A decade ago, the strip of Queen Street West that runs through Parkdale was one of the seediest in the downtown. Today, it is one of the trendiest, with new coffee shops, galleries, restaurants and boutiques popping up left and right, drawing people from all over town to enjoy the bohemian buzz. Could this be a bad thing?
City hall seems to think so. This week, the Toronto and East York Community Council recommended introducing a new rule that no more than 25 per cent of existing properties in four sections of Queen from Dufferin to Roncesvalles could be occupied by restaurants and other eating-and-drinking establishments.
Since 2008, says a city report, 34 new restaurants have opened on the strip, and many are operating late into the evening as lounges or bars.
Some residents complain about (horrors) crowding on the sidewalks as people line up to get into their favourite haunts. Others don’t like the congestion on the street from cabs and cars dropping off visitors to the neighbourhood. Still others say noisy revellers are disrupting their sleep.
Gord Perks, the local city councillor, says he is worried that Parkdale will become a “monoculture” of entertainment joints, crowding out the corner stores and hardware stores that local people, many of them poor, depend on in their daily lives.
“The notion of having to drive to get a light bulb is offensive to me,” said Adam Vaughan, who represents a nearby ward and wants to borrow the bar-cap notion to protect Kensington Market.
He told me that the new bars and restaurants are like an “invasive species” in a garden, which must be weeded to maintain its diversity. “You can’t allow unleashed market forces to transform streets.”
But market forces seem to be doing wonders for Parkdale. Long-time resident Sheila Lippiatt said the community tried all sorts of things to spruce up the street, from better lighting to historic street signs. Nothing happened until new business started coming in.
“Now you want to alter the progress of Queen Street,” she told the community council, speaking against the 25-per-cent cap. “It is the best that it has ever been since I’ve been here.”
The fear that you won’t be able to buy a light bulb or quart of milk in a gentrifying Parkdale seems overblown.
In the few blocks of Queen west of Dufferin, I count a falafel joint, a roti shop, a hardware store, a Dollarama, an independent pharmacy, a Vietnamese storefront doctor, a public library and at least two convenience stores, one of them selling flowers and produce.
If the fear is about rowdy partying, there are better ways to control it – more policing, stepped up enforcement of noise bylaws – than keeping out new business.
Capping restaurant development could have perverse side effects. For one: existing proprietors, protected from new competition, would get a windfall. For another: if one business moves out and a restaurant or lounge can’t take its place, the storefront might stand vacant – or be occupied by some other lightbulb-free establishment like a designer-clothing place or upscale hair salon.
Even city staff admit that there will be “administrative and operational challenges” involved in monitoring how many restaurants open in four separate quadrants of Queen.
They say it might require a new “data management process” between two agencies: City Planning and Toronto Building. That sounds like shorthand for a bureaucratic nightmare.
The whole idea of legislating something as fluid as the changing retail complexion of a street is wrong. Cities evolve. Parkdale was once a prosperous commuter suburb, with grand homes on shady avenues.
It became a working-class quarter, then a magnet for struggling new immigrants. Now it is changing again, with young couples moving in and real estate values rising.
Most of the recent changes are for the better. What has emerged in Parkdale is a vibrant, very-Toronto mix – hipsters and Tibetan immigrants, parents pushing strollers and young professionals heading off to work, the working class and the middle class; all mingling on a newly vibrant, rapidly changing Queen Street West. That can’t be a bad thing.