Businesses along the King St. transit corridor are hoping for drier and warmer weather so they can take full advantage of the opportunity to literally spread out onto the street.
As part of the city’s efforts to speed up streetcar services and improve the public space at the same time, restaurants and cafés are being encouraged to create patios in the curbside lane, previously used mainly for parking.
The King St. transit project has been hailed as a success, with city data showing a significant increase in streetcar ridership as well as improved cycling and pedestrian experiences. Data also shows some growth in customer spending along the corridor, but some business owners complain that the project has resulted in a decrease in clientele and has impacted their bottom line.
Last year while the project was still a pilot, a total of 10 businesses between Jarvis and Bathurst Sts. were approved for the creation of curb lane patios. This year, after the project was made permanent, five of these businesses renewed their permits, while two new ones have joined in, said city spokesperson Eric Holmes.
He said the city continues to receive inquiries from businesses about the offer, and applications are open until May 31.
“King St. is a key destination for culture, dining, entertainment, and retail and everyone is encouraged to take part in the vibrancy of the area, especially during patio season,” he said.
As an incentive, the city agreed to waive the street occupation permit charge for businesses that create curb lane patios, usually a monthly nominal fee of $5.77 per square metre.
CIBO Wine Bar near King and Spadina Ave. is among the businesses looking to take advantage of the opportunity to expand its patio seats. Its application for the curb lane patio has been submitted and would allow the bar to add about 60 places to its already existing 80 outdoor seats, said president and CEO Nick Di Donato.
“The city wants to do this as it tries to activate the street, and we want to support the city,” he said. During the King St. pilot project, they tried the curb lane patio on a temporary basis, and now he hopes the patio seats can be a permanent fixture.
“I think under the circumstance that the street is closed, this is the appropriate thing to do. We are of the belief that if you do something right, then people will appreciate it and will come and enjoy it.”
At Fred’s Not Here restaurant near King and John Sts., about 20 chairs have already been brought out to the curb lane patio that has been ready since mid-May. Owner Fred Luk said he appreciates the city’s waiving of the street occupation fee, but added there are other prohibitive costs associated with the initiative.
For example, building a deck for the curb lane patio in front of his restaurant, a task he contracted out to a private business, cost him about $5,000. In addition, he and other café owners still have to pay the $286 permit flat fee for the first year, and annual renewal changes, depending on the patio size.
Luk said the city’s desire to improve public transit services cannot be disputed, but he feels enhancing the public space and making it more pedestrian friendly has become the responsibility of business owners alone.
“In some ways they lied and cheated us,” he said, noting the city has invested very little in improving the outdoor vibrancy on the King St. stretch that’s part of the transit project.
“We’ll put the deck out there and we’re going to enhance it with lighting and hope people will come to join us. And if summer is rainy and cold like spring has been, then we are going to be in trouble.”
In addition to some planters and accessible ramps at various points along the route, the city has also added a number of public outdoor seating spaces and various art installations in the corridor.
Just steps from Lee Restaurant where a new deck was being built earlier in the week for a curb lane patio, passerby Krista Simmons insisted the closure of lanes on King has reduced the number of people who come to the area.
“The whole thing is threatening the neighbourhood,” she said.
“If you want a patio, go to the waterfront or Woodbine Beach or up on Ossington,” she added. “This area has more density and condos and growth. I think it’s wrong to take the street away.”
Holmes, the city spokesperson, disagrees with the notion that people won’t come to King due to driving inconveniences or lack of parking.
“There are many ways to travel King St. including by streetcar, walking, cycling, and there is plenty of parking nearby for residents and visitors,” he said.
Kevin Gosselin, one of the waiters at Kit Kat restaurant, said the eatery would probably have extended its patio onto the curb lane but was prevented by being too close to the corner for turning cars.
Nevertheless, he said the whole King transit project has “killed the neighbourhood.”
“Late night, there’s nothing going on down here anymore. Nobody can park, nobody can cruise along, people are just avoiding the area,” he said.
Gilbert Ngabo is a breaking news reporter based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @dugilbo