Street fight on St. Clair

It’s been three years since construction on the St. Clair Ave. West streetcar began and businesses are hurting, with many closing up for good

The fire on St. Clair Ave. West is still raging.

Three years after construction began on the controversial dedicated streetcar lanes, many St. Clair businesses are considering suing the city for compensation after what they say has been a disastrous project that’s driven patrons away.

Lawyer Stephen Edell approached business owners with the idea of legal action in June and hopes to represent them against the City of Toronto.

“This is not about challenging the authority of the city to do this project, which in the end may be beneficial,” he said. “But the city has exceeded its power and any reasonable intrusion on the businesses.”

Many shops have suffered financial losses and some have gone bankrupt, all while property taxes have increased, said Edell, an area resident.

[quote]This is not about challenging the authority of the city to do this project … The city has exceeded its power.[/quote]

“The difficulty would be in trying to assess how any individual business has suffered,” he said.

With a virtual pit of construction on St. Clair — including hydro underground wiring, streetcar tracks and road reconstruction — business owners say their storefronts are inaccessible.

But the local council rep says legal action will help no one.

“Frankly, I think it is a sad, sad waste of time,” said Ward 21’s Joe Mihevc. “The businesses are suffering on St. Clair because of a recession and construction.

“A lawsuit is not going to bring one new customer into their store.”

Many storeowners say they have nothing to lose.

Sharon Moore, a vocal opponent to the project back in the consultation phase, closed her Retro Café on June 10 after 13 years at Vaughan Rd. and St. Clair.

[quote]Frankly, I think it is a sad waste of time … A lawsuit is not going to bring one new customer into their store.[/quote]

The closing was inevitable because of a lack of patrons, which she blamed squarely on the construction outside her restaurant.

“About 30 percent of my business were clients who used to live in the neighbourhood,” she said. “They moved to the 905 but they would still come to see me for brunch on the weekend.

“They told me there was no parking. A lot of them got $30 and $60 tickets and they told me, ‘We can’t come back here’.”

After using up all her credit to make rent, Moore said she still couldn’t make ends meet. She’s now looking for work as a cook in the Niagara region.

“I think all of us deserve some sort of restitution for what they did to us,” she said.

But going after government for compensation or a tax rebate won’t work, Mihevc said.

“It’s against provincial legislation to compensate individual businesses because of an infrastructure project,” he said.

To mitigate sales losses, the city mounted several revenue-generating campaigns to keep shoppers in the area, including festivals, beautification initiatives and TTC discounts.

Despite those efforts, AnnaMaria Buttinelli, owner of Curactive and Tulip hair salon, said the city has not responded to her needs during construction.

She estimates business is down 50 to 70 percent.

“I can’t even pay my rent anymore,” Buttinelli said.

Many of her customers drive to the area, find no parking, and leave, she said.

It’s difficult even for local clients, Buttinelli added. Many are seniors who can’t maneuver across the planks between intersections to get to her salon.

The delays most infuriate her, Buttinelli said. If she’d known it would take so long, she said she would’ve made other arrangements.

“I would have gone someplace else,” she said. “What am I here for?”

The delays can be traced to several factors, Mihevc said.

“One class of delays has to do with the way (the Save Our St. Clair) group caused lawsuits and unnecessary delays,” he said, referring to the activist group’s unsuccessful legal battle to thwart the project. “They need to take responsibility for a year and half delay.”

Then there were three projects that preceded the track replacement on St. Clair: the replacement of underground pipes, new water mains and the burying of hydro lines. The latter, Mihevc noted, was a direct request from the community.

“That added another one half years to the project,” he said.

The councillor noted the construction is in its final phase now and by the end of January, the final leg of construction, ending at Gunns Rd., will be completed, he said.

“We are right in the tail end,” he said. “St. Clair looks at its worst now but that’s because it’s all dug up.”

Not all business owners are upset with the project. Zo Restaurant’s Enzo Marcello said the project will help the area in the end.

“Would I prefer that it wasn’t happening right now? Absolutely,” he said. “But it’s progress and it’s something that the city deems necessary.

“When I was doing my business plan, I always thought of St. Clair as the next College St., and I still believe that and I think within a year or two a lot of good businesses will come to the area.”

As to whether he’d participate in legal action, Marcello said he’ll wait to learn more about it.

If Edell gets enough interest for a lawsuit, he said it could proceed one of two ways: “Try for a class action or a limited number of plaintiffs could proceed in a traditional lawsuit.”

He said he’d prefer to settle with the city rather than go to court.

[align=right]—With files from Alexandra Christopoulos

About this article:

By: Kris Scheuer and Karolyn Coorsh
Posted: Jul 2 2009 3:22 pm
Filed in: NEWS
Edition: Toronto