Second City, a sketch comedy theatre that emerged out of Chicago’s improv scene, is being booted from its downtown Toronto building for the second time in as many decades to make way for a condo development.
The move will come after a 15-year run at the corner of Mercer Street and Blue Jays Way, near the Rogers Centre, where Second City has been performing comedy shows and running a training school since 2005.
The building – owned by siblings Vonna and Thomas J. Bitove, children of the late business titan John Bitove Sr. – is slated to become a 40-storey tower with more than 500 residential units, five levels of underground parking and retail space.
Second City is now mulling over three contender properties in Toronto, chief executive Andrew Alexander said in a phone interview from Los Angeles.
“One of the struggles we’re finding is we could end up in a more modern building, which sort of feels a little odd," Mr. Alexander said, referring to Second City’s physical aesthetic – the theatre’s iconic logo is emblazoned in neon lights over exposed brick at the current site – "but beggars can’t be choosy now in terms of the availability in real estate.”
But when the building owners enacted a demolition clause in Second City’s lease a few months ago, the news did not come as a surprise to him.
“I’ve always had it in the back of my mind that this was going to happen, because you can see what’s going on in the city,” Mr. Alexander said.
Close to 40 per cent of residential and non-residential development projects are concentrated in the downtown and waterfront areas, according to a city report released last month.
Between 2014 and 2018, almost 400,000 residential units and another 11-million square-metres in non-residential floor-space were submitted to Toronto’s Planning and Housing Committee. So far, more than 140,000 of those residential units have received at least one level of approval for development and potentially they could house as many as a quarter-million people at a time when the city is dealing with a housing shortage.
“We often use art and culture as methods of attracting tourists and economic development, but we don’t actually plan on how to support artists and cultural producers within cities,” said Sara Udow, an urban planner and co-founder of PROCESS, a planning studio that focuses on culture and community engagement.
Her company was hired by the city to work on a 10-year public arts strategy. But Ms. Udow said the lack of clarity following the province’s recent Bill-108, the More Homes, More Choice Act, has left planners like herself confused about what community benefits will be generated in payments to the city from developers, as per Section 37 of the city’s Planning Act.
Non-profit theatre companies have been wrestling with space issues in Toronto since the 1980s, said Susan Wright, deputy director of the Toronto Arts Council. These days, even affordable school-gym rentals are hard to come by.
“School boards have been desperately trying to grasp revenue from every source, so that’s no longer an inexpensive option," Ms. Wright said.
To relocate arts programming outside of the downtown core adds pressure to organizations who rely on easy access to transit for their audiences, proper performance infrastructure – such as adequate acoustics and stage design – and an established arts community.
Commercial theatre companies such as Second City are facing similar hurdles, and are not privy to the 40-per-cent property-tax break allowed to the charitable sector. This is exemplified, Ms. Wright says, by a small studio space that the arts council manages, which has seen property taxes more than double over five years and add yet another obstacle to affordability.
“Every time there is consultation with the city, this is the primary consideration,” Ms. Wright said. “It’s kind of the primary driver for tourism and business ... but it’s very hard to preserve low-cost space."
Second City has two theatres, of 300 and 60 seats each, and an 8,000-square-foot training centre on the third floor. For its future quarters, Mr. Alexander is hoping for 20,000 square feet to house three theatres of a 300-, 250- and 100-seat capacity, in addition to bar space and rooms for education facilities.
Second City’s Training Centre boasts 7,000 annual enrolments a year for students from five to 80 years old, and also offers distinct programs for teenagers with autism, or who suffer from anxiety.
“We’ve had a great run at 51 Mercer St., and the tourism is increasing all the time,” said Mr. Alexander, who has been at the helm of the theatre’s Toronto operation since 1974.
Before 51 Mercer St., Second City was located 60 metres away, in what is now the luxury Bisha Hotel at 80 Blue Jays Way, from 1997 to 2005.
The theatre will remain at its current location until November, 2020.