You might do a double-take when you walk into Michel’s Bespoke, a business operating on the outer edge of Toronto’s Fashion District.
There’s a fashion mannequin at the front of the store, expensive suits, shirts and ties on racks and in display cases.
But behind the green curtains used by customers for privacy when trying on clothes is a fridge and stove. There’s also a dishwasher. And upstairs is co-owner Paul Di Palma’s bedroom.
Di Palma and partner Michel Karkar, a bespoke tailor, began leasing the 1,000-square-foot live-work townhouse in June 2017.
Spaces like this are hard to find in the city.
Many are artists’ residences. Some are units in converted warehouses and factories. Others, like Karkar and Di Palma’s, are in relatively new townhouses and condos downtown.
With the high cost of housing and commercial space in Toronto, live-work is an appealing option.
“It’s exciting for me. I’m living my fantasy living above the shop,” says Di Palma, 28, who is apprenticing to become a bespoke tailor. He is also responsible for managing and developing the company, which offers Canadian-made suits starting at $2,400.
Karkar, 57, has operated since 1993, beginning with a popular atelier in North York that Di Palma joined in 2014. It caters to older, well-heeled clients. The children of those clients wanted tailored suits, too, yet didn’t want to go all the way uptown to get fitted. So Karkar and Di Palma began looking downtown for a satellite location.
Finding that commercial space was selling for millions of dollars, they soon grew frustrated and gave up the search.
Meanwhile, Di Palma was leaving an apartment in the Annex he shared with his older brother because the latter’s girlfriend was moving in.
Di Palma’s search for a home ignited his and Karkar’s interest in finding a live-work unit.
“If Paul wasn’t with me (in the business), I wouldn’t have moved here,” Karkar says.
They had to retrofit the downtown unit to suit their business, hiding pipes, installing large cabinets and putting in that curtain for the changing area.
Di Palma’s living room upstairs now doubles as a lounge where clients can mingle and sip espresso. All told, the makeover took about a year.
According to the city’s planning department, the term ‘live-work’ is in Toronto’s building code but is not used in the city’s new zoning bylaw.
Live-work is permitted in most commercial-residential zones.
In addition, the units are allowed in zones near King St. and Spadina Ave., and King and Parliament Sts., where commercial, residential and light-industrial uses are permitted together.
The city’s bylaws specify the types of businesses that can operate in live-work units, such as salons, barbershops, and tattoo parlours.
City planning staff couldn’t immediately provide the current number of live-work units in Toronto because some have reverted to residential only.
Karkar and Di Palma’s live-work, located beside the Thompson Hotel, is part of a 330-unit condo development completed around 2010. There are 13 units on Stewart St. that have the same streetfront access as Karkar and Di Palma’s operation.
Most of the 13 units are investor-owned and leased to small businesses, as in the case of Michel’s Bespoke, where Di Palma and Karkar lease for $3,500 a month.
The units, which range in size from about 800 to 1,200 square feet, originally sold for about $450,000, but prices have since doubled.
Live-work was the “only option” for 34-year business partners Jody Kezar and Sonia Yarkhani, who operate Evolve Hair Studio, a thriving business with about 2,500 clients.
Located among about 30 to 40 other live-works on Fort York Blvd. near the Rogers Centre, the 1,500-square-foot space Kezar and Yarkhani moved into in March 2012 was initially a two-bedroom condo. But intending all along to open a salon, they quickly renovated and turned it into a live-work; they ran the salon downstairs and slept upstairs.
They leased for a few years and saved up enough to buy the unit outright. Each went on to purchase their own condos nearby, where they now live.
“Given the calibre of business we wanted to run, we knew it would cost us a lot of money to get started, so (live-work) was the best option for us,” says Yarkhani.
But Sam Roozbahani, who operates a real estate brokerage beside the salon and who used to live in the unit, says anyone considering live-work shouldn’t forget to factor in business taxes.
“I pay $14,000 for my space,” he says. “If it was only residential I’d pay about $4,000. Property tax for commercial (space) is high in Toronto.”
Donovan Vincent is a housing reporter based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @donovanvincent