Sometimes the boneheadedness of city hall simply staggers the mind. Consider its role in the death of the Matador ballroom.
The Matador has stood at College Street and Dovercourt Road in Toronto’s downtown west end since 1915. A host of legendary performers appeared on its stage, from Joni Mitchell to Johnny Cash to Loretta Lynn. Leonard Cohen shot the video for Closing Time there. For years it was the city’s least discreet after-hours booze can, located, rather deliciously, just up the street from the neighbourhood cop shop. Signs marked Cowboys and Cowgirls pointed the way to the washrooms during its time as a country-music spot.
After the rundown venue closed a decade or so back, a white knight came along to try to save it. Paul McCaughey bought the Matador with his banker brother in 2010. He spent several years and a few million bucks fixing it up. With its vaulted ceiling, beautiful wood floor and stage backdrop where the likes of Stompin’ Tom Connors signed their names, it had the potential to reopen as a jewel of Toronto’s vibrant live-music scene.
But officials smothered Mr. McCaughey’s dream in red tape. He spent years trying to get a liquor licence, then more years trying to comply with the city’s restrictive zoning rules. Neighbours complained that they would be overrun by late-night crowds. Rather than standing up to NIMBYism, city hall buckled, its tendency to put a vocal minority above the general interest on vivid display once again. Some locals fought back, arguing that, far from being upset at the idea of a reopened Matador, they welcomed it. Great for the neighbourhood, they said. Great for the city. City hall covered its ears.
Finally, last year, Mr. McCaughey threw in the towel and sold the place to developers. This week we learned that – surprise, surprise – they will tear down the good old Matador and put a condo in its place. So instead of a lively music hall down the street, the neighbours will get a six-storey building to look at. What a disappointing outcome to this dismal saga.
It’s not that putting up another condo is any crime. College and Dovercourt is a fine place to build urban density – a busy intersection with a streetcar line going by and a fitness club, the YMCA, across the street. The developers say they will pay homage to the building’s history by saving the marquee and the signature wall. They hope to see the commercial space on the lower floors of the building used for music-related purposes.
Still, Toronto will lose another piece of its heritage. For all its grunginess, the Matador was a special place, with a quirky character that is becoming rare as the central city grows wealthier and slicker. Toronto should be holding onto such fragments of eccentricity with all its might, not letting them succumb to the wreckers.
Just as important, the city will miss the chance to bring back an excellent place to hear music. A few years ago, city council voted to make Toronto a “music city.” The idea was to imitate the success of cities such as Austin, Tex., that bring in crowds of visitors and millions of dollars from music events. How letting the Matador be torn down for condos fits with that strategy is a mystery only the mind of a Toronto city councillor could comprehend. Mayor John Tory himself championed the music-city policy, even travelling to Austin to learn from its experience. He might have intervened to save the Matador. He didn’t.
As Mr. McCaughey wrote last year, “Without music venues, the lifeblood of emerging art and a stable performance economy, we are a dying Music City, not a living one.” What a shame city hall didn’t listen.