New patio spaces are opening up along Toronto’s King Street, but businesses aren’t convinced they will help recoup revenues they say they’ve lost as a result of the city’s pilot project to give streetcars priority.
The additions to King Street include art installations, public seating areas, and patio spaces for restaurants, all of which are being placed on unused space on the curb lane. Nine businesses that were located next to one of the allocated spaces have already been approved for patios.
But some business owners don’t believe the patios will have a tangible impact on their sales, which they say have dropped because drivers are finding the street too complicated to navigate. The one-year pilot project forces all private vehicles to turn right at major intersections on a 2.6-kilometre stretch of the road, giving priority to streetcars.
Nick Di Donato, CEO of Liberty Entertainment Group, which operates restaurants such as the Spice Route and Cibo Wine Bar, says the patios have potential benefits, but he wonders whether customers will want to sit right beside moving traffic.
“If King Street was a true pedestrian walkway, I know it would be packed,” said Mr. Di Donato. “But this is a hybrid, and we still have 50-tonne streetcars driving down the street … it’s not the most comfortable patio I would say.”
Mr. Di Donato says he’s co-operating with the city because it’s worth giving the transit program – which has received rave reviews from streetcar users who have a much quicker commute – a shot. But he’s concerned that business will continue to suffer, even if he does get the benefit of adding dozens of seats to his business. Mr. Di Donato says his sales are down between 5 and 10 per cent since the pilot project started.
But a preliminary report from Moneris Solutions Corp. in February shows that customer spending along King from Bathurst Street to Jarvis Street, from October to December, 2017, was “in line with seasonal spending patterns over the last three years.”
Cibo Wine Bar and the Spice Route opened their patios several days ago, and Mr. Di Donato said they have attracted some customers.
“It was decent sales I think,” said Mr. Di Donato. “But it’s too early to tell. We need a couple of weeks.”
Fiona Chapman, Toronto’s manager of pedestrian projects, hopes that the patio installations and public spaces will make the street more attractive and improve the situation for businesses.
Several restaurants in the pilot area have inquired about adding more public spaces so that they, too, can take advantage of a patio space. Ms. Chapman says it’s a factor that the city will have to look at when deciding whether the pilot project becomes permanent.
The city also waived fees for occupying the curb lane as a way of encouraging businesses to apply, although other costs, such as patio liquor licensing, remain.
“What you hear from businesses is uncertainty about investing – should I invest in big furniture and putting things in if this is a pilot,” said Ms. Chapman. “I tip my hat to the businesses that did this, because it shows they’re willing to invest in the street.”
Salvatore Mele, owner of Oretta, one of the few restaurants that have already set up a patio, worries his investment might not be worth it.
“The patio cost us $30,000 to put up, and we had to pay for licensing and application fees. This is a really considerable investment for us,” said Mr. Mele, who said it’ll be tough luck if the city decides not to go through with the pilot project at the end of the year.
Oretta is in its second year of business, and Mr. Mele says that the pilot project has slowed down his restaurant’s projected growth. The biggest hit was to walk-ins, which he says are down by 30 per cent.
Despite the risks, business owners like Mr. Di Donato say they’re committed to giving their patios a go during the trial period.
“If it works and that patio is fantastic and we’re making extra revenue, we’re going to be happy to be proven wrong,” Mr. Di Donato said.