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West Queen West: In come the condos, out go the clubs

Fadi Hakim (L) and Nav Sangha, new owners of The Great Hall

Fernando Morales for The Globe and Mail/fernando morales The Globe and Mail

When news started trickling out that The Great Hall, a 122-year-old building at Queen and Dovercourt, had been taken over by a team that included Nav Sangha, owner of Wrongbar - a popular venue on the other side of the Dufferin bridge that's been a magnet for controversy - brows furrowed up and down the strip.

The going concern of West Queen West residents for the past few years has been noise levels, something councillor Gord Perks has tussled over with Mr. Sangha, questioning whether his wildly popular Parkdale night spot, Wrongbar, violates city zoning bylaws regulating nightclubs. Mr. Sangha describes his new venture at the Great Hall as being "more part of the neighbourhood and community." He says that he wants to engage the locals through smart programming as well as through the street-level café bistro that he and his partners Fadi Hakim and Alex Sengupta will run, and they have no plans to evict the Theatre Centre housed in the building.

Meanwhile, across the street from the Great Hall, The Social, a target of locals' ire, has shut down, to be replaced by a British-style pub, and the constant creation of new bars along the strip seems to have paused for breath. As condos move in and demographics shift, some locals may find that the area, once known for its edgy, urbane, voguish character, is mellowing, for better or for worse.

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But if the West Queen West beast is on the verge of being tamed, will it lose the vibrancy that attracted the condo-buyers in the first place? "It does feel like a maturing area - in some ways better, in other ways, a lot more boring," says Sarah Nicole Prickett, a local writer who covers fashion and the arts.

"There will probably be disdain for the condo crowd with their money and their suits," but Ms. Prickett warns that hip early adopters should remember that "a) they've already been there for some time, and b) they're there because you're there."

Mr. Sangha and his partners - Mr. Hakim and Mr. Sengupta, the restaurateurs behind the revitalization of The Lakeview, as well as previous owner Anthony Chiuccariello, who retains minority ownership of the building - will not be turning the Great Hall, a heritage property that has for years been an arguably underused arts venue, into a nightclub to compete with the growing crowds queuing outside the Drake Hotel and other area venues on weekend nights.







Mr. Sangha is excited about using the Great Hall to drive different kinds of programming, such as a new series called The Big Sound: "It's sixties soul and Motown, but it's not just DJs, it's actually a live 20-piece orchestra playing full arrangements of proper classic soul and Motown and R&B.

"That's the direction I want to take the place. I want it to breathe like the historical building that it is."

"We're going to restore the hall," Mr. Sangha adds. "It's a heritage building so we have a responsibility to make the façade look better than it has."

The Social, a club just kitty-corner to the Great Hall, was for years a staple of Queen West's night life, and a thorn in the side of local residents, who opposed its applications for capacity increases. Social co-owner Richard Lambert's decision to close the club earlier this month was the result of a failed application for an Entertainment Establishment/Nightclub license, which the city's planning department deemed inappropriate for the neighbourhood. (Mr. Lambert and his partners hope that regulars will follow him east to the King and Bathurst area, where they are opening a nightclub called The Hoxton.)

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For his Queen West location, however, Mr. Lambert, partially inspired by the expected influx of condo-dwellers, has plans for a pub.

"A lot of people in those condos don't want to go to the Drake, or to have the right clothes on to go to the Beaconsfield," the U.K. native observes. "I find that Torontonians are easily intimidated, and pubs are the one thing that you know you can walk in and have a beer and a pie and mash, whatever. Throw the game on, spend twenty bucks and go to bed. That's a lot of people's lives after they come home from work."





For his part, Mr. Lambert seems happy to not be facing criticism of The Social from sleep-deprived residents and politicians, and sees the neighbourhood finding its equilibrium. "I feel like it's dying down," he says. Mr. Sangha calls the spread of bars into Parkdale, as well as up Ossington and onto Dundas West "a healthy sprawl that kind of kills the congestion."

Regardless, there are still a lot of bars on the strip, more than many locals would prefer. Whatever happens with the Great Hall, partiers still spill out onto the streets on weekend nights, and residents can hear them shouting up and down side-streets long after last call.

To Mr. Lambert, even without party magnets like The Social, the neighbourhood will still be a cosmopolitan hot spot in a city with precious few of them.

"It retains the arts element, with certain galleries clinging on with the high rents and so on. I still think it's a cool area."

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