According to Street View, this is what Grand Electric looks like without a lineup outside.
On June 11, 2012, Grand Electric applied for five permits. The insanely popular Parkdale taqueria - famous for its epic lineups - was looking to convert the residential apartment upstairs into a second-floor dining room seating more than 30 people.
Having liaised with the office of local councillor Gord Perks, they were pretty confident that all would go reasonably smoothly. They even began the process of acquiring a liquor license for the additional space.
But nearly eight months later, their building permits remain in limbo and probably won't be granted in the near future.
Co-owner Ian McGrenaghan says the first sign of trouble didn't come until December 21 of last year. Ahead of a pre-hearing for the liquor license application, City solicitor Mark Crawford submitted a letter to the provincial License Appeal Tribunal, on which McGrenaghan was cc'ed. It stated that on November 1, City Council had enacted an Interim Control Bylaw that "prevents any new restaurants, or the expansion of existing restaurants above the ground floor of a building, on Queen Street West between Dufferin Street and Roncesvalles Avenue for a period of one year." As a result, "a restaurant use is currently not permitted on the second floor of the building in which the premises is located."
An Interim Control Bylaw (ICB) is essentially an emergency measure that City Council can introduce to temporarily halt the issuance of certain types of permits in a given area. The idea is to put the brakes on excessive growth, so that a neighbourhood doesn't become overwhelmed with a particular class of business, before such time as a more comprehensive plan can be put in place. In recent years, this strip of Queen had seen a rapid proliferation of new restaurants and bars.
If a person or business already possesses a building permit, they won't be affected by an ICB. And if they haven't yet applied for a permit, there's no point in doing so, since the City won't issue it while the ICB is in effect. But what about a situation like Grand Electric's, in which they'd applied for a permit but hadn't yet received it?
"The technical language in planning is whether or not your rights have 'crystallized,'" explains Councillor Perks. "And if you put in a clean building permit application, your rights are considered to have crystallized in law, even if the plans examiner has yet to write you the formal letter or issue the building permit."
The key word there is "clean." If an application has problems that haven't been addressed, then the applicant's rights won't crystallize. That is, if it's not an application that would be accepted under normal circumstances, an ICB doesn't affect it one way or the other.
But what the ICB does affect is how soon a faulty application can be fixed.
The precise nature of the issues with Grand Electric's building permit applications is unclear.
McGrenaghan tells NOW that he recalls the problems the City identified seemed "very mundane." He says they went back and forth with regard to minor revisions.
Perks, however, says the problems would had to have been "substantial." "The professional building code planners and plans examiners said that the plans they brought forward didn't conform to the Ontario Building Code. Which usually has to do with structural issues, fire-related issues... things like having a second fire door, that kind of stuff." Staff told him that there were 11 Building Code issues, of which the restaurant had apparently been informed last summer.
Mario Angelucci, the Deputy Chief Building Official for the Toronto & East York District, tells NOW, "The plans were reviewed, and there was noncompliance. There were issues of noncompliance that were identified to them. They had not addressed those areas of noncompliance prior to the passage of the Interim Control Bylaw." Were these significant issues? "I would say some of them would be significant issues." (McGrenaghan, for his part, insists they had immediately addressed whatever problems the City identified.)
Now that there's an ICB, the restaurant has missed its opportunity to correct the Building Code issues, and won't have another chance to do so until the bylaw is lifted. While the ICB would expire on its own at the end of October, Perks hopes to have it repealed by May, following the completion of a planning study on how best to regulate new bars and restaurants on that strip of Queen.
But that'll just be the beginning of the next step for Grand Electric.
Building Code issues are relatively straightforward things to fix: the City identifies problems and then you take measures to rectify them.
But Grand Electric's application also has zoning issues. They "didn't meet requirements of the existing zoning bylaw," says Perks. That is, even before the ICB came into play, the zoning for the street didn't allow for second-floor expansions of restaurants.
What generally happens, Perks explains, is that the Buildings department evaluates new applications on two grounds: compliance with the Building Code and conformity with the Zoning Bylaw. For the latter, staff are supposed to flag any issues with the proposed use - "maybe your window is too close to the adjacent building, maybe you're too close to the nearest residential property to be able to generate noise. There's a huge range of issues like that. You know, as I learned to my chagrin, it can even be the number of pinball machines," Perks says. "They will review it, and they will indicate any issues that are there and will give you advice about whether you need to get a variance from the Zoning Bylaw or whether you need to rezone the property for a different use entirely."
The thing is, that seems not to have happened in this case. "I would imagine the typical procedure," says McGrenaghan, "is that you apply for this sort of thing, and the City says, 'Oh sorry, it doesn't work with zoning.' But the fact that they didn't do that then, for me as a constituent and business person, I say, 'Okay, well obviously it does [work with the zoning].' I mean, I have no reason to think otherwise, right? I know that ignorance of the law isn't an excuse, obviously, but at the same time, if no one says anything, and they give you the permits and let them go through, I don't think there's much to be expected of me, while I'm busy doing other things, to sit down and think about whether that was the right decision or wrong decision."
McGrenaghan is disappointed that, throughout all his communications with Perks's office, no one raised the zoning issue. "If one of them had said, 'And you want to be careful about upstairs, the zoning stuff,' then that's kind of their jobs as politicians. I'm not saying they failed at that. But you'd expect, if a business person calls someone who knows that information, it might be helpful for them to tell me that." He laughs. "But no one did."
In order to get a second floor, Grand Electric will need to apply for a variance or a rezoning, depending on whether City staff determine that the change from the property's approved zoning would be minor or major in nature. If it's minor, then they can apply for a variance (permission to deviate from the zoning bylaw) from the Committee of Adjustment, which consists of a group of citizens who evaluate such things in an impartial and apolitical manner. If it's a rezoning that they need, then, Perk says, it's "treated the same way as a condominium application would be." There would be public meetings leading up to consideration by the Toronto and East York Community Council, which consists of the 12 councillors who represent the city's south district.
Either way, it would take some time, and neither process can be initiated while the Interim Control Bylaw is in effect.
McGrenaghan, who says he's already spent a good deal of money getting the second floor in set up, is rather exhausted by all of the complications.
"'Listen, I'm just running a restaurant, we're really busy, I really want to expand,'" he says he told his councillor. "Partially, obviously because I'm a business person, I'm not gonna lie about that, but also we have a lot of customers and very long lineups. And to their interests, a lot of those people, both my employees and customers, are people who live in the area. So I just want to keep on feeding people and lower those waits."