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Too hip, too fast: City puts brakes on Ossington development

The Red Light bar at Dundas Street and Ossington Street celebrated their official opening on May 5, 2009. The bar is a spot for take-in food instead of take-out. They offer menus from their favourite local restaurants and encourage their patrons to order in.

JENNIFER ROBERTS/jennifer roberts The Globe and Mail

Michael Homewood remembers the way Ossington Avenue used to be.

Rundown industrial buildings, a string of sketchy bars and karaoke joints, and a reputation for violence were the strip's defining characteristics.

"When I moved in here two years ago, people thought I was crazy because you couldn't walk down the street at night," he said.

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Since then, the strip has undergone a renaissance. More than a dozen restaurants and bars, including Mr. Homewood's Baby Huey lounge, have opened and flourished. The violence has died down.

That's why Mr. Homewood and others were surprised when the city hit the brakes on Ossington's hot streak.

In a last-minute bylaw introduced and passed Tuesday, the city slapped a one-year moratorium on new bars and restaurants opening along the street. Local councillor Joe Pantalone said he fears the strip is growing too quickly.

"There is 'hot' area and a 'burning' area. We don't mind hot, but we don't want to be burned," he said.

Many of the business owners who spearheaded the redevelopment are perplexed, wondering why city bureaucrats are sticking their noses into the affairs of a strip that has picked itself up on its own.

"Bars and restaurants have organically just popped up," said Saeed Mohamed, owner of Burger Shoppe Quality Meats. "I don't think you can legislate how a street develops, you know?

"I think it's hypocritical. [We]cleaned it up too fast and now it's like 'whoa, stop it,'" added Mr. Homewood.

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The new bylaw took effect immediately. Businesses which already have applied for liquor licences and building permits are not affected.

Mr. Pantalone said some residents and businesses have expressed "angst" that Entertainment District-type clubs could open along the street.

The same fears led to a similar moratorium years ago on College Street, between Bathurst and Ossington, which he said balanced out that neighbourhood's residential and commercial interests.

"That is the balance we are trying to achieve on Ossington," he said.

The new Ossington bylaw applies only between Queen and Dundas, the heart of the street's rebirth. The strip's eateries are small, and many open only in the evenings. Most business owners know each other by name, have formed an informal Business Improvement Area, and don't want flashy new lounges in their tightly knit community.

"There's a bit of a fear of nightclubs down here," said Pol Cristo-Williams, 33, owner of Sweaty Betty's bar, one of the pillars of the new Ossington. "We want it to be a cool little neighbourhood, because it already is."

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There's no shortage of opinion about the moratorium - suggesting a community meeting planned for tonight at a Dundas and Ossington church will be a busy one.

"I applaud Mr. Pantalone for supporting the neighbourhood in that effect," said Jason MacIsaac, owner of the Ministry of the Interior boutique. "Because this isn't really an Entertainment District."

"It can't happen here," countered Mr. Homewood, in a separate interview. "The places aren't big enough. Where are you going to be able to put a 3,000-person bar on Ossington?"

Ossington's development has driven property prices up anyway, business owners say, acting as a de facto moratorium to some of the smaller businesses that might have taken advantage of cheap lease rates two years ago. And it's not just businesses. At Queen and Ossington, a residential loft development is selling at between $400 and $500 per square foot.

It's one "of the hottest areas in town," said Yossi Kaplan, a real estate agent who represented some of those loft buyers. "The gentrification process is far from over. Far, far from over. That's just the tip of the iceberg for that area."

Anthony Siniscalco, 28, is preparing to open an art gallery and lounge, dubbed Gallery, within two months along Ossington, having filed his applications before the new bylaw, which he called "sad."

"Toronto needs areas like this. Five years ago there were shootings on Ossington," he said. "And now look at it."

With a report from Jennifer Lewington

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