Why is one stretch of the street flourishing while stores close shop on another?
take a stroll down st. clair west between and Dufferin and Winona these days and you'll be struck by the number of vacant buildings along the commercial strip. "For Lease" signs are now competing with banners advertising fast food and dollar store bargains on both sides of the boulevard. And there's rampant speculation that the real estate come-ons will have the upper hand long before construction of a controversial streetcar right-of-way begins some 18 months from now.
"I'd like to believe otherwise, but somehow I'm afraid," Councillor Cesar Palacio says. Very afraid.
Palacio represents Ward 17 (Davenport) at City Hall. And he figures it's pretty much "inevitable" that the $55- million upgrade of the St. Clair transit corridor between Yonge and Keele will have a negative impact on trade in a troubled mercantile zone known as "the gap" because of its isolation between two well-established business improvement areas.
"Hopefully, I'm wrong," says Palacio, who vehemently opposed the streetcar right-of-way when council approved it last September. He ends the conversation with another "but...."
It's all a bit too much for Councillor Joe Mihevc. St. Clair West also happens to run through his riding, Ward 21 (St. Paul's), and he's quick to point out that there aren't a lot of close-out sales happening in his neck of the woods. In fact, business is booming there, says the vice-chair of the TTC, who was a very vocal supporter of dedicating St. Clair's two centre lanes to streetcars and restricting privately owned vehicles to one lane in each direction.
So why the big difference of opinion between him and Palacio?
"I can't help but attribute that to how the right-of-way is being presented differently by the two respective councillors," Mihevc offers. "By promoting fear, [Palacio] is actually causing businesses to not feel good about their security in his area and, in my humble opinion, people are making unwise business decisions. When those storefronts become empty, [he has] no one to blame but himself."
Not so, counters Palacio. He initially supported the streetcar right-of-way when he worked as executive assistant to former Ward 17 councillor Betty Disero, but changed his position when "thousands" of his constituents rallied against the proposal.
"I voted according to what the community wanted," Palacio says. "You would have done the same thing if you were in my shoes."
According to Avrom Brown, a commercial real estate agent who represents a number of building owners on St. Clair West, both councillors have valid points. "There is some fear-mongering going on," Brown says of Mihevc's contention. "It's the old story; you keep telling your kid that he's stupid and he'll believe it. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy."
At the same time, the real estate expert notes, Palacio has identified some realities. "There's a big fear, with the street being torn up and all the downtime [during construction], that St. Clair is not the place to be," Brown says. And this is more of a concern in Palacio's ward, particularly between Dufferin and Oakwood, where business has been in decline for a number of years because "the dynamics of the neighbourhood have changed."
Italian merchants who were once the anchor of the local business community have moved away, and a series of lower-profile enterprises - fast food joints and bargain outlets - have moved in and out. The impending transit construction just complicates an already bad situation, Brown adds.
While comparisons are often made to the quick recovery of the commercial environment along Spadina when a similar streetcar right-of-way was built there a few years ago, Brown notes that the area's Asian population remained stable during the construction period and played a key role in the subsequent rebound. That demographic stability doesn't exist in "the gap," he maintains.
When leases come up for renewal, business operators now want clauses that will allow them to get out of the contracts if business drops off. "No landlord is really prepared to do that, so it makes things difficult," the realtor advises.
Store operators are refusing to renew their leases, and landlords are hard-pressed to find new tenants. In one short block west of Oakwood, three business properties currently stand empty. Before you reach Dufferin, a few blocks away, that number rises to 10.
"That section of St. Clair is hurting, and I think it's going to be wiped out [by the transit upgrade]," Brown predicts. He says Mihevc may be right when he argues that new streetcar tracks and the related cleanup of the St. Clair streetscape will have positive economic effects on the area. But he wonders how long the rebound will take. "An area of transition shouldn't be in transition indefinitely, and that's what's going on here," he says.
And construction of the streetcar right-of-way, which is scheduled to begin at Yonge in August, isn't expected to reach Ward 17 until late 2006.
In the meantime, Palacio wants to work with Mihevc to get financial assistance for businesses all along St. Clair to help cope with the road work.
"At this point, we have no other option but to work together to make sure that whatever dreams we all have about St. Clair will happen - regardless of what side we're on," Palacio says. "I'm hoping we'll be able to create the right environment for business to stay."
Mihevc puts it a bit differently. "It's time to realize the opportunities that exist," he says. "It's time to pitch the opportunities."
It's clear the two councillors have their work cut out for them.