it's only a matter of time before the end comes for the storied neon palm on Spadina. Or is it?Despite the current eleventh-hour appeal to save the historical El Mocambo -- where traces of the creative and combustible auras of Mick and Keith, Elvis Costello and U2 still swirl around the second-floor stage -- the new ownership may actually end up being the last best hope to preserve the building.
The El Mo, of course, is sandwiched on a stretch of Spadina lined with charming, century-old low-rise buildings that the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) has pegged as prime for redevelopment and urban intensification.
Indeed, the cityscape of the grand old avenue between Dundas and College is likely to change dramatically over the next several years.
But Abbas Jahangiri, the new owner of 462-464 Spadina, has no plans to tear down the building. And so, while El Mo booker Dan Burke's campaign to keep the doors from closing on November 1 is laudable, his attempt to portray Jahangiri as the bogeyman isn't altogether fair.
Sure, it's unfortunate that Jahangiri plans to renovate the second floor for his dance studio, which he currently runs out of a building on Gloucester.
But at the moment anyway, he's proposing to keep the first floor as a live venue under the El Mo moniker -- just not with Burke and his partners running the place.
"As I said from day one, I am not going to shut down the El Mocambo," he says. "I'm trying my best to keep it open."
Jahangiri's detractors have scoffed at his stated intention to put a women's shelter in the basement and a spiritual outreach centre on the third floor. But really, who cares what he does with the remaining space? More importantly, locals concerned with maintaining the strip the way it is should be relieved that Jahangiri isn't putting up a six-storey condo or office complex, as condoned by the OMB to the consternation of city planners.
This past August the OMB noted in its decision upholding an appeal for higher densities on Spadina that "a case for intensification not only exists but cries out for recognition." The board pointed out that the new rapid- transit line running down the avenue isn't running at or near capacity. And as it turns out, not a single building on the strip has been designated historic under the Ontario Heritage Act. Although the city has tried to preserve historic building facades in other parts of the city, there are no formal protections on the books. In other words, it's open season on Spadina.
However, rumours that Jahangiri's dance studio is a front for speculators looking to block-bust and redevelop the property are unfounded.
Land registry records reveal that Jahangiri bought the building for $928,000. As well as putting down a considerable amount of his own money, he also took out a $556,000 mortgage on the property.
That mortgage is held by 19 small investors who put up anywhere between $20,000 and $50,000 each. According to the investors' lawyer, Ted Batcher, they have no connection with Jahangiri personally and are not interested in developing the property. They are simply hoping to make a modest return on their investment.
According to the terms of the mortgage, starting October 14, Jahangiri must pay $1,000 per month, plus interest set at 9.75 per cent.
"The only time we'd be interested in what he does is, number one, if he fails to pay, or two, if he decides to demolish the building -- because he can't. Our loan is against a piece of land that has a building on it," Batcher explains. "He would need our permission to demolish the building because this is not a speculative loan or a redevelopment loan or anything like that. Remove the building and that may change the value, and consequently would mean default under the mortgage."
A bigger concern for locals may turn out to be what might happen if Jahangiri's business were to fail. The next owner could be the one who'd finally level the place.
Jahangiri -- who purchased his business from renowned local dance teacher George Randolph in 1996 -- tells NOW that the studio isn't exactly raking in the big bucks.
"It's been very, very hard over the last four or five years," he admits.
He says he will have to spend additional tens of thousands of dollars to renovate the building so he can move in, as well as bring it up to code before he can obtain a liquor licence.
Frustrated at being branded the guy who killed the El Mo, Jahangiri has threatened legal action against Burke and his partners. But Burke isn't fazed. He's pulling out all the stops until the day he's evicted -- organizing musicians and patrons in opposition to the dance studio.
So far, Burke has held two public meetings at the El Mo and has the support of downtown city councillor and facilitator extraordinaire Olivia Chow, as well as NDP MPP Rosario Marchese.
However, if the matter becomes official city business, Chow may have to recuse herself from the matter, as she did in the Spadina OMB hearings. She lives in the area, and it could become a potential conflict of interest.
For El Mo purist Burke, moving the main stage to the first floor is simply unacceptable.
As he bluntly puts it, "We like it the way it is."
In the end, however, it's unlikely he'll have much of a say. The fact is, while Burke puts up a defiant front, his partners, Lamin Dibba and Ken Eng (aka After Dark Entertainment), have had ample opportunity to purchase the property themselves or put together a more favourable investment group.
The building has been up for sale since 1997. The original asking price was $1.38 million.
After Dark's lease wasn't renewed last winter, and they've been going month to month ever since simply because the former owner wanted to unload the property.
By the time Jahangiri came in with his offer, it was too late.
"I wasn't expecting someone to buy it and do his own thing there," Dibba admits. "We would have made a more concerted effort if we'd known it was going to be like that."