Thursday, June 18, 2009

Back to the Future's

*Note: This is a piece (my last, at least for awhile) I originally published on Torontoist.com.


Yup, it's that time again. With sun umbrellas spread wide open, customers in shorts and shades, and pitchers of the finest local brews waiting to be poured, Toronto's patio season is back in full swing―at least for most bars. But unfortunately for a few, and a few very near and dear to our hearts (and livers), some outdoor havens are left stuck in limbo.

It's been far too long since we've heard about the official rulings for Future Bakery and the Labyrinth (nothing since some speculation from when the heat lamps were still on in January and February). We didn't really know what to expect until we saw those glorious doors open, bringing on all we'd hoped for―visions of Oreo cheesecake and Creemore Springs dancing in our heads―that was, until 11 p.m., when the doors closed prematurely, and the patio shut down to our utter dismay. And worse yet, the doors next door failed to open altogether. Skimming the web, we found no recent word from local news outlets, nothing beyond vicious commentary on the blogosphere. It took a few phone calls to find out just what is happening to our beloved Bloor West bakery and its newer neighbour.
Both Future's and The Labyrinth were bought out by Sumit Kapur early last year. And in Toronto, when a bar takes on new ownership, the owner must reapply for two new permits―one from the AGCO and a City of Toronto patio permit for use of a public sidewalk, one that cannot be obtained without the agreement of the community surrounding the patio. Since the sidewalk, as a rule, belongs to the city and its citizens, it is the latter license that came under contention when the transfer of ownership gave neighbours a chance to state their case about the state of the two patios.

Kapur has thus far had two meetings with the Harbord Village Residents' Association (representative of the area of Spadina to Bathurst between College and Bloor and not a part of the Annex as the common reference would entail), the first on January 26, co-chaired by Councillor Adam Vaughan and the residents' association Chair Gus Sinclair, and the second on April 3 with Vaughan and his constituency assistant Dale Duncan. Duncan told us that the first meeting set out to discuss concerns and the second to solidify details―which patios will be open and at what times. Although both patios, under new ownership, inherited a 2 a.m. closing time, some residents with the HVRA requested an earlier closing for The Labyrinth at the second meeting. They complained not of overserved liquor, but of lack of control―no one on the patio to control a few belligerent smokers making early mornings miserable for locals. They say the intention was never to close The Lab's patio altogether, but rather, to start off with a more reasonable time for the more rambunctious patio of the two, with the premise of a later closing time in the future should it prove permissible.

Kapur, however, wanted full-fledged operating hours―when we talked to Vaughan, he told us that Kapur "wouldn't take yes for an answer" when offered a compromise. Kapur rejected the notion to give the patio an early bedtime altogether, refusing to bargain with the residents and agitating an already fragile relationship. It was at this meeting that Vaughan gave what the HRVA refers to as the "garbage-dump analogy," asking Kapur if he then should be allowed put a garbage transfer station in a lot on Brunswick Street that works at all hours of the night and is both smelly and noisy, to which Kapur nodded his head. Strike two. After being denied their request, the residents decided to withdraw their initial offer, leaving Kapur and the patios with the hours under which it currently operates―Future's till 11 p.m. and The Lab, zilch, nada, zip.

Next came a slew of letters. Letters of anger, of annotation, and of apology. The HRVA and Vaughan both received a round of memos, some simply unhappy and some furious, both anonymously and from residents, but all blaming them for the patio's closure. Vaughan sent a letter to the editor at NOW, sending well-wishes for the "return of the Annex landmark." The blogosphere dumped a large share of the blame solely on Vaughan, a man who has served as an advocate for Future's patio―fully in its support―and also a mediator between the owner and the neighbours. And finally, in a letter to Vaughan (potentially spurred by the HRVA in order to encourage cooperation with residents) posted in the comments of a more recent and somewhat unrelated NOW article, Kapur apologized to Vaughan for misinterpreting "his assistance as a hindrance," something for which he was "completely embarrassed":

Perhaps it was the worry over keeping my business a going concern in more uncertain times; worry over keeping my employees happy and with a place to work; worry for my livelihood.....all of these things occupy my attention on a daily basis. Where I went off the rails was in thinking that my business concerns trumped the concerns of the neighbourhood in which I operate, let me tell you: I have finally received the message.
Kapur ended the letter with what he told us was a request to "sort out the patio situation" before the summer's end, noting that he will have to prove himself first with a respectable patio crowd under the current hours at Future's. And in the future, it looks like that is what may be in store. To officially change the hours, the Toronto and East York Community Council must approve the motion at City Hall during their next meeting on June 23. And from the sounds of it, most are in favour of extending patio hours at friendly neighbourhood stand-by Future's (most likely to 1 a.m. for Friday and Saturday nights). Both Vaughan and the HRVA told us they plan to go ahead and extend Future's patio's hours.

The Labyrinth, however, may first have to navigate a messy maze, with its closer proximity to houses and slightly blemished reputation. Vaughan says he thinks that "if [The Lab] can show it is a legitimate and proper business, the community will be open-minded" when it comes to open doors. This current interim period, however, is a chance for Kapur to build a good track record, a temporary "leash" for operation until The Lab proves a good neighbour―and once it does so, Vaughan welcomes The Lab to reapply for its prized patio position. But until then, Vaughan says, "the burden is on [Kapur]."

So that's how the story goes. Prepare for longer hours in the later summer at Future's and keep your fingers crossed for its patio next door, at least for now. But if we may ourselves put in a good word for Kapur and for both businesses in question―so long as the douchebaggery of The Brunswick House is allowed to be in operation, we say both Future's and The Lab are certainly fair game.

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