Monday, August 16, 2010
Toronto's 'Clubland' no longer booming as condos move in
Bruce Willis used to party here. So did Dan Aykroyd. Remember when they were cool?
But things have changed in clubland. Condos, daycares and art students have been changing the face of an area once ruled by house music and fuelled by cranberry vodka shots.
At its peak, just five years ago, close to 90 nightclubs took over the eight square blocks north of Richmond, past Wellington, from Simcoe to Spadina Ave. Now, about 30 persist, with more going all the time. The latest, Home and Embassy nightclubs, are on chopping block at 117 Peter St. If all goes to plan, a 36-storey condo will spring up in their place.
The scantily clad and slick-haired have found new places to go.
“This used to be an international destination for nightlife,” said Mike Yen, 39, standing on the corner of Peter and Richmond Sts. — the heart of the city’s dwindling club district.
He said he moved downtown to be closer to the scene. “Now all you see are ‘For Lease’ signs and a homeless shelter.”
Local politicians and community groups have waged war on clubland in recent years, replacing drinking and dancing and DJs with condo living.
What’s new is how effective they’ve been.
A sign reading “Development Proposal” sits in the front window of 117 Peter St. — the corner of Peter and Richmond Sts.
The proposal, currently being fine-tuned and set to go in front of Community Council on Tuesday, will turn the warehouse into a condo that would house office space on the main floor. A small public plaza would sit out front.
City Councillor Adam Vaughan said the project will rehabilitate the north and south side of Richmond.
It also represents another nail in the coffin for clubland as we know it.
And it is another telltale sign of a downtown neighbourhood reinventing itself.
“The era of the big-box nightclub has come and gone,” said Vaughan, who’s been notoriously tough on nightclubs since elected in 2006.
“You’re now seeing, like on Ossington, Queen West and Parkdale, that the small boutique lounges with a more refined scene are what’s carrying the day,” he added.
Those who are still making the trip into the city’s core Friday and Saturday nights haven’t got the memo yet: This place just isn’t cool anymore.
For some, there’s the nostalgia.
“I saw the beginnings of the nightclub industry and I saw it grow,” said Yen, who started partying on Richmond at Twilight Zone, which later morphed into Whisky Saigon. “Sport stars, NFL stars, NBA stars. They all used to come out and there was a lot of hype in the area.”
“But (Vaughan) destroyed them,” he added.
For Vaughan’s part, it’s an accomplishment.
The councillor for Ward 20 has referred to the thousands of partygoers, most with no local ties, unleashed in the downtown core after last call as hooligans. Neighbors complained of being shaken from their sleep by blaring stereo-systems, or, strolling out of their homes Sunday morning to be greeted with a pile of sidewalk vomit.
With all this came drugs, brawls and guns, a problem for policing in the one-square-kilometer area.
Vaughan teamed up with enforcement agencies to make sure clubs were being monitored closely at the first sign of trouble, such as serving the underaged and overcrowding.
“It’s been tough slogging . . . but we got a hold of several clubs that were operating as close to criminal as possible,” he said, adding that there are still several clubs in the area, like Liberty Entertainment Group, who owns C-Loung, who follow the rules and make money doing it.
Yen is running for Vaughan’s council seat in October’s election. On his campaign platform? Reversing the damage done to clubland.
“Clubs are opening up in Richmond Hill and Oakville,” said Yen. “It used to be the people outside the city would come in and spend their money here.”
There is still a market for those who love to fist-pump. The Dirty Martini in Oakville is crammed every weekend. And clubs around Peter and Adelaide Sts. still get lineups on Friday and Saturday nights, with most coming from the 905.
“Keep the raves a-comin’ bring the ‘90s back fer real!,” posted Shawn Rice on a Facebook page dedicated to saving Toronto’s nightlife.
“Seriously!? What happened to the nice beats and awesome people?” replied April Stevens.
“You can’t just drive clubs out,” said Vaughan. “You have to replace them with something better.”
What have been replacing them are condos, encroaching from all sides of the Entertainment District for years.
Just down Richmond, OCAD has now taken over three buildings that will house classrooms for their students. And another condo building is partnering with the University. Student exhibitions will be held in the 8,000-square-foot foyer, creating a kind of urban living meets blossoming art scene.
“The area was a bit of a no man’s land for a number of years, especially late at night,” said Peter Caldwell, OCAD’s vice president of finance and administration, who also lives close by. “In my opinion it’s getting to the point where it’s more manageable.”
“There’s fewer and fewer disco balls in the middle of the room,” said Janice Soloman, executive director of the Entertainment District’s business improvement association.
A daycare has opened up at Duncan and Richmond Sts. High-tech businesses are setting up shop in the area. Construction on the TIFF Bell Lightbox and Festival Tower are underway, the new home for the film festival’s headquarters.
And a plan to make John St. into a “culture corridor,” with shops and markets, and an outdoor film site, is in the works.
“All of this together is making the Entertainment District more entertaining,” said Vaughan. “And not a place where hooligans and clubgoers on a Thursday or Friday night terrorize the city.”
But those who miss it disagree.
“Bruce Willis isn’t a hooligan,” said Yen. “I’m not a hooligan, either.”