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Progress stalls: two years later, little done for fire-ravaged Queen West strip

February 19th, 2010 · 3 Comments

By Claude Saravia

Matt James/Gleaner News

Matt James/Gleaner News

Chad Mutchler was watching from a friend’s roof that cold Feb. 20 when a fire ripped through the Queen West neighbourhood just before dawn.

It took 150 firefighters in 30 trucks to extinguish the six- alarm inferno that destroyed a section of Queen Street West, between Bathurst Street and Portland Avenue in 2008.

He never imagined that two years later, nothing would have been done with the site.

Mutchler is the manager of Shanti Baba, a store that directly faces the vacant lot.

Today, he shrugs and says he has no idea if, or when, any of the previous stores will come back.

“The neighbourhood has gone downhill since the fire,” Mutchler said. “Business has been affected. A lot of the stores that were there, especially Duke’s Cycle, brought a lot of business. It seemed like the neighbourhood itself was going a little downhill before, and then once the fire hit, it just finished it off.”

The strip was once a heritage site with some of the buildings destroyed built as early as the 1860s. It housed 25 people and 14 businesses—some which had been in the area for generations. Now it is a boarded up lot, which residents and business owners say has turned the heart of Queen Street West into an eyesore. While everyone hopes for change, many remain skeptical that it will happen any time soon.

“Basically the only thing the neighbourhood can do is go back up, because it sucks right now,” said Mutchler. “They have to get something built across the street to bring more people back here, because the neighbourhood is just falling apart.”

Mutchler said not only has business been down, but also the lot now attracts a lot of questionable people and activities.

“They need to do something,” he said. “Crackheads, prostitutes, drunks—you name it—have camped out in there, especially last summer. It was just disgusting back there. There was a pile of rubble that was at least ten feet tall, and all during last summer, there were weeds growing out of it, and it stunk. People were dumping garbage back there, long before the garbage strike, and they still do now.”

Graffiti and posters line the boarded-up lot, and piles of garbage and rubble are still visible.

Councillor Adam Vaughan (Ward 20, Trinity-Spadina) is aware of local business concerns, believing progress will be made soon. He also said the city is aware of the site’s current problems.

“We are concerned about some of the anti-social behavior that’s been on display in that area.

“I live in the area and walk by the spot virtually every day that I come to work. For a while the barricades were being broken down, there has been a bit of vandalism with sort of tagging, as well as illegal dumping,” he said.

“The only way to solve that problem is to get the buildings built, and we expect a couple of the major buildings to come online very shortly, and once that starts to happen, we think activities will return to normal.”

Matt James/ Gleaner News

Matt James/Gleaner News

Neither Mutchler nor Vaughan believe the city will be able to put condos up, as many residents and business owners suspected. Both are hopeful the old businesses will return.

Luis Ceriz, owner of Suspect Video, said his business has no plans to come back to the former site. There were originally two locations for Suspect Video, with one being at the Queen Street location, the other being at its current location on Markham Street in the Annex.

“I have no idea what plans they have for the reconstructing of the neighbourhood, but we are just going to keep our current location for now,” he said.

Ceriz said one of the main reasons for not returning was that his old manager opened his own video store near the site, Eyesore Cinema, which increases the competition he would face if he came back.

“I wouldn’t open now mostly for that reason. When I had both places my attention was always divided between the two. I didn’t realize how much I missed being so hands-on,” he said.

“The optimist in me says that construction will begin as soon as summer,” said Vaughan when asked when the neighbourhood could expect to see improvements. “I think that all of the property owners are aiming for something to happen as quick as possible. Two of them are pretty confident that they have proposals coming forward that they think they can get processed in terms of excavation, and foundation work can be started as soon as summer.”

Still not everyone is convinced any progress has been made or will be made anytime soon.

Mutchler said he had hoped Vaughan would have done more.

“He said he was going to help the neighbourhood but no action has been done, so that just proves that he couldn’t or wouldn’t,” he said. ”He promises a lot of good things but nothing ever comes of it, and I know a lot of people around here feel the same way.”

“I know at the beginning he tried to be very helpful,” said Mark Newman, manager of Dukes Cycle’s. “But how much help has there been recently, I couldn’t comment on that.”

Randall Duke, owner of Duke’s Cycles lost both his home and business in the fire. The store is currently located on Richmond Street West, but Newman says the store plans to make a return to Queen West by the summer.

“We were open within six weeks after the fire and we have been there since then,” said Newman. “The current situation is that we are planning to start construction at the old location in March, so we are going to move back.

“There are still some fine details to work out with the city, but we sort of have gotten a general approval to go ahead with construction.”

Although he is excited about the prospect of returning, Newman said he was absolutely disappointed in how long the process took, and he blames the insurance companies mostly for the length of time it has taken.

Vaughan agreed, saying a lot of the delays were not necessarily the cause of the city, but rather delays in finding a cause for the fire, as well as insurance companies not doing their part.

He also said the city has been doing whatever possible to help recreate the essence of the neighbourhood’s charm. He cited Abraham’s Antiques and Pizzaiolo as two businesses that were able to rebuild and have had successful returns to the neighbourhood. Preloved also relocated in the area, across from Trinity-Bellwoods Park.

“We had a lot of trouble with insurance companies not fully honouring their policies and the property owners were given a very difficult time trying to get progress,” said Vaughan.

There are six different property owners who lost their buildings in the fire. Each owner had their own specific insurance policies and coverage levels.

Nearly ten months after the fire, the Ontario fire marshal declared that the cause of the fire would never be known, but it was believed to have started above National Sound.

“The investigation took a long time to make a determination as to what caused the fire,” said Vaughan. “When no determination was issued by the fire marshal, well the insurance companies had been waiting for some sort of declaration. It put things into another realm of ‘Okay, now we have to figure out what that means.’ And the insurance companies sort of dragged their feet and made things somewhat difficult for the property owners.”

Wayne Romaine from the office of the Fire Marshal was reported as saying that the fire’s estimated cost was $10 million.

Vaughan is hopeful things will start improving soon.

“Every time I walk by there and don’t see a Duke’s Cycle, it just doesn’t feel like my neighbourhood, and it won’t ever feel like my neighbourhood until Duke’s is back on Queen Street.

“These stores were as vital a part of Queen Street as the Cameron House or any other institution on that street. They are part of the neighbourhood, and we miss them, and we want them back.”

Tags: General

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Marie // Feb 22, 2010 at 11:15 am

    Great Story!

  • 2 mayor clarke of toronto // Mar 7, 2010 at 4:25 pm

    nice little story, i beliece this would be a prime location fot a afforable housing project,that focus on families,too many children ,are without the opportunites needed to substain productive education ,and parenting to adam vaughan have him reach me ,and with you voice and him getting off his lazy cityhall a–…we can make thing’s happen…..hope and prosperty…

    mayor to be …

  • 3 mayor clarke of toronto // Mar 7, 2010 at 4:28 pm

    nice little story, i beliece this would be a prime location for afforable housing project,that focus on families,too many children are without the opportunites needed to substain productive education ,and parenting to adam vaughan have him reach me ,and with your voice and him getting off his lazy cityhall a–…we can make thing’s happen…..hope and prosperty…

    mayor clarke…