Toronto is on the verge of losing one of its oldest bowling alleys to a condo development—and the league regulars are oddly okay with it.
In the world of Toronto real estate, there’s only one thing more popular than new condos: outrage over new condos.
One of the recurring themes in many anti-condo protests is a type of preservationist complaint. Every new highrise replaces something that was there before. Anti-development activists have made poignant rhetoric out of the protectiveness many of us feel for our neighbourhoods as they currently are.
But not every impending architectural loss causes a furor. Take, for example, the O’Connor Bowl. It’s one of Toronto’s oldest bowling alleys. In a few years, if developer Stafford Homes gets its way, it will be the site of one of Toronto’s newest mid-rise condo communities.
“We believe that the land is underutilized on a corridor and a street where it’s crying out for new projects, it’s crying out for some level of intensification,” says Gary Goldman, president of Stafford. “We believe that there’s a demand in that corridor for decent accommodation. Affordable accommodation.”
The O’Connor Bowl is located at 1401 O’Connor Dr., in the middle of a part of East York that, at first glance, looks as though it’s filled with nothing but auto-body shops, strip malls, and modest single-family homes.
TTC service to the area isn’t the best, but the neighbourhood is within easy driving distance to Eglinton Avenue and the DVP. Goldman has a point: A working person who found themselves priced out of the overheated downtown condo market might be glad to find a bargain at 1401 O’Connor. Stafford has completed other projects nearby. They like the area.
The proposed building would be 10 storeys high, with 177 residential units and 19 live-work units. Right now, Stafford is still in the process of securing the necessary approvals from the City. The proposed height is considerably more than is allowable under the City’s zoning bylaws, and City staff have some problems with the planned density and layout. The specifics will likely change at some point between now and when the builders actually break ground. Goldman thinks it will be several years before that happens.
On a recent weeknight, the O’Connor Bowl is packed. Or at least, half of it is. All the 10-pin lanes are deserted. But the five-pin lanes are thronged with maybe 40 league players, most of them middle-aged and older. The alley is a lived-in place, with a loyal clientele of serious bowlers. It has purple walls, carpets printed with rainbow curlicues, and a dropped ceiling.
According to the Ontario Five-Pin Bowlers’ Association, the O’Connor Bowl opened in 1951. Its owner was John Martin, a well-known industry promoter credited with being one of the first to attempt to televise five-pin bowling. Martin ran the lanes until shortly before his death in 2010, at age 90. He had a large family, but, for reasons unknown, none of his progeny decided to take over the business. (Members of the Martin family, through a representative, declined to be interviewed for this article.) Stafford had been trying to buy the O’Connor Bowl for years. With Martin gone, they finally got it.
“From what I understand, most bowling centres are being sold off strictly for real-estate value, especially if they’re free-standing,” says Al Hong, a former executive director of the Ontario Five-Pin Bowlers’ Association.
“But John, I don’t think he lacked for a dollar,” Hong adds. “It was his idea that he would keep it as a bowling centre as long as he lived.”
There are still a number of bowling venues in and around Toronto. With no reliable industry statistics, it’s difficult to say how many are being redeveloped. What’s certain is that there haven’t been any significant local bowling-centre openings in recent memory, other than that of The Ballroom, at Queen and John, in 2011—and that isn’t so much a place for leagues as a boozy hangout for downtown partiers.
One would think the O’Connor Bowl’s die-hards would be filled with trepidation over the prospect of losing an alley that isn’t likely to be replaced. But, so far, they’re not up in arms.
“At the time we knew it would be up for sale, there was a lot of talk amongst bowlers of trying to get the place declared a heritage site,” said Kate Sword, 79, who bowls in three leagues at O’Connor.
But while the bowlers are concerned, according to Sword, they’re inclined to trust that Stafford will treat them fairly. The company has made some shows of generosity, including paying for interior upgrades to the building.
Goldman has told bowlers that his plan is to relocate the alley rather than close it down altogether, which seems like a bit of a pipe dream. But it’s a pipe dream, at any rate, that he seems to believe in.
“It’s a good business,” he says. “We knew it was a good business when we bought the land.”