Our city has a heart problem. There are two gaping holes smack dab in the centre of it, and the areas surrounding them are slowly crumbling, too. Like most health issues, it has gone untreated for far too long and the side effects are beginning to show. If it continues to be overlooked, irreparable damage will be done.
Our spirits sank (along with the floors) when the bright lights of Sam the Record Man turned off for good in 2007, despite cries to save the heritage site. After its demolition, the spot remained a vacant gap when the wall of its historic neighbour, the Empress Hotel building at 335 Yonge Street, crumbled onto the sidewalk below over two years later. Only a few months later, an arson-related six-alarm fire finally brought the Empress to the ground. Now the two lots sit, side by side, surrounded by chain-link fences and construction signs, mere steps away from the cultural hub and tourist attraction of the Eaton Centre and Yonge-Dundas Square. With no official plans and a lawsuit in effect, they could stay that way for quite some time.
Generally considered to be the heart of downtown Toronto, the Yonge and Dundas neighbourhood is now without two beloved landmarks—Sam the Record Man had that sign, and the Empress, well, it had Salad King. The budget-and-tastebud-friendly Thai restaurant has now been out of business for over nine months, since the collapse forced its customers out and its doors closed. The recent loss of these institutions only emphasized what’s been happening for decades—an erosion of the neighbourhood’s charm, personality, and attraction.
“We have to animate the neighbourhood,” said Ken Rutherford, landlord of 340 Yonge Street, the new home of Salad King. Rutherford has owned the building since 1967, when we built this city on rock and roll (records). From its windows, he watched the strip of Yonge outside change from the buzzing music record capital of Canada, with the duo of Sam’s and A&A Records and lineups stretching down the street, to its current makeup of decaying buildings and small tourist shops. “It’s been in transition for some time. We have the opportunity; we can do it right now.”
Renovations for Salad King’s new spot on Rutherford’s second floor, above Foot Locker, have progressed far enough to warrant the announcement of a reopening date—February 12. Rutherford considers the new resto to be a “transformational” project because it embodies three elements—mutli-level retail, vibrant energy, and care for a heritage building—that he thinks all other businesses in the area should follow.
It’s clear that there are tremendous opportunities for revitalization, as attested to by the efforts Rutherford and Salad King owner Ernest Liu have put in to maintain the integrity of the heritage building—an initiative that councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam (Ward 27, Toronto Centre-Rosedale) fully endorses.
“I encourage people to walk down Yonge Street, from Edward to Gerrard, and really take a look at the buildings behind the signage,” Wong-Tam tells us. “Beneath neon signs and vinyl banners, there are heritage properties battling for attention,” she points out, describing the bricks that are pulling away from their structures, and internal mechanics decaying and aging. It’s true, the downtown core is not typically thought of as rich in traditional and ornate architecture—the details even go unnoticed by those who work within them everyday, Wong-Tam says—but encouraging their maintenance is a major step towards curing the area’s “identity crisis,” separating the atmosphere of the street from that of the Eaton Centre and instilling a sense of culture in the area that Toronto is known for.
“Nobody flies here to see our condo towers,” she said.
Her ideas—along with Rutherford’s and many more—were up for discussion recently, at a meeting on January 22: Wong-Tam convened a variety of city staff, community members, and property owners to help develop a vision of the future of downtown Yonge Street. Among the promising ideas that were broached: pedestrianizing the area by widening sidewalks; officially closing and animating Gould Street; and striking a balance between large retailers and smaller, local, high-end businesses along the street front. No plans are final yet, but Wong-Tam hopes that these conversations will lead to a framework that can be used to guide future decisions about the area’s development.
Also present at the meeting was the Lalani family, owners of the former Empress Hotel and who have (unofficially) received much of the blame for allowing the building to succumb to “demolition by neglect.” But Wong-Tam understands the stresses of owning a property that is one hundred to 120 years old—more internal repairs, more external maintenance, and fewer service providers with the skill sets to do these things properly.
“We’re trying to help. It’s not fair for owners to cover all heritage costs when they are cultural assets to the city,” she said.
Rutherford and Liu have put in countless hours and millions of dollars into the renovations of 340 Yonge Street so far, running into setback after setback—from Toronto Hydro delays to bylaw frustrations to disagreeing neighbours. But Rutherford has kept it in perspective.
“No building should burn down. The wall shouldn’t have fallen down. Precautions should have been taken.”
As of now, the Lalanis have not put forward any applications for a use of their now-empty lot, though they have announced intentions of a “landmark” building…of what sort, no one’s sure. Same goes for the Sam the Record Man hole, though Ryerson University is expected to reveal the plans to Wong-Tam very soon. In fact, Wong-Tam told Torontoist that we may expect a dose of Sam’s “sooner rather than later,” with the installation of a smaller version of the iconic sign—original to the store—somewhere along Yonge Street between Edward and Gerrard within the year. (We can’t wait to see that record again, Sam).
What is for sure is that work is continuing over at the new Salad King joint, and Liu is still planning to open the doors (and fire up the elevator) on February 12, with a grand opening event to come sometime early March. Let’s hope that a little twenty-chili heat will get this heart pumping again.
Photos by Joel Charlebois/Torontoist.