Parkdale has banned the opening of new restaurants and nightlife establishments—but why is it assumed that area residents don’t welcome their presence in this once-beleaguered neighbourhood? I posed the question to my local councillor.
City councillor Gord Perks has just won a year-long ban on the opening of any new “restaurant, take-out restaurant, rear yard and rooftop patio, bake-shop, place of amusement, place of assembly, or club and the expansion of such existing uses” on Parkdale’s stretch of Queen West. As a dad, I recognize Perks’ fatherly efforts to micro-manage the local businesses so that the neighbourhood develops how he wants it to. But that’s not how kids, or ’hoods, work.
When I first moved to Toronto’s west end a decade ago, Parkdale lived up to its bad reputation. It’s easy to be nostalgic for the past when a neighbourhood is in flux but, much like Ossington, the old days were pretty scary. I don’t know if I would’ve wanted to raise my son here back then. Now, I wouldn’t want to raise him anywhere else.
So I get riled when I see comments claiming this ban represents “the will of the people” and that “this is a neighbourhood with young families, we don’t want to see it turn into another Ossington Ave.”
My young family rather loves the restaurants and bars that have opened up in Parkdale—and wishes we had more, not fewer, patios. Having a kid reduces your mobility. It’s always easier to walk somewhere, and we prefer supporting local businesses, whether that means taking our toddler to Tibet Kitchen for momos, Stampede for burgers, or Cowbell and Boreal for brunch. Without our son, I still stick close to home: catching shows at Wrongbar and The Shop in Parts & Labour, dancing at occasional raves in the ballet school, quaffing tacos at Grand Electric and sashimi salad at Kanji. It’s a myth that locals—including, gasp, parents—aren’t also patronizing these new establishments. Lots of us live here, play here, and take our kids out to eat here, too.
Taken aback by the surprise ban, I contacted my councillor to express my objection to it.
“We design our neighbourhoods so that they’re complete,” Perks tells me. “So that there’s a school in them, a daycare, and that you can walk down your street to get a haircut and go to a grocery store. We’re risking in Parkdale losing that balance because of the number of new restaurants, bars, and clubs that are coming in and driving out all the other uses of the main drag that make the neighbourhood.”
The problem, Perks says, is that “nightlife places are very profitable businesses” and will pay higher rent than someone running, say, a hair salon. When I ask why they can’t simply pass rent control preventing landlords from hiking rates on existing tenants, Perks says, “we’re allowed to zone use, we don’t control prices.” He’s using the only tool at his disposal, fair or not.
I want a mix of daytime businesses, too, and we have that in Parkdale, including a food co-op, art galleries, vintage shops, discount stores, pharmacies, lots of ethnic establishments, and plenty of social services. But I also appreciate nightlife bringing people onto the street after dark. It makes me feel safer. Perks counterintuitively claims this is all in my head.
“In the period when the places that operate like nightclubs started to flourish on West Queen West and Parkdale, crime actually increased, particularly in the category of sexual assault. It may feel safer for you to walk down the street, but the fact of the matter is there is more crime on Parkdale streets than there used to be as a result of the changes in the way the street operates. It may be that you feel safe because it’s a group of people you’re more familiar with, but the crime statistics show it’s less safe than it used to be.”
By “people I’m more familiar with,” I’m guessing he means hipsters rather than addicts. Perks adamantly denies that any particular demographic is the problem, but he seems particularly down on twentysomething-friendly venues like Wrongbar and Parts & Labour (both of which he’s prevented from expanding while having no issue with, say, the older-skewing Cadillac Lounge and its wonderfully enormous patio).
“What I’m trying to do is come up with a zoning bylaw that makes sure we don’t turn into Richmond and John,” Perks says. “That’s hard to do. It’s really hard to write a set of rules that says you can be like College Street but you can’t be like the Entertainment District. There are a lot of operators who were the same operators in the Entertainment District and then they moved into Queen West and now they’re moving into Parkdale. It’s the same guys. I know who they are.”
Perks describes his war with local nightlife operators as an “arms race,” but both sides are guilty of gaming an antiquated liquor-licensing system that forces bars outside the Entertainment District to be classified as restaurants. Why can’t we have a place to see shows and/or dance that doesn’t also have to serve dinner?
“Just one like that I could live with,” Perks offers, “but the problem is the way the law works. If I let one guy do that, I have to give the guy next to him the same property rights. I’m worried about getting a whole row of those things for a year or two while all the kids have their fun, and then somewhere else is hip and they’re gone—and we’re left with a smile of gap teeth.”
Fair point, though it’s an unlikely scenario considering the diversity of businesses on the rest of Queen West. But it sure sounds like Perks is concerned about a particular demographic. I expect it’s the same for the Parkdale Residents Association, the so-called “community” that’s always complaining about new bars*. But is the PRA truly representative of Parkdale or simply the loudest locals with the most time on their hands?
“That’s a fact of life you’re going to have in any democratic discussion,” Perks admits. “People with more time or more passion will speak more often than other people. I can’t force people to be part of a consultation. I can’t knock on their door and say, ‘You’re coming to this damn meeting.’ I get that there’s certain type of person who goes to a public meeting and certain type who doesn’t. I do everything I can to take the temperature of people who don’t go to meetings and bear that in mind.”
I don’t feel like my temperature has been taken. Personally, I’m way more worried about encroaching condos than small businesses serving food and drinks. Even before the ban, Perks tells me he was filing an objection to every single liquor-license application. Yes, it’s the only time in the process that he can lay down conditions like the number of chairs allowed or whether a rooftop patio can be added, but his efforts feel like over-parenting when no other councillors object to every application. Kanji, the only nearby sushi joint, took forever to open in place of a sketchy discount store while Perks negotiated 13 license conditions.
“I never took the position [Kanji] shouldn’t open,” Perks says. “I took the position they had to have food service. Once the licence is in place, it stays with the location. So Kanji Sushi might come in and they operate for 10 years, they’re a great business and everyone loves them, then they decide to move on and the next guy comes in and operates a nightclub, and I’ve got no way to condition them. I’m not saying nobody can operate a restaurant or a bar here; we have to make sure we don’t have one use dominate and undermine the other uses.”
I don’t want Parkdale to stop being Parkdale, either. It’s why we moved here. I love the mix of cultures and establishments. I’m fine with the armed guard at the LCBO, the wasted and/or mentally ill wanderers, and the methadone clinic. But the real problem sounds like it’s rent-raising landlords, not chefs, and as long as there are still vacant shops on Queen West, one of the busiest commercial drags in the country, why keep any small businesses out?
Despite Perks protestations—“I got no problem with people having fun. I like to have fun, too!”—his focus on drinking, dancing, and eating feels paternalistic. And this moratorium goes beyond bars and restaurants to even ban bakeries and so-called places of amusement or assembly. We have to let the neighbourhood grow up. It may not always do exactly what you want, but Parkdale doesn’t deserve to be grounded.
CORRECTION, NOVEMBER 20, 2012: The original version of this article incorrectly claimed that the Parkdale Residents’ Association is hosting the community meeting being held Nov. 26, 7-9 p.m., at 20 West Lodge to discuss the Parkdale bar ban. It is in fact being hosted by the City’s Planning Department.