq Khan.

"Over the past eight years, London has lost 50 percent of its nightclubs and 40 percent of its live music venues," he said in a press release following the club's closure. "This decline must stop if London is to retain its status as a 24-hour city with a world-class nightlife."

As dramatic as the saga of fabric has been, the reasons most clubs are closing in metropolises like London and New York City are often due to significantly more banal factors: real estate and zoning bylaws. Cities that were once cultural leaders and nightlife centres have encouraged large-scale residential developments in areas of their downtowns that were traditionally non-residential. This has gobbled up buildings that were suitable for venues, caused rents to skyrocket on the remaining spaces, and introduced a whole new mess of conflicts between residents and nightlife. Compounding the issue are zoning regulations which make it very difficult to open large venues elsewhere.

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The cultural transformation this has caused in some cities is dramatic, and is one of the big reasons that Berlin is now seen as a more clubbing-friendly place than the nightlife giants of yesteryear. Canadian cities may not have experienced quite the same dramatic growth and redevelopment as NYC or London, but many are struggling with the same issues.

"In the beginning of the 2000s, you had 60,000 to 80,000 people coming down to Toronto's clubland, and there were incredible amounts of clubs and way less residents," author and editor of Canadian urbanism magazine Spacing Shawn Micallef tells THUMP. "After each new condo opened though, that political balance tipped towards the residents. It became more about lounges instead of big clubs. Clubs take up a lot of space, and that space is only used at night, and maybe a few nights a week. It's a lot more valuable to build something taller and bigger with more uses and more people. Those properties get easily scooped up."

Toronto's entertainment district is pretty much the only area of the city that's zoned for larger clubs. However, the clubs didn't end up there because of those rules, but rather the opposite.

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"The history of doing it in one area in the downtown is more that it was a recognition of the fact that it was already the place where there were a large number of these types of venues," explains Toronto director of community planning Gregg Lintern. "I'm thinking about back in the 80s, with the Twilight Zone and also a few others on Victoria [Street]. They predated the entertainment district, and at the time there weren't as many people living right in those areas, and so I don't think people felt there was going to be as much of a conflict with late night issues out on the street."

Throughout the rest of Toronto, there are still many bars and restaurants along main streets that function as small venues. However, depending on the neighbourhood, they are often restricted in terms of the size of the room, patios, and other factors. In many areas that have experienced a rapid growth of bars and restaurants, there has been significant pushback from residents.

It's Not U It's Me party at the Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery in Toronto, photo by Aaron Wynia


Along Queen Street West in the Parkdale neighborhood, city council has experimented in recent years with limiting the concentration of restaurants, in an attempt to address homeowner concerns about the area becoming a nightlife destination. Other areas have put in place temporary moratoriums on new liquor licenses after they became hotspots.

Rather than expand the areas where larger entertainment facilities are allowed in Toronto, the city has actually scaled back where they're permitted, especially in the entertainment district itself. There are currently no plans on the table to relax zoning bylaws elsewhere in the city, despite the recent push from the mayor's office to capitalize on Toronto's music scene.

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Vancouver has experienced a similar condo boom and a dramatic increase in property values. Unlike Toronto though, it never attempted to create a zone specifically for clubs, but rather encourages a variety of nightlife and entertainment options in certain areas. Traditional dance clubs, however, are increasingly less a part of the mix of cultural activities.

"The key element of nightlife has been trending away from 'nightclubs' or 'dance clubs' as the centre of nightlife to more restaurants, patios, live music venues with dancing, craft breweries, wineries and distilleries, and neighbourhood pubs," explains assistant director of planning Karen Hoese in an email to THUMP.

Part of that shift is likely due to the changing demographics of the city as real estate values skyrocket, but the trend isn't entirely driven by changing entertainment tastes. It has become significantly more difficult to run a profitable large venue as commercial rents continue to increase, and city council has made it harder to open new spaces, even in the areas where zoning permits them.

"Downtown Zoning does permit nightclubs in the Denman, Davie, and Robson Villages, Granville Street, the Central Business District, Gastown and Chinatown; however, due to community compatibility concerns, a new nightclub requires council approval for the liquor license," says Hoese

Not all Canadian cities are experiencing the same kind of pressure on their nightlife scenes from development. Halifax and Montreal haven't had the big real estate booms and inundation of new condo construction, but that's not the only reason why clubs on the east coast aren't struggling as hard to find space.

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"Our more dense commercial areas actually have what is known as a general commercial zoning, and they pretty much permit anything that isn't a nuisance," explains Halifax's principal planner and development officer Andrew Faulkner. "In the urban core, we don't mix our residential and commercial too much, so we have zoning that is pretty permissive. This permits a fairly dense number of nightclubs in the downtown core."

Outside of the city's downtown commercial and industrial areas, you start to see more restrictions on nightlife in mixed use areas, particularly on the size of venues. As you move further out towards purely residential zones, there are much stricter regulations, which is part of the reason why so much of the city's nightlife is concentrated in the downtown.

Crowd at Artgang in Montreal, photo by Chieff Bosompra


Although Halifax has for the most part resisted the temptation to mix massive new residential developments into their downtown commercial areas, they have begun to allow some new condo towers. However, the concentration is still low enough that downtown residents seem to be more prepared for what they're moving into, and the city appears to put more priority on not disrupting the existing uses.

"There's been very little, if any conflict between residential developments in those areas and clubs," claims Faulkner. "If you buy or rent downtown, you expect it to be more vibrant, in the evenings especially. We find that people who will buy in the downtown area are usually more accepting and understanding. When the club is there first, it's awfully hard for them to buy there and complain. It doesn't give them a whole lot of weight."

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Montreal's approach to zoning is much less centralized, with each borough of the city handling the issue as they see fit. Like Halifax, this has resulted in many of the larger venues being centralized in the downtown core, away from dense residential areas. However, like Toronto, Montreal has occasionally experienced conflicts in other areas of the city when bars and restaurants have attempted to operate more like clubs.

For Vancouver and Toronto, it's too late to save their former club districts from the relentless push of development. Even if residents were more willing to share the downtown with nightlife, rapidly rising property values make clubs less and less financially viable in the areas where they traditionally flourished.

The obvious solution would be for nightlife to relocate to underused manufacturing and industrial areas on the outskirts of the cities, where space is still relatively affordable, and there are few residents to annoy. Sadly, it's not so simple.

Unsound Toronto 2016 at the Hearn Generating Station, photo by Andrew Williamson

"Interestingly, those areas also don't like the land use conflict that comes with all of a sudden having a club right in the middle of an employment area," explains Lintern. "Say you have a 24-hour manufacturing operation, and then all of a sudden you've got a club going on right next door. They come in with a surge of people that are likely driving, or with lots of pick-up and drop-off activity on the street. We've heard specifically from employers that fetters their use of the area and impacts the operations of their businesses."

So if clubs aren't suitable for suburban industrial parks, where could they be accommodated in rapidly gentrifying cities like Vancouver and Toronto? Are there any pockets left that could support the kind of vibrant nightlife we expect in major cities?

The future of nightlife is likely to move to the inner suburbs eventually, as they're generally among the few areas left in those cities where there's still plentiful space to operate. Zoning bylaws may need to be adjusted to permit those types of uses, but a bigger issue may be convincing downtown clubbers to journey out of the core for a night out. Still, it's not without precedent.

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"When [Toronto nightclub] Industry opened, it was considered far out by itself at King [Street] and Strachan [Avenue]," recalls Micallef. "Now, the notion of King and Strachan being far out seems ridiculous. Our idea of 'far out' is constantly expanding."

He points out that the abandoned strip malls in the inner suburbs and peripheries of the city could be easily transformed to accommodate crowds looking to party. Micallef also floats an intriguing idea that could allow clubs to make a comeback downtown: the citywide massive underground parking garages that are getting less and less use as people are reducing their use of cars.

"These concrete bunkers might have potential to be different things, and a nightclub doesn't really mind that it's dark inside. Maybe downtown parking garages might be an interesting possible space for messy culture."

Unfortunately, these ideas are all just daydreams at the moment. It will take well-organized and adventurous club owners to attempt them, and would require cooperation from municipal government. The upside is that each area has its own zoning bylaws, and holds the power to change them. It may just take a handful of city councillors who see potential to revitalize their wards and transform underused areas by permitting clubs.

Benjamin Boles is on Twitter.