19 months later, Ossington merchants too busy to hate on the moratorium

19 months later, Ossington merchants too busy to hate on the moratorium

From the outside, there’s been little more inherently confusing, even maddening, in the last year than the moratorium on liquor licenses along the stretch of Ossington between Dundas and Queen. At the behest of Joe Pantalone (who proceeded to run for something, we hear) the city stopped approving liquor licenses for the strip and then passed a by-law shrinking the allowable size of restaurants and bars. For this, Pantalone was named one of Torontoist’s villains of 2009. The evolution of Ossington slowed dramatically, and at least one spot, Salt Wine Bar, was closed down for licence infractions.

Now that the ban has been lifted (Pantalone himself called over to Salt to let them know they could be open for business) we decided to talk with some of the merchants affected. Below, a run-down of the mood of what was once called Electric Avenue.

William Tavares might be one of the people with the most right to be angry, but the co-owner of Salt can’t muster up a good hate. “There’s really no use crying over spilled milk at this point,” he says. Even after months of enforced unprofitability, Tavares can see the upside to the moratorium. Concerns about large “big-box clubs,” like on Richmond Street, have been allayed, he says—they’re illegal now. “There were many negatives in our case, but there were many positives.” That said, Tavares is not ready to kiss and make up with Pantalone. Let’s just say the restaurateur doesn’t exactly weep at the fate of the failed mayoral candidate.

Pantalone’s replacement in Ward 19, Mike Layton, says that the ban exposed a larger problem: the city entirely lacks anything more sophisticated than moratoriums as legal avenues to moderate development. “The city only has certain tools in its toolbox,” says Layton. He regrets some of the downsides, but obviously wants to emphasize the positives. By his lights, Ossington is now a cultural destination that it couldn’t have been if it was the new clubland. The moratorium helped keep rents down, making it easier for different types of businesses: “Businesses lost money, but we drew in new local art galleries,” says Layton.

The galleries were actually some of the biggest beneficiaries of the moratorium, and remain its biggest fans. Dale Thompson of the AWOL Gallery talks about slowing down the rise in rents, and at least moderating the revellers puking into AWOL’s doorway. Apparently, aiming for the sewers is a trick not everyone learned in university.

As for rents going up now that the moratorium is over, Layton betrays a bit of his parents’ NDP roots: “Well, fighting capitalism is an entirely different battle. How do we change the incentives for property owners so they don’t go all bars?”

Of course, one of the big questions is whether the moratorium was really as effective as Pantalone and its other proponents hoped it would be. One major effect was to drive new money up on to Dundas Street West, where the old, predominantly Portuguese sports bars could be transformed into hip bars like Brockton General. Pam Thomson and Brie Read, the General’s co-owners, say they benefited from the moratorium because it drove new customers their way. “It’s probably part of the reason we’ve had some early success,” says Thomson. Both Thomson and Read think that, despite obvious sad cases like Salt, the moratorium was a good thing for the neighbourhood.

Love for the moratorium, however, ends there. One Ossington business owner, who asked not to be named out of fear of getting in trouble with the city, thought the moratorium “definitely affected the neighbourhood negatively” and thought the moratorium had no side benefits. The owner chalked up any positives to restraint by existing restaurants catering more to locals and less to “alcohol tourism.”

And so, the moratorium gets mixed reviews. More than anything, the neighbourhood seems most concerned with just moving on. There’s money to be made, and if the owners of Salt can’t be bothered to stay angry, nobody else seems inclined to.