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Maggy Perry, owner of Fountain Inc., says density on Dundas West is a good thing. Photo by Cheol Joon Baek
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Photo by Cheol Joon Baek
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Photo by Cheol Joon Baek
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Photo by Cheol Joon Baek
East of Lansdowne and west of Bathurst, tucked away among the travel agencies and vacant storefronts of Dundas West, is a new bar that a few months ago was a little-known watering hole in a quiet part of town.
One recent Saturday night I head there expecting to be met with a half-empty room, but instead I'm confronted by a 20-minute lineup of fashionable, rowdy people outside.
Once inside, I push through the jam-packed crowd (a MuchMusic host here, a local pop star there) and head toward the washroom, only to find an even longer lineup there.
Eventually the backlog gets so bad that exasperated guys, feeling the uncomfortable effects of the scores of cheap tall cans of PBR they have consumed, start peeing in the utility closet sink. Throwing dignity to the winds, I regret to say I soon join them.
Things on Dundas West have changed in the past few months, and all indications are that they're going to keep changing.
For years, this stretch has been dominated by Portuguese sports bars, mom-and-pop driving schools and discount travel agencies, but the once sleepy street is set to become the site of Toronto's latest bar boom.
At a rough count, a dozen bars or restaurants and four art galleries have opened up on Dundas between Ossington and Lansdowne in the past two years. Establishments like Unlovable, the Hen House and Camp 4 are reliable places to find the in-the-know party set during weekend drinking hours.
In terms of the physics of nightlife, Dundas West is a low-pressure zone perfectly positioned to absorb the explosion from the high-pressure Queen and maxed-out Ossington strips.
According to the Dundas West Business Improvement Association, rents are lower than on either Queen West or Ossington, and at last count commercial vacancy rates there were close to 20 per cent, making it a logical place for barkeeps to set up shop.
While jurisdictions like New York City have laws limiting the number of bars that can open on any single stretch, Toronto doesn't. Despite controversies over bar density, there's no consensus in favour of an overarching bylaw even among those who worry bars are turning certain streets into monocultures.
The dilemma, of course, is that bar booms can revitalize a district but can also lead to noisy, single-use neighbourhoods. Finding a place to drink on Queen West is easy, but if you're a local looking for a laundromat or a grocery store, good luck.
And booms happen fast - so fast that former councillor Joe Pantalone felt compelled to institute a year-long ban on new bars and restaurants on Ossington in 2009, to the frustration of local entrepreneurs. The ban, which ended last November, was an imperfect solution to rapid development, and it's something Pantalone's successor, Mike Layton, would like to avoid on his stretch of Dundas.
The ban "is a blunt instrument," he says. "But it served the exact purpose it should have. There was a threat of a very large club opening up in the neighbourhood, and business and residents both said [they didn't] want it. Unfortunately, it meant there was a pause on businesses that people did want to see come in."
The ultimate upshot of the ban was that city council drafted new bylaws limiting the size of nightclubs near residential areas. The new rules, enacted last November, stipulate that clubs (with a nightclub designation, as opposed to restaurant) can only open on the ground floor of buildings, and that a new club with floor space exceeding 200 square metres must be 300 metres from residential zones. The bylaws will prevent Entertainment District-style mega-clubs but don't address the problem of bar density.
That's an oversight that frustrates Councillor Adam Vaughan, whose ward encompasses the hyper-dense Entertainment District. "We have rules that spread out churches. We have rules that space out gas stations. We have rules that spread out rooming houses and group homes," he says. "I can tell you a concentration of bars is a lot more dangerous than a concentration of churches."
The problem is, bars make a lot more money than retail businesses of the same size, and telling landlords they can't rent to a bar owner if there's already a bar next door isn't well received. "Landlords rightly argue, ‘It's my building. I should be able to rent to whoever I want,'" says Vaughan. "‘Why should you force me to rent it to a greengrocer? Greengrocers don't pay a lot of rent. I'm the person who has to pay the mortgage and the taxes.'"
Though we're still years away from being overrun by bars on Dundas West, Councillor Ana Bailão, within whose ward most of the Dundas stretch falls, says it's an issue she's keeping an eye on.
When asked what she thinks about bringing a NYC-style density law to Toronto, Bailão says, "I would support that." But while she can't stop new bars or restaurants from opening, she says, she can try to ensure that the ones that do aren't disruptive.
"The problem is that some of these places get their licences as restaurants but turn into nightclubs at night," she says, arguing that venues seeking to be considered eateries shouldn't get licences unless they have working kitchens. She supports the city's Establishment Rules and Regulations that, for example, forbids music from being heard on the street.
Critics of a density law say that it would hamper the city's nightlife, but Misha Glouberman, the founder of the Queen Beaconsfield Residents Association, disagrees. "Until 20 years ago, Toronto wasn't a particularly fun place, so it hasn't had a chance to develop regulations that control nightlife well. New York, Berlin, Montreal are all places that have had nightlife for a long time, so they've learned how to regulate bars."
A little nightlife on Dundas West certainly wouldn't be a bad thing. Much of the street west of Ossington could use a makeover. An influx of new bars wouldn't trouble Maggy Perry, who opened bar-cum-gallery Fountain Inc. seven months ago on the site previously occupied by an unprofitable mortgage broker at Dundas and Dovercourt.
"The neighbourhood's taking off really fast," she says. "I think it's going to get very dense very quickly."