Long-time Roncesvalles businesses closing down due to rising rents

High commercial rents are forcing independent businesses off Toronto's Roncesvalles Avenue, a process that locals say will make the quirky commercial strip look just like any other street in the city.

Neighbourhood character at risk as another independent business shuts down, councillor says

High commercial rents are forcing independent businesses off Toronto's Roncesvalles Avenue, a process that locals say will make the quirky commercial strip look just like any other street in the city.

After eight years on Roncesvalles, the popular Lambretta Pizzeria is the latest business to close down because its owner says she can't afford a 30 per cent rent increase. Celina Blanchard says she already pays about $12,000 in monthly rent.

"It's not like I'm in downtown Toronto. I'm not in the financial district. I'm in a family neighbourhood. And so it's a huge price to pay," Blanchard said in an interview with CBC Toronto.

Over the years, Blanchard's family-friendly restaurant has developed a loyal customer base and reputation for affordable and authentic pizza. But she says the business will have to close at the end of January.

She's looking for another space to move the business. Blanchard says it won't be on Roncesvalles, but that's not because there aren't any vacancies.

"There are empty spaces, but the rents are too high. These landlords want too much right now, and the only people that will be able to afford these spaces are the big chains," she said.

David Neinstein, the chair of the Roncesvalles Business Improvement Area and the owner of Barque Smokehouse, a popular Roncesvalles eatery, says as a small business owner, he too worries about the cost of rent. 

He guesses it's doubled over the past 10 years. However, the BIA also represents the interests of local landlords and Neinstein says nothing prevents them from asking for what is considered market rent when a lease expires. As new businesses have opened on the street, he says landlords know the market rate has gone up.

"They don't just pick a number out of the blue. It's widely known through the real estate board what those rents were," Neinstein said. 

"The landlords have access to that and they're able to say, 'This is what this guy is getting, so I'm asking for it as well."'

"The reality is that Roncesvalles will likely go down the same path. Large, well-financially backed companies will be able to afford these leases and slowly more corporate and less independent businesses will move in," he said.

Lambretta is the latest independent business on the street to cry uncle after facing a steep rent hikes from its landlord. Another Roncy mainstay, the candy and party supplies store Sweet Thrills, recently suffered a similar fate after a 25-year run on the street.

Coun. Gord Perks, who represents Ward 4, Parkdale-High Park, says he's concerned about the street losing its independent businesses and traditional character.

"The Toronto we know and love disappears from the landscape forever if every neighbourhood high street is just a wall of the same chains as every other neighbourhood high street." 

Perks says urban planning in Toronto often attempts to create and maintain neighbourhoods like Roncesvalles, walkable and densely populated communities that have commercial streets with a variety of shops and services.

"Over the last couple of decades we have seen commercial rents start to put that more and more at risk," he said.

There are rent controls for residential landlords but Perks says municipalities don't have any way to limit rent increases on businesses. He says Toronto could benefit from legislation created by other levels of government.

"It's really going to take the provincial and federal governments asking themselves, 'Do you want neighbourhoods to thrive?'" Perks said.

"And if the answer is yes, giving us new tools to perhaps control commercial rents on some of these main streets that we want to serve as neighbourhood anchors."

Trevor Dunn is an award-winning journalist with CBC Toronto. Since 2008 he's covered a variety of topics, ranging from local and national politics to technology on the South American countryside. Trevor is interested in uncovering news: real estate, crime, corruption, art, sports. Reach out to him. Se habla español. trevor.dunn@cbc.ca

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