You may never have stayed in one of its 45 rooms or watched its enormous Canadian flag - at 20 by 40 feet, one of the largest in the country - snap in the wind, but you have certainly seen the Hillcrest Motel in one of hundreds of movies or TV shows.
The Hillcrest, which is slated for demolition this month and is one of the last remaining motels on the storied strip along Lake Shore Boulevard West, has been featured in everything from the TV series Due South to Jude Law's latest, Repossession Mambo, due out in 2009. Legend has it that Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper wrote Easy Rider during a debauched night in one of the rooms. A modified version of the motel's iconic modernist sign has long been used in the logo for Showcase's Fridays Without Borders.
When I met Dave Gadzala at a Harvey's on the Queensway, he was toting a half-dozen immense scrapbooks filled with memorabilia: autographed head shots (Diane Lane, Stompin' Tom, Nicole Kidman), contracts, business cards and thank-you notes. Mr. Gadzala ran the motel with his father, Edward, a pharmacist who inherited it from his father, a former gold miner who opened the Hillcrest in 1949.
"His philosophy was," the affable 42-year-old says of his grandfather, "build on the water and you'll attract people."
At its height, the charming strip boasted more than 30 motels, capitalizing on a booming car culture and catering to families and low-income travellers. "We had a good business," Mr. Gadzala says. "I remember, as a little kid, stripping sheets because customers were waiting in the parking lot."
Now, of the five left standing, only two remain operational: the Beach Motel and the Casa Mendoza Inn. On this unseasonably warm day in early March, a student film is being shot in the Beach's deserted parking lot.
For many Torontonians, the strip conjures a seedier kind of glamour. Throughout the 1980s, after many of the motels had been purchased by absentee developers who neglected the properties, the area became a not-so-hidden haven for prostitution and drugs. A 1991 shootout at the now-defunct Rainbow Hotel left more than 400 bullet holes in its walls.
The Gadzalas - who were part of various efforts to clean up the strip - contend that developers actively encouraged crime in order to get motel owners to sell. Dave also recalls a disagreement he had with one neighbour, who claimed that the motel owners all permitted, even encouraged, the sex trade. "He said that he had seen at least one prostitute regularly frequenting the Hillcrest. I asked if she was really good-looking, and he said yes." The prostitute in question was actually an undercover cop - the Hillcrest was allowing police to use their rooms for sting operations.
The redevelopment of the Etobicoke waterfront has been troubled for decades, with disputes over density, height, traffic and water access preventing a panoply of projects, from aquariums to luxury hotels. In some ways, however, the area simply never recovered from the clasping of the Gardiner and the Queen Elizabeth Way in 1966, leaving the strip relatively isolated. The eventual quasi-suburbia of Humber Bay Shores - as the area was renamed by planners in 1997 - is now a dull clump of mismatched luxury condo towers, some underused parkland and little sense of community.
According to Mike McCart, a senior planner for the city, the goals of the revised second half of that development - currently before council - are for more active mixed-use and a "better pedestrian realm."
In 1996, the Toronto Conservation Authority, in league with the City of Etobicoke, expropriated a swath of the Gadzalas' land, cutting them off from the lake and sparking a marathon lawsuit. In Dave's estimation, his family and the city have spent a combined $10-million in legal fees over the past decade; both he and his father mortgaged their homes to pay bills. "The City of Toronto has entirely mishandled this whole motel strip and the taxpayer is paying through the nose for it," Dave says.
While court proceedings will probably continue for another two years, the Gadzalas have won virtually every decision to date.
"They're business people protecting their interest," sympathetic Mr. McCart says. "But all's well that ends well." He also mentions that the Hillcrest sign has been donated to the city and will eventually become public art.
Late last fall, the Gadzalas were approached by the Conservatory Group, a Markham-based developer behind dozens of condos and retail holdings all over the Greater Toronto Area. The company purchased the Hillcrest and the neighbouring North American Motel (also owned by the Gadzalas) for a figure that Edward, who won't divulge specific numbers, calls "satisfactory."
The Gadzalas are planning another venture, but say it won't be in Toronto. "It's not a healthy city for small business," 70-year-old Edward says.
Dave, who lives now in Acton, concurs, bemoaning still the way the city mishandled the tourism industry in the wake of a recession, 9/11 and SARS: "If you don't get that guy at the front desk," he says, drawing a parallel between the city's failure to promote itself and his own motel's consequent loss of business, "he's not coming back."
The former glory of the Motel Strip
The "motel strip" area was once known as Humber Bay Village. The Village was established during the mid-1800s when a number of hotels were built along the water to service the passengers of ferries that crossed the Humber River.
With the advent of the car, about 30 motor hotels popped up along Lake Shore West, to offer accomodation for American tourists arriving in sunny T.O. for a dip in Lake Ontario and some of that wonderful northern hospitality. The motels had fabulous, evocative names:
Concler (once, Chancelor) Motel
Cruise (formerly Palace)
Eagles Nest Motel
Humber Grand Motel
Lake Edge Motel
North American Motel
Shore Breeze Motel
Silver Moon Motel