The controversy over high-rise condo development in the heart of Toronto's Entertainment District's so-called "restaurant row" erupted this week as the developer faced off against concerned restaurateurs and residents in tense hearings before the Ontario Municipal Board.
In a last-ditch effort to quash the 47-storey tower slated to be built at 321-323 King St. West, (between Peter and Widmer Streets), restaurant owners and worried citizens – led by Kit Kat eatery owner Al Carbone – appeared before the OMB in a series of meetings to argue that the 304-unit project will erode the integrity and quirky vibe of the strip.
"Approval of this project will cause a domino effect as developers, who are sitting on valuable blocks of land, will seek to build the same sort of density," says Mr. Carbone, whose Victorian-era building will be dwarfed by the nearby condo. "It sets a precedent that will ruin the heritage of this neighbourhood, a go-to tourist destination for 20-plus years."
When Mr. Carbone started his family-run Italian eatery, he was one of a smattering of restaurauteurs trying to attract theatregoers for a meal before hitting venues like the Mirvish's Royal Alex theatre. Today, his is one of 22 low-slung eateries along King Street West that are fearful that condo development is spiralling out of control in the Entertainment District's four-block radius, a parcel of land that now has 51 condo projects under way or approved by the city.
The intensity of construction has residents such as Jacqui d'Eon worried about there's no way Toronto's already over-burdened infrastructure can possibly keep up. "I'm not opposed to development, per se," says Ms. d'Eon, a 10-year resident on Soho Street. "But I am opposed to unbridled development. The police, fire halls, hydro, water, sewage system, and hospitals are already tapped to the max."
The densely populated Entertainment District borders Queen, Front, Portland and Duncan streets. But the condo frenzy has only recently encroached on restaurant row, with projects such as TIFF Bell Lightbox's 46-storey Festival Tower and the 35-storey M5V, at Blue Jays Way across from Mountain Equipment Co-op.
Councillor Adam Vaughan (Ward 20, Trinity-Spadina) is under fire from residents and business owners who argue he hasn't fought hard enough to preserve the strip. But Mr. Vaughan says he and city council have fought to keep high-rise condos off King Street, "and we keep losing the battle."
But, he adds, "the notion that the Entertainment District needs to be preserved is not true. It's preserved." Aside from the 47-storey condo in dispute, Mr. Vaughan says the remainder of the buildings on King Street West have designated heritage status.
King Financial Holdings Ltd. owns the land at 321-323 King St. A few years ago, it asked the city for approval to build a 39-storey condo, but was turned down. After purchasing another parcel of land (the location of Fred's Not Here restaurant) and making modifications to the development plan, the company got the nod. This time, to build the 47-storey tower, which will retain two of the existing Victorian-style facades.
Mr. Carbone says the fact that the facades will be rebuilt is a joke. "The bottom line is the entire building will be destroyed, and the restaurants that are there will no longer exist."
Fabien Siebert, owner of Marcel's Bistro and Le Saint Tropez, says the construction is a scourge on the strip, leaving business owners to grapple with noise, dust, debris, sewage backups, congestion, and a wind tunnel effect that is often strong enough to toss plates, even tables, on patios. "I've been around for 29 years so I know the street pretty well," says Mr. Siebert. "And there are a lot of things that worry me. Deliveries [in the laneway behind restaurant row] are already a nightmare, and who wants to sit on a patio surrounded by hoarding? The flavour of the street is being hurt."
It's not clear when the OMB will make its final decision on 321-323 King. But regardless of the outcome, Mr. Carbone intends to stick around and fight. "I'll probably stay here until I'm broke," he says. "I helped build the neighbourhood up, and now we're at a crisis point. This issue is not only critical to our block, but to our city as a whole."