Peace and happiness prevailed at city hall yesterday afternoon when the Toronto Parking Authority summarily rescinded its decision to expropriate the decrepit old Matador nightclub on Dovercourt Road. The horn-rimmed parking authoritarians smiled sheepishly as the wooly downtown protesters, including eminent author Michael Ondaatje, cheered their resolution to "save" the Matador.
The decision will permit the beloved booze can to decline into the mud without civic intervention, unless and until somebody discovers a positive way to save it for sure.
That's possible. The TPA once bought the Royal Cinema on College Street, one of the last neighbourhood movie houses in Toronto, hoping to turn it into a garage. Local protest forced a change in plans, and the Royal has re-emerged better than ever, adding state-of-the-art digital editing services by day to the usual evening repertory. It's a classic Jane Jacobs success story. So there's hope yet for the Matador.
In the meantime, the sober Torontonian is left wondering how such an obscure public body ever contemplated taking such Draconian action against a private, albeit shady, business. How can creating parking spaces in a city that officially discourages such development be considered a public good, one so desirable as to justify expropriation? Or is the parking issue just a beard to disguise stealthy gentrification?
With everybody at city hall running for cover - especially local Councillor Adam Giambrone, who formally reversed his original advocacy of the expropriation in a letter to the TPA yesterday - the answers are not easy to come by.
The agency hardly ever asks council to expropriate on its behalf, according to its chair, George Soulis. "We try to help the community," he said, mainly by building off-street parking to serve retail strips. College Street businesses are crying out for more parking, according to Mr. Soulis, but in such matters the TPA takes its cue from local politicians.
"The councillor's supposed to go back to his community to make sure he's got the bases covered," Mr. Soulis said. "We leave it to the councillor to get the support of the community. That's how we operate."
Strangely enough, the last site the parking authority managed to expropriate was another decrepit tavern, at the corner of Bayview Avenue and Millwood in Leaside. It disappeared and became a parking lot with the mutual approval of Michael Walker and Jane Pitfield, neighbouring councillors at the time.
Even though neither process officially acknowledged the benefit of eliminating a local nuisance, in addition to gaining parking, the possibility is always there. Municipalities throughout the United States still "condemn" viable low-income neighbourhoods so private developers can build richer enclaves - an expansion of the tax base, hence a "public benefit." The tendency has led to several states adopting strict new laws protecting private property from "eminent domain."
The attempt on the Matador is probably the closest modern Toronto has come to that kind of thinking. On a minor scale, it recalls the kind of operation Robert Moses once ran in New York, using such agencies as the Triborough Bridge Authority to finance sweeping clearances and redevelopment miles away from the actual span.
The TPA is a tidy little gold mine with secure revenues and unlimited potential. To use it solely to build parking spaces is a waste of opportunity. If Toronto was serious about city building, Moses-style, the TPA would be issuing bonds to finance the construction of suburban rail lines - while renovating dumps like the Matador into first-class public resorts.
Something would actually happen for a change - and it would all be out in the open. But this is Toronto. We prefer to muddle along. So until it disappears, the Matador is saved.