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'They paved paradise and put up a parking lot."

It may be the line from a famous Joni Mitchell song, but the words ring true for patrons of the Matador, a popular after-hours club where Ms. Mitchell has been a regular. As of this week, it has been targeted by the Toronto Parking Authority for demolition.

"I've spent my life here," says Ann Dunn, a 79-year-old mother of five who bought the club in 1962 and has been operating it ever since. "We've been good to Toronto, we've launched many a career, and now Toronto wants to turn us into a parking lot? It doesn't make any sense."

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The Toronto Parking Authority wants the solid 93-year-old brick building for a 20-spot surface lot, and a decision to expropriate the property was approved by city council on Wednesday morning. "Oh my god!" Charmaine Dunn, who manages the club for her ailing mother, exclaimed when told of the news on Thursday. "I needed the heart of the Matador and the heart of my own mother - the two are connected - to keep on beating. It's not what we wanted. We at least thought we could negotiate this."

John Kingman Phillips, the Dunn family's lawyer, said the family would be preparing a response. "Expropriations are usually done when there is a need for a right-of-way or for urban development," he said. "But to do this for a 20-spot parking lot? It boggles the mind."

The club has a long history as a premier venue for country and classic rock bands from across North America. Habitués such as Conway Twitty, Johnny Cash and Charley Pride scrawled their names on a back wall. Roy Rogers is up there somewhere too, his name hidden by elk antlers. Where will the wall go now? "It's too early to say," Ms. Dunn said, remorsefully. Thinking of the building where the family gathers for Christmas and birthdays and where her granddaughter lives in an upstairs apartment, Ann Dunn said, "I'm having trouble concentrating, because I'm not just losing my club - I'm losing my home."

And losing it she is, even after rejecting the city's initial offer of $800,000 to buy the property last January. "It was insulting," she explained. "Houses next door sell for much more than that."

Now, an expropriation process will go ahead, during which time the parking authority will try to make a deal with Mrs. Dunn, TPA president Gwyn Thomas said. If they can't agree on a price, a compensation amount will be determined based on market value. The TPA, Mr. Thomas said, sees a strong need for parking near the club's location at College and Dovercourt. "There are a number of major generators, local businesses and restaurants," he said, "as well as the West End YMCA, located across the street from the club."

Local councillor Adam Giambrone did not oppose the TPA's recommendation to demolish the club for parking, and he suggested that the club hasn't been an entirely welcome presence in the area. "I know there have been ongoing issues about the Matador concerning noise," he said.

Mr. Giambrone, who has never set foot in the club, said he won't miss it when it's gone. And neither, he said, will the club's immediate neighbours. "They will not be sad to see it go."

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But Catherine Nasmith, president of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario, is shocked at the decision to tear it down. "That the city is wanting to build a downtown parking lot is itself nuts," said Ms. Nasmith, an architect who is also past president of the Toronto Preservation Board. "We don't do that any more. It goes against all urban planning policies of the City of Toronto. We haven't been building surface parking lots in the city since the 1970s. And on top of a building that has such a rich history, to boot? That's the most bizarre story I have heard in ages."

For his part, YMCA chief executive officer Scott Haldane said the West End Y doesn't need and has never requested parking from the city. "We are on a streetcar line," he said.

But Mike Sinopoli, chair of the Bloorcourt Village Business Improvement Area, confirmed that parking for others on the strip is a growing problem. High-end restaurants such as Chiado and a new cheese store, La Fromagerie, are drawing Torontonians from across the city to the neighbourhood, he said. Meanwhile, rising real-estate prices reflect an increased demand for the neighbourhood's solid brick Victorian houses.

"The goal is for even more intensification," added Mr. Sinopoli, who owns Ralph's Hardware, a neighbourhood fixture for the past 50 years. "You can see that from all the new construction taking place on College Street." Still, Mr. Sinopoli wouldn't have recommended that the city tear down a grand old building like the Matador to create parking. He said the Matador, because it is a link to the neighbourhood's storied past, "adds an element of charm."

Originally built in 1914 as a dance hall for Canadian soldiers billeted for duty overseas during First World War, the Matador is as rich architecturally as it is culturally. A vaulted Alhambra-esque ceiling overhangs a sprung oak floor stomped to a silvery patina by the likes of Stompin' Tom Connors.

"When I first saw the arches," Ms. Dunn reminisced as she walked through the structure earlier this week, her steps hobbled by illness and old age, but her mind brimming with memories, "I thought of Spain. That's why I called it the Matador."

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Those arches are today strung up with cowboy boots that once belonged to, among others, filmmaker Bruce McDonald, who counts himself among long-time friends of the Matador who are at a loss to aid the club that helped them make their mark.

Leonard Cohen, who often performed there, wrote Closing Time as a tribute to the club in the nineties; k.d. lang shot the video there for her hit single Crying, and indie-country chanteuse Neko Case recorded selections there for her 2004 live album The Tigers Have Spoken.

"It's just like Toronto to want to tear something down and ignore the legacy that surrounds a building like the Matador," said Blue Rodeo's Greg Keelor, another long-time Matador regular. "This is a city of merchants who have no connection to the city around them. It actually makes me very sad. The Toronto I grew up in is now gone."

On the eve of the expropriation decision, Mr. Keelor mused that the Matador should be designated a historic site "because of the great community of artists that have been there, from Leonard Cohen and k.d. lang to Prairie Oyster and Blue Rodeo. I'd love to organize something in protest."

Mr. Thomas wished him luck. "They can put pressure on anything they want," he said of the artists. "But there are no other spots available."

This land is our land?

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Expropriation, the practice by which government lays claim to private property, is rare in Toronto, but a variety of different public bodies actually have the power. "Under the Ontario Expropriations Act, municipalities, school boards, universities, hospitals and government bodies have the right to expropriate private property for their purposes," explains real-estate lawyer Bob Aaron.

Expropriation generally occurs "when there's a valuable social purpose," Mr. Aaron says - such as the expansion of Ryerson University's downtown campus, for which the university has expropriated the former site of Sam the Record Man, or the redevelopment of the Yonge and Dundas area beginning in 1996.

Large-scale expropriations - like those that drove "urban renewal" projects such as City Hall, Regent Park and Moss Park - have been deeply unpopular in the city for a generation. (The fight to stop the Spadina

Expressway, settled in 1971 by premier Bill Davis, is perhaps the most obvious example.)

But when it comes to the Matador, Mr. Aaron suggests that the reason for the decision has driven the negative response. "What really rankles in this case is that it's a parking lot," he says.

"If this is was to make way for a school or library... people wouldn't be as upset as they are about the city taking away somebody's land and business for a mere parking lot."

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Deirdre Kelly

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