Church conversions pave the path for renewal

Church conversions pave the path for renewal

DAVID MCPHERSON
SPECIAL TO THE GLOBE AND MAIL 
PUBLISHED SEPTEMBER 24, 2019 

Hamilton’s James Street Baptist Church is being converted into a new high-rise condo project.HUE DEVELOPMENTS AND LCH DEVELOPMENTS/HANDOUT

Historically, communities have been built around churches. Now, the latest real estate trend is flipping this formula and turning these historical buildings into neighbourhood hubs.

Over the past few decades, church conversions have taken place in most major cities across North America. Whether it’s the shrinking congregation size or rising maintenance costs, the question is how to preserve these buildings for future generations, while keeping them relevant and useful for current use.

Over the years, a number of solutions have evolved. Some churches rent out space to help offset capital costs. Some building owners sell the property to developers or simply shutter the doors. Still others are repurposed and reimagined as new spaces to congregate either as concert halls, special-event venues or as condo-conversion residential units. It’s this last solution that appears to have a devoted following both among amateur renovators as well as professional developers. Consider the HGTV show House Hunters: Outside the Box, where buyers bid to buy unique properties such as decommissioned churches and out-of-use train stations that are now transformed into stunning residential homes.

This is precisely what is happening to Hamilton’s James Street Baptist Church. Designed by Joseph Connolly, and opened in 1882, the Ontario heritage building is the city’s oldest surviving Baptist church. Located in the Durand neighbourhood, between Gore Park and King William Street, the former church is just steps away from Hamilton GO Centre station and a stop along the planned LRT.

Yet, the structure sat in decline for years until a consortium that included the City of Hamilton as well as Vietnamese-based Hue Developments, architects mcCallumSather and Toronto-based project manager LCH gave the structure a second lease on life as the Connolly Condos.

Set to go on sale this fall, the project incorporates what remains of the church into the modern elegant design; the high-rise features a 30-storey mixed-use tower with 315 residential units, ground-floor commercial space and 7,000 square feet of amenity areas spread across two floors.

DEVELOPER HICCUPS ALMOST SCUPPERED THIS CHURCH CONVERSION

For a while, it appeared there was no salvation for this building. Flashback to 2013, when developer Louie Santaguida bought the property via his company Stanton Renaissance. His plans were to build a condominium tower called the Connolly, but to do this, he needed to demolish two-thirds of the existing church building.

Heritage advocates protested, but in the end, Stanton was granted a permit to demolish all but the front third of the church. That happened five years ago. Since the demolition, the remaining church façade has stood behind a chain-link fence until the project finally went into receivership in 2017.

Another year went by and in walked Hue Developments, which bought the land in 2018.

“Certainly there were some in the core who didn’t feel confident the parcel was an attraction following the Stanton bankruptcy,” Ward 2 Hamilton Councillor Jason Farr says. “I will not forget one of the first meetings I had as a newly elected councillor in 2011. It was with the then-operators of the James Street Baptist. They had a declining congregation and growing capital and operating expenses. They wanted me to know they could no longer sink megabucks into a building that was literally crumbling each day. We met in the front corner office and before I sat down, they said, ‘Listen to the walls every time a bus goes by.’ I did.”

Extensive work was required to rebuild and fortify the church foundation, which is now the facade of the new Connolly high-rise project.HUE DEVELOPMENTS AND LCH DEVELOPMENTS/HANDOUT

Mr. Farr recalls how jarring the sound was when the bus rolled by. “You could hear the century-old mortar and stone falling between the walls.”

The project became a prime candidate for ‘façadism’ support, Mr. Farr says, which means it was eligible for zoning assistance and heritage grants and loans offered by the City of Hamilton.

“A third of this property is now protected by heritage designation and is set to be fully restored with assistance from some of the most robust municipal heritage grant and loan programs of any city in Canada,” he adds.

NEW DEVELOPER HAS A STRONG DESIRE TO BUILD AND PRESERVE

While Hue Developments is new to Canada, they are one of Southeast Asia’s top developers, with more than 20 years of real estate and construction experience. As the international arm of Hoa Binh, which trades on the Ho Chi Minh Stock Exchange, the firm currently has 92 projects under construction and operates in 40 provinces and four countries.

“Our biggest focus since taking over this project has been to do a better job at showcasing the church, and reintegrating it into the building and community,” says Luke Wywrot, managing partner at LCH, the Toronto-based real estate development firm hired to project manage this build. “We recognize Connolly’s impact will be greater than just the building; we are filling a void in Hamilton.”

McCallumSather, a mid-sized architecture firm headquartered in Hamilton is involved to help make sure the collective cultural heritage of this building is preserved. This bodes well for the project, given that mcCallumSather is known for award-winning innovative design and heritage projects, such as McMaster Institute for Music & the Mind and the Joyce Centre for Partnership & Innovation on the Mohawk College Campus – the first net-zero building in Ontario and the largest net-zero facility in Canada. Natural Resources Canada will award buildings the net-zero designation if the total amount of energy used by the building on an annual basis is equal to the amount of renewable energy created by the facility.

DEEP EMOTIONAL TIES TO HERITAGE BUILDINGS

Drew Hauser, director at mcCallumSather, still recalls the day when two-thirds of the church was demolished four years ago. It was one of the toughest days of his career.

“That was the hardest emotional job I’ve worked on,” Hauser says. “People sent me personal messages and hate mail, basically saying, ‘How could you allow this building to come down? It is part of our cultural heritage.’ ” It was hard to hear for Mr. Hauser. Still, the veteran architect is confident. “We’ve supported a design that allows the most important parts of the building to remain and be relevant.”

By developing a design that retains an important piece of that collective memory, Mr. Hauser believes the city benefits in the long run.

“People have this collective memory of a place. Cities are not static. They are always in a state of flux. The building long outlasts us. The collective memory, those stories, continue on,” he says.

Connolly’s most iconic feature is a rose window that spans 30-feet across its façade. This is being incorporated into the condos’ state-of-the-art gym. In a way, exercise is like a religion for many, so it seems fitting that this iconic window will find its new home in a new place of worship.

This project is just one example of Hamilton’s broader transformation from its long-held label as Steeltown to a metropolis known for innovation, renaissance and constant growth.

For Mr. Farr, it’s about time.

“As a lifelong inner-city kid who endured decades of stagnation and even decline, it’s an honour to be in this seat with folks who are really into climbing on board and building on our city’s unprecedented momentum,” he says.

 

New student residence solves space and usage issues at Hamilton’s McMaster University

New student residence solves space and usage issues at Hamilton’s McMaster University

DAVID MCPHERSON
SPECIAL TO THE GLOBE AND MAIL 
PUBLISHED SEPTEMBER 3, 2019 

The southwest view of the new 11-storey student residence at Hamilton McMaster University. The new residence offers views of the surrounding natural wetlands and forest.DIAMOND SCHMITT ARCHITECTS/HANDOUT

On a recent morning in late August, suitcases spilled from minivans as a steady stream of first-year McMaster University students arrived on campus. Some were apprehensive of what lay ahead, while others couldn’t wait for their parents to leave. No matter their state of mind on that exciting first day, their transition from high school to post-secondary life is destined to be memorable and enjoyable in their brand-new home away from home for the coming year.

These lucky learners were the inaugural occupants of the recently opened Peter George Centre for Living and Learning (PGCLL) – the first new residence to be built on the campus in 15 years.

Peter George was an esteemed and personable economist and professor who, prior to his retirement and death in 2017, served as McMaster’s president and vice-chancellor for 15 years. The residence that honours him is located on the north end of the campus, on a site chosen to encompass as much green space as possible – and the couple of Quonset huts, utility buildings and tennis courts that came down to make room for it are not much missed.

With 350 rooms, 518 beds and seven floors of housing, PGCLL helps McMaster narrow the current shortage of campus residence space. With its completion, the University does not have enough residence beds to meet student demand. Several other residence projects are in the planning stages to further narrow the gap. 

But this $110-million, 11-storey building is more than just a space for students to rest their heads. PGCLL is also a community hub – a 335,000-square-foot hybrid high-rise that brings together a diverse collection of university functions under one roof.

In addition to three auditorium-size classrooms ranging in capacity from 410 to 640 and a Student Wellness Centre, it’s also the new home of the McMaster Childcare Centre – a modern, state-of-the-art daycare facility with large windows and an outdoor play area carpeted with artificial grass. Situated on a secure second floor that is separated from the rest of the academic and residential sections of the building, parents and kids ride up in a dedicated elevator to gain access to the Centre.

“Peter [George] was a champion for all aspects of student life,” says Sean Van Koughnett, associate vice-president of students and learning and dean of students. “This building is a fitting tribute and symbol to his time at McMaster.” Further contributing to that lasting legacy are inspiring quotes attributed to the educator and student advocate that are displayed in every elevator lobby on the seven residence floors.

UNIVERSITIES EMBRACE INNOVATION TO ADDRESS SOARING ENROLMENTS

As available space on campuses decreases – and student enrolments rise – colleges and universities across Canada are looking for creative and innovative ways to meet these growing demands for capacity and enhance the student experience. The process of planning for how to accommodate McMaster’s future space needs, for about 31,000 students, began six years ago.

“We knew we had a growing student population, and we also understood that the types of teaching [and] learning spaces we needed to provide were evolving,” Mr. Van Koughnett says. “We understood the value that living in residence brings to students, while there was an increasing need for services such as health and wellness, which previously was crammed into the basement of the student centre.”

After many brainstorming sessions, the idea of a building that could accommodate all of these needs in one place began to take shape. From initial discussions to completion was a five-year process wherein “the whole would become greater than the sum of its parts,” Mr. Van Koughnett says.

DESIGN DECISIONS INSPIRED BY NEW TEACHING/LEARNING STYLES

The atrium at the Peter George Centre for Living and Learning, the newly built 11-storey student residence at Hamilton’s McMaster University, enables students to gather and collaborate in an open, inviting environment.DIAMOND SCHMITT ARCHITECTS/HANDOUT

Toronto-based Diamond Schmitt Architects – who are responsible for the Ontario Science Centre, the Weston Family Innovation Centre and the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts – took up the challenge of designing the facility.

Using all of their available resources and creativity, Diamond Schmitt designed a space where the various uses of the new learning centre and campus residence would work together seamlessly. The result was a new building, now the largest on the Hamilton campus, unlike any the university has ever seen.

Within the learning resource there are academic spaces where three large rooms are stacked on top of the other. The lower two house the auditoria, which with their raked floors and seating capacities of 650 and 500 give the university much-needed space to hold large exams and host supersized first-year classes. The upper room is an active learning area, which can seat 400 at 45 large round tables and is lined with large TV monitors that allow for interactive discussions. All of the walls are finished with whiteboard material to facilitate writing and sketches.

Gone are the days where students sat rigidly at their desks and listened to a professor lecture for an hour while they frantically took notes. Many university instructors now take a more free-flow approach to teaching, walking around and engaging in active discussions, breaking the classes up into working pods and using the latest technology to share information between the students’ laptops and giant monitors on the walls. Even the furniture was designed so that students can turn around and face their peers for group discussions to further facilitate this new learning style.

“Our biggest challenge was to make sure each of the spaces were defined and secure,” explains project architect Antra Roze. “All traffic into the building comes and goes through the main space where a helical (curved) staircase is the central visual, in the middle of the atria, that guides people up, giving them views and cues as to where to go next and encourages people to stop and look out over the spaces.”

MULTITASKING FACILITIES MAKE THE SMARTEST POSSIBLE USE OF SPACE

Another McMaster department that stands to benefit from the PGCLL – both practically and economically – is the conference and events team. With three lecture halls of different sizes, study and breakout spaces, plus food services and 350 rooms, the new facility is ideal for hosting conferences and special events during the summer months when most of the students have left.

“It’s a smart use of resources to have activity in our buildings 12 months of the year, rather than sitting dormant for four months in the summer,” Mr. Van Koughnett says.

Ryerson University’s Daphne Coxwell Health Science Complex, which opened this fall, also features student accommodations and academic classrooms in the same building. Expect this trend of multi-functional buildings to continue as other campuses follow McMaster’s lead.

PGCLL BENEFITS SURROUNDING CITY OF HAMILTON AS WELL AS STUDENTS

From the lounges on each of the residence’s seven floors, expansive windows offer unobstructed views of Cootes Paradise, a nearby natural sanctuary and wetland surrounded by forest, and McMaster’s athletic fields. At 20,000 square feet (nearly double the space it previously occupied in the basement of the student centre), the new Student Wellness Centre is filled with natural light and reflects well-being. It is staffed by a variety of specialized health professionals to meet the physical, mental and emotional needs of McMaster students.

The Peter George Centre for Living and Learning not only benefits current and future McMaster students, it also aligns with the university’s mission statement by contributing to the greater good of the City of Hamilton.

“McMaster is a huge player within the City of Hamilton,” Mr. Van Koughnett says. “Our mandate is to be economically and socially integrated into the city by generating and attracting business to the region – not only is that good for the city, but it’s good for the university.”

 

 

A new market experience evolves from old shipping containers and a new retail vision

A new market experience evolves from old shipping containers and a new retail vision

DAVID MCPHERSON

SPECIAL TO THE GLOBE AND MAIL 
PUBLISHED AUGUST 13, 2019 

Stackt Market, the long-anticipated modular market in downtown Toronto, opened its doors to the public in April, unveiling dozens of new retail, food, beverage, service, experience and community spaces within roughly 120 shipping containers.
MATT RUBINOFF/HANDOUT

On any given weekend, close to Bathurst and Front Streets in downtown Toronto, you’ll find a block-long line of people taking shape. Even early in the morning, the line consists of urbanites, hipsters and tourists – all waiting patiently for donuts. Not just any deep-fried dessert with a hole in the middle, mind you. We are talking about gourmet creations – in flavours such as Lemon Lavender and Brown Butter Walnut – from Hamilton’s Donut Monster.

So, why would a successful Hamilton donut shop choose to open near Toronto’s King West area? The promise of brisk business, for one, but also because Donut Monster is one of approximately 40 hand-picked vendors invited to set up shop as part of Canada’s latest and largest shipping-container modular marketplace.

It’s called Stackt Market (or simply ‘Stackt’) and it is, quite easily, one of the coolest new public spaces in one of the fastest growing neighbourhoods in this already massive city.

CONTAINER SPACE BRINGS BUSINESS BUZZ 

With 120 shipping containers occupying 100,000 square feet of land owned by the City of Toronto, Stackt Market officially opened on April 10. The lease will be in effect until September, 2020, although there is hope for an extension as residents and city hall become increasingly aware of the benefits of this one-of-a-kind curated space.

Not too long ago, the 2.5-acre patch of vacant land that Stackt now occupies sat derelict, waiting for someone with the right vision to give it new life. When the parcel eventually became available, founder Matt Rubinoff went to work, bringing life to his vision of a container space where the community could gather, connect and share experiences.

Designed entirely out of shipping containers, Stackt offers a new outdoor all-season retail experience for both retailers and their clients.PATRICK LEUNG/HANDOUT

Five years later, Stackt is now a thriving King West hot spot, complete with free WiFi, dog-friendly greenspace and a revolving door of trendy retailers. Given its resounding success, Mr. Rubinoff would love to take the container market concept to other neighbourhoods.

“If the lease is not renewed, you could pick up everything and move it to another site,” he says. “Although, we are hoping the community embraces the project and we get the opportunity to stay longer.”

SHIPPING CONTAINERS OPEN UP NEW SPOTS AROUND THE WORLD

For years, Mr. Rubinoff lived close by, at Tecumseh and Richmond Streets, in Toronto’s still-developing west end. He knew the area well, and it was during a trip overseas that he became passionate about bringing this new retail model back to one of Canada’s most eclectic cities.

In the United Kingdom alone, there are more than a dozen of these food, retail or office spaces – all housed in repurposed shipping containers. One well-known example is Pop Brixton, South London’s version of the pop-up retail community, which, like Stackt, has become a thriving community on disused land.

“The best examples of reusing shipping containers to create an ever-evolving marketplace are in the U.K.,” he says. “Not all are retail. Some are co-working creative spaces. But as soon as I saw them, I thought this would be a great option for Toronto.”

MAKING THE TEMPORARY TORONTO VERSION WORK

During a recent tour of the Stackt marketplace, Mr. Rubinoff greeted every vendor with a smile and by name. His easy familiarity is not surprising when you consider that he selected each tenant to ensure Stackt would be occupied by the right mix of businesses and that they would all complement each other.

There’s a diverse mix of rotating vendors – everything from boutique design firms and vintage clothing stores to purveyors of semi-permanent tattoos (inkbox) and even a vegan butcher (YamChops). With something new to be discovered around each corner, the market has evolved to become somewhat of a destination experience.

Belgian Moon has set up a state-of-the-art mobile brewery at Stackt.PATRICK LEUNG/HANDOUT

In addition to retail outlets, the site boasts 12,000 square feet of event space, as well as a state-of-the-art mobile brewery and taproom set up by Belgian Moon Brewery. There is even a greenhouse being used as a community garden by tenants in the nearby condos who don’t have balconies of their own.

The pièce de résistance of the entire Bathurst Street project just might be the Forme 1 Pavilion that opened in July. Created by the Toronto-based multidisciplinary art-and-design studio Stacklab (the similar name is a coincidence), Forme 1 Pavilion will host a rotating lineup of local and international chefs, offering visitors a food-and-drink experience unlike any other.

“We wanted to use materials that were readily available, because the site is temporary and the timelines were quick,” Stacklab founder Jeffrey Forrest says. “There was an expectation to make the project feasible in the choice of our materials. [For instance] Tyvek (high-density polyethylene house wrap) is one of the biggest materials we used; it diffuses light beautifully, and after it is used in this incarnation, it can be redeployed back into the construction world.”

The pavilion is held together with 90,000 pounds of reclaimed concrete and heavy-duty ratchet straps, with scaffolding and shrink wrap among the other recycled materials used. Upon first glance, one might think the site is still under construction, but that, Mr. Forrest says, is the point – the artistic vision all along was to make the Pavilion spatial.

He believes that collaborating with Mr. Rubinoff’s team on Stackt was the perfect fit for the experiment, and he hopes the project will provoke a dialogue about the current Toronto construction landscape. As most commercial developers know, the approval process can take years, and Mr. Forrest would love to see more developers and project planners make better use of the time between planning and shovels hitting the ground. Rather than chain-link fence surrounding an empty lot, he’d like to see these empty, unused sites developed more often into thriving temporary communities.

“In Toronto, you see these ugly unused sites everywhere, and I see it as a missed opportunity,” he says. “They are anti-social, inward-facing and often unattractive spaces. What Stackt has proven is that disused space can be reprogrammed temporarily, feasibly and in an engaging way.”

RETAILERS AND URBAN PLANNERS ALIKE LOVE THE STACKT CONCEPT

Retail space with low rent is the draw for small-business owners. For some, it’s an ideal way to build their brand before branching out and setting up shop elsewhere. For other, more established brands, such as Indigo and BMO, the pop-up business model fosters a closer, community feel. Whatever the reason, virtually every Stackt tenant agrees that the customer experience offered by this retail community is remarkable, and something that traditional stores cannot replicate.

Janna Levitt, Stackt’s designer and principal at LGA Architectural Partners (formerly Levitt Goodman Architects), believes shipping-container construction is a trend that shows no sign of slowing down. No stranger to such projects, Ms. Levitt says these rebuilds create opportunities. Prior to Stackt, Ms. Levitt and her firm worked on Market 707 for the Scadding Court Community Centre at Dundas and Bathurst Streets, as well as the Welcome Hut at Evergreen Brick Works. For the latter project, a salvaged shipping container was retrofitted through the use of sustainable construction techniques and recycled materials.

“All these spaces were previously considered unattractive, dangerous or not useful,” Ms. Levitt says. “Now we can redevelop through existing materials and infrastructure by using shipping-container builds and this makes for a better quality of urban life.”

 

 

 

Live music’s last hurrah?

Live music’s last hurrah?

Toronto’s booming real estate market has led to escalating property assessments and rents in commercial buildings. Clubs that once staged local favourites and stars alike are closing
DAVID MCPHERSON

SPECIAL TO THE GLOBE AND MAIL 

PUBLISHED DECEMBER 18, 2017 

The Cameron House in downtown Toronto continues to showcase live music. But it’s among a dying breed. At least half a dozen clubs have closed in the core this year alone, continuing a troubling streak for musicians who just want to play.
The Cameron House in downtown Toronto continues to showcase live music. But it’s among a dying breed. At least half a dozen clubs have closed in the core this year alone, continuing a troubling streak for musicians who just want to play. MICHELLE SIU/THE GLOBE AND MAIL 

It’s a Thursday night here on Queen Street West. Inside The Cameron House, Corin Raymond and The Sundowners are on stage. It’s standing room only for 100 music lovers who cram the narrow bar’s front room to hear Mr. Raymond’s weekly pay-what-you-can gig – one of the longest running artist residencies in Toronto, at 13 years and counting. Above the bar, a sign says: “This is Paradise.”

The Cameron House may indeed be a Utopia for musicians and fans alike but, along with the nearby Legendary Horseshoe Tavern, which turned 70 this year, it’s one of the few left in the downtown Toronto neighbourhood that once had handfuls of places where live music could be heard on a nightly basis.

Leave The Cameron and head north on Spadina Avenue. Eventually, after a few blocks, on the west side, you’ll stumble upon The Silver Dollar Room, which opened in 1958. The venue, where Bob Dylan, Levon Helm (The Band), Barenaked Ladies and Blue Rodeo once played, closed this past May; a high-rise student-housing complex is set to take its place.

Behind the bar at The Cameron House is a sign that says it all for musicians and local music fans: This is paradise.
Behind the bar at The Cameron House is a sign that says it all for musicians and local music fans: This is paradise. MICHELLE SIU/THE GLOBE AND MAIL 

Other notable recent venue casualties in Toronto include The Hideout, Soybomb, The Hoxton, The Central, Holy Oak, Harlem, and Seven44. They followed the earlier exit of the The Colonial Tavern, Albert’s Hall, The Gasworks, The Edge, The Diamond, and The Bamboo. As Toronto arts weekly Now Magazine noted last March, seven music clubs alone closed in the first three months of 2017.

They’re falling in succession amid a perfect storm of economic factors that threatens them and other small businesses: As core real estate soars in value, property assessments and taxes rise in concert. Landlords then either find wealthier tenants who can afford escalating rents or sell to developers eager for their coveted properties.

“Progress is inevitable,” says Erin Benjamin, executive director at Music Canada Live, the voice of Canada’s live music industry. “Real estate will continue to rise.”

The Cameron House’s exterior is as colourful as its fresco-ceilinged interior. Resident artist Napoleon Brousseau created “10 ants” on the facade as a play on words for the tenants above the bar.
The Cameron House’s exterior is as colourful as its fresco-ceilinged interior. Resident artist Napoleon Brousseau created “10 ants” on the facade as a play on words for the tenants above the bar. MICHELLE SIU/THE GLOBE AND MAIL 

The net effect for musicians, particularly the younger ones learning their craft and not yet ready for the city’s bigger halls and arenas, is troubling – fewer small venues means fewer opportunities to play. Fans lose out, too.

Toronto isn’t alone, either. Other major cities with robust real estate markets are experiencing the same trend.

Despite what many call a crisis, it’s not all doom and gloom, though. Amid these countless closings, some Toronto venues have reopened (Hugh’s Room) or are set to reopen (El Mocambo) with new looks and new business models. Additionally, Massey Hall, part of the non-profit charitable corporation that also operates Roy Thomson Hall, is entering the second phase of a massive revitalization project that will include two new performance spaces.

Grossman’s Tavern on Spadina Avenue in Chinatown has been open since 1943, making it one of Toronto’s longest-running music venues.
Grossman’s Tavern on Spadina Avenue in Chinatown has been open since 1943, making it one of Toronto’s longest-running music venues. MICHELLE SIU/THE GLOBE AND MAIL 

The other good news: City councils, not just in Toronto, but other metropolitan areas such as Hamilton and London, Ont., are taking notice, adding “music offices” inside their local governments as liaisons with the music industry. “The news of venues closing is always a concern,” says Toronto councillor Josh Colle, who is a member of the Toronto Music Advisory Council (TMAC). “It alerts us to how important these venues are.”

Mr. Colle says TMAC is working on dozens of reviews related to live music venues: everything from bylaw changes to conversations between developers, planners and landlords. He acknowledges that taxes and rising real estate affects more than just music clubs. “We are losing bookstores, green grocers, shoe stores, etc.,” he adds. “The way MPAC [the provincial Municipal Property Assessment Corp.] assesses properties based on their highest and best use is a threat to every local business.”

Fellow councillor Mike Layton, who previously served on TMAC, adds: “There’s no doubt rent is playing a significant role in many of these closings. Unfortunately, there is not much we can do in limiting commercial establishments and the taxes they pay; that’s not within our powers but it is adding significant pressure. In municipal planning, we don’t zone for people, or for the tenants, we zone for the use.”

The boarded up Silver Dollar Room, right, joins the number of live music venues that have been shutting down in Toronto.
The boarded up Silver Dollar Room, right, also on Spadina Avenue, joins the number of live music venues that have been shutting down in Toronto. MICHELLE SIU/THE GLOBE AND MAIL 

The cost of real estate makes it prohibitive for certain kinds of businesses such as live music venues to thrive in certain neighbourhoods. Besides trendy Queen Street West, take Yonge Street. This is an issue close to Mark Garner’s heart. Following the recent closure of Hard Rock Cafe on Yonge after its lease expired and the owner was asking for $2-million a year in rent, plus taxes and other expenses, the chief executive officer of Downtown Yonge Business Improvement Area is now working to help protect more of these legacy venues.

“We do a great job in Toronto of protecting the facades of our buildings, but we don’t protect the interiors,” Mr. Garner explains. “Taxation increases are really what is decimating these businesses – especially in our patch of the city. What happens on Yonge will eventually happen on Ossington [Avenue] and other neighbourhoods.”

Hard Rock is being replaced by a Shoppers Drug Mart.

Mark Garner, executive director of the Downtown Yonge BIA, says his organization is trying to do more to protect live music venues. Hard Rock Cafe, on the left, is among recent casualties.
Mark Garner, executive director of the Downtown Yonge BIA, says his organization is trying to do more to protect live music venues. Hard Rock Cafe, on the left, is among recent casualties. GALIT RODAN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL 

“We did an analysis of buildings on Yonge, from Queen Street to Bloor, and found buildings appraised in 2012 for $2.6-million are now valued at $12.2-million,” Mr. Garner continues. “How do you phase in that kind of tax increase?”

More than 100 people recently attended a live music town hall at Lula Lounge on Dundas Street West in Toronto. Present were Mike Tanner of Toronto’s music office and Jeff Cohen, the majority owner The Horseshoe and Lee’s Palace. Other venue owners, music industry stakeholders, journalists, artists and patrons of live music also attended. Issues discussed and debated ranged from loading zones outside venues and noise bylaws to what everyone agreed was the elephant in the room – rising real estate prices in the metropolitan areas across Canada and the ensuing rise in commercial property taxes.

Most club owners lease space from a landlord. When that lease expires, there is often no barrier to how much that rent can increase. While rent control exists for many residential properties, that’s not the case when it comes to commercial buildings.

The Cadillac Lounge on Queen Street West is to be sold even though the club’s propriator also owns the building. ‘I’m still struggling to make the business happen and get people in the door,’ owner Sam Grosso says.
The Cadillac Lounge on Queen Street West is to be sold even though the club’s proprietor also owns the building. ‘I’m sitting on all this property that is worth a lot of money,’ owner Sam Grosso says. MOE DOIRON/THE GLOBE AND MAIL 

Sam Grosso, owner of Cadillac Lounge on Queen Street West, is one of the lucky operators who also owns the building. Still, it’s a struggle. And, that’s one of the main reasons the small-business owner recently decided to put the building up for sale.

“I pay my mortgage every month, not rent to a greedy landlord who keeps jacking up my rent until my lease expires,” Mr. Grosso explains. “It’s a double-edged sword. I bought the property for a good price years ago, but I’m still struggling to make the business happen and get people in the door.

“Meanwhile, I’m sitting on all this property that is worth a lot of money. You are beating yourself against the wall, and sometimes I ask myself: What am I doing?”

At the end of the day, Ms. Benjamin at Music Canada Live says all discussions about live music venues and real estate need to be long-term; there is no short-term solution.

“It’s important for TMAC and for other cities to pay attention and prioritize live music spaces in that big picture,” she says. “Once they are gone, it’s hard to bring them back.”

Refreshed Walper Hotel a symbol of downtown Kitchener’s resurgence

HOTELS

Refreshed Walper Hotel a symbol of downtown Kitchener’s resurgence

A $10-million investment has not only restored the historic gem but it has also given the rebounding city a missing amenity – upscale, boutique lodging

DAVID MCPHERSON
SPECIAL TO THE GLOBE AND MAIL 
PUBLISHED APRIL 23, 2019 

The rejuvenated Walper Hotel has filled a void in downtown Kitchener, offering upscale accommodation. MICHAEL MURAZ

Jazz legends Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong once stayed there. So did Eleanor Roosevelt and the Queen Mother. But over recent decades, The Walper Hotel’s appeal – and appearance – declined.

Today, though, thanks to a $10-million transformation and reinvention led by Perimeter Development Corp., the boutique hotel in Kitchener is back in ascendancy and has become the hot spot to rest your head in Waterloo Region – for everyone from locals on staycations to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who had a recent stay.

“When it came about to be involved in acquiring the hotel, we jumped at it,” says Craig Beattie, founding partner at Perimeter Development. “We saw it as an opportunity to bring that hotel back to what it once was. We’ve been working on a lot of different projects in downtown Kitchener for a number of years, and through all the relationships we’ve built with the tech community and local CEOs, we kept hearing time and time again that the missing piece was amenities downtown, in particular quality accommodation.

“Companies would have visitors come in to the region from out-of-market and they would have to limo them back and forth from Toronto because there was not the quality of hotel offerings locally.”

Built in 1893, designated as a historic landmark under the Ontario Heritage Act in 1983, and reimagined in 2017, The Walper Hotel sits at the corner of King and Queen streets – the heart of Kitchener’s downtown. This stretch of street had fallen on hard times in recent decades, and along with it The Walper had lost its regal stature.

Perimeter Development joined with Bogdan Newman Caranci Inc. (base building and restoration architect), Dubbeldam Architecture + Design and Jill Greaves Design (suites and guest floor design), and Dialogue 38 (lobby and second-floor public spaces design) to give the property a much needed facelift.

The time to invest was right. First, there’s the technology boom in this area often referred to as Silicon Valley North. Not only does the area have branch plants of some of the world’s largest tech companies (Google, Yahoo and Shopify, for example), but Waterloo Region also has the second highest startup density.

Add to that the new light-rail transit route (on which the hotel sits), set to be operational sometime this summer, and the hotel is a key part of the Kitchener rebirth and rapid growth story.

The Walper’s pledge of personal service is combined with 92 unique rooms to exude a vibe that rivals hip boutique accommodations in San Francisco or New York. It’s the little touches, such as in-room, pour-over coffee service, staff that know your name, and modern spaces. Canadian Juno award-winning musician Stephen Fearing recently stayed one night, following his sold-out solo gig around the corner at The Registry Theatre. The artist’s only regret? He couldn’t stay another night.

“It was very enjoyable,” Mr. Fearing says. “It’s a very sleek and elegant space, well-appointed and modern.”

The Walper Hotel, with rooms created by Dubbeldam Architecture + Design and Jill Greaves Design, has capitalized on the Kitchener and area’s tech boom, as industry visitors and locals alike seek out increasingly sophisticated lodging. GILLIAN JACKSON/HANDOUT

Growing demand from local businesses, combined with the overall growth in commercial and residential construction in the surrounding area, were the biggest investment drivers for this modern redevelopment project. As more technology companies call Kitchener home, their employees want amenities nearby, as Mr. Beattie notes. Visiting executives and potential recruits are also looking for a cool place to stay.

Michael Litt, chief executive officer of online video hosting firm Vidyard, loves the new and improved Walper. The hotel is visible from the software startup’s rooftop patio nearby. Not only do his leadership team, board members and investors stay there when they visit, but the firm also holds executive strategy sessions in the historic hotel’s Oak Room.

“When we are recruiting executive leadership, they stay there,” Mr. Litt says. “We put a welcome basket in the room with some snacks, and Vidyard swag. It’s a warm and welcoming experience you wouldn’t get out of a bigger chain, which we were using prior to the renovation.”

Gaze down King Street toward the heart of Kitchener’s core from Google’s office (located in a restored building that was once a rubber factory) and the signs of this growth in what is known as Kitchener-Waterloo’s Innovation District are visible on every corner. On one side of the street, a sign proclaims a new Liquor Control Board of Ontario outlet is “coming soon;” on the opposite side, a crane is busy hauling material for 345 King West – Perimeter Development’s new 116,000 square-foot, six-storey office building, expected to be ready in the fourth quarter of 2019.

In the first quarter of 2019 alone, the City of Kitchener issued close to $1-billion in new building permits. That comprises about 15 developments, which will have 2,500 residential units, either condos or apartments. Add to that about 700,000 square feet of office space with roughly 125,000 square feet of retail at grade in the various developments.

“We are really excited about what’s happening,” says Brian Bennett, the city’s manager of business development and economic development. “The volume of growth we are experiencing downtown is unprecedented. A lot of that is predicated by the LRT as we’ve been encouraging intensification along the LRT route and in the central transit corridor.

“The evolution will continue over the next number of years,” he adds. “We just have to wait and see what the impact of the LRT will be.”

The hotel sector in the region is also poised for future growth, if supply can meet the apparent demand. “The Kitchener-Waterloo region continues to be highly sought after by hotel investors, particularly given a lack of product available for sale in the GTA [Greater Toronto Area] and the overall strength and growth potential of the region. However, only a small amount of properties have come up for sale in recent years,” says Fraser Macdonald, senior analyst of hotels with Colliers International.

According to Mr. Beattie, the biggest potential game changer, which he believes is only a matter of time, would be an incoming GO rail service from the GTA.

“What a lot of people don’t realize is that there is as much – or more – incoming traffic into our region for employment as there is going out to Toronto,” he concludes. “To have an incoming GO service is a huge game changer. There is lots happening behind the scenes on this front and it will be phenomenal when it happens.”

The Walper Hotel was built in 1893 but was refreshed a couple of years ago under the new ownership of Perimeter Development, in conjunction with lobby designer Dialogue 38 and others. LANGEN STUDIOS INC.

SOUND ADVICE: STEVE WAXMAN’S MUSIC CAREER GUIDANCE

photo: Heather Pollock

After Steve Waxman graduated from NYU in 1982, with a screenwriting and acting degree, he stumbled into the music business. It was the tail end of the recession. Waxman took a Madison Avenue gig as an errand boy for Aucoin Management (KISS, Billy Idol). Two hours into his first day on the job, he knew he belonged in this business.

Nearly four decades later (the last 27 in publicity, promotion and marketing at Warner Music Canada) Waxman uses his talents and experiences today to help artists discover their story with his recently launched business: I.M. Steve Waxman. Just like landing that first job with Aucoin, finding this new calling at 60 was a “happy accident.” The epiphany came after many coffee conversations. He stresses his service is not a consultancy; rather, he offers entertainment career guidance.

“You need to define the narrative first”

Waxman is a storyteller with a curious mind, and a conversation with him is a lesson in listening. He rambles from one anecdote to another. Each sentence starts with, “Did I ever tell you about the time…?” From stories of dressing up in KISS’ outfits in Aucoin’s warehouse along the Hudson River to launching Scott Helman’s career, what emerges is this: Waxman knows his narrative. The value of an authentic story, well told, pairs with the most important lesson Bill Aucoin taught him: we’re all facilitators.

“If the artist has a vision, it’s our job to make sure they succeed at their vision, but so many artists don’t even know who they are,” Waxman explains. “They want to put themselves in the hands of the ‘experts’ and let the ‘experts’ guide them. Bill taught me to do it a different way. You need to sit together and figure out how we can get out of you what your vision is, but you need to define the narrative first. Sometimes you just need an unbiased third party to ask all the right questions until you figure it out, but it has to come from you.”

Once an artist has a clear vision and a compelling story, Waxman works with them to determine what steps to take next, and what actions make the most sense at that particular stage in their career, by asking the right questions. Do they need a manager? What about a publicist? Just because you made a record or uploaded some songs to Spotify, Waxman says, this alone is not a story. You need something that defines you or your band, and makes you stand out.

“My goal is to help as many artists as I can get into a position where they can successfully take the next step, whatever that is,” he says. “From getting out onstage to finding a manager or agent. Your best friends are always going to be wowed by what you do. You need an unbiased truthsayer if you’re going to take your career seriously.”

Connect with Steve to learn more about how he can help you navigate your career and define your narrative: https://www.imstevewaxman.com/

Steve’s Top Five Tips

  1. Set goals. A lot of times people don’t set goals, or they set goals that are too big, like ‘We want to fill an arena one day.’ That’s a big goal that’s hard to get to, unless you have a whole bunch of smaller goals you can achieve first.”
  2. “Ask questions like, ‘What makes you special?’ Define your narrative and start to create your unique story. Then, figure out how to get this story out to the world.”
  3. Be original. Chasing what’s on the radio, or someone else’s sound, is pointless.”
  4. Develop your live experience. People often don’t think about that enough. What are you doing to entertain your fans? Envision what your greatest performance looks like, then scale it back to what you can afford. Keep that vision in your head, so when people see you perform, it always looks bigger.”
  5. Get social. Create content online that’s consistent, and matches your narrative and vision. Many artists fear social media; they think you have to be everything to everybody, all the time. Instead, you need to strategize and plan.”

“It’s like Disneyland for Canadian music!” — The Northern Pikes on recording at Studio Bell

Calgary, Alberta: a premiere place to record a record? Come again. The home of the world’s most famous Stampede is not the first place one thinks of when recalling locales where great albums were made. With the opening of Studio Bell, home of the National Music Centre (NMC), that perception is changing fast. Artists ranging from Luke Doucet and Randy Bachman to Boston alt-rock band Guster and The Northern Pikes have all recorded projects recently at this one-of-a-kind facility.

“Sure, it’s strange to have a world-class recording facility in Calgary of all places, but the word is getting out,” says Jason Tawkin, Manager, Building Audio, Studio Bell. “The facility, and the collection housed within the facility, is world class … it’s a pretty unique place.”
Unique is an understatement. It’s a curio shop of wonder. Something new and unexpected waits around every corner. Where else can you see artifacts like k.d. lang’s stage clothing, Corey Hart’s “Sunglasses at Night” sunglasses and Neil Peart’s hockey-themed drum kit during recording breaks? “It’s like Disneyland for Canadian music!” says Northern Pikes’ drummer Don Schmid.

This past summer, the four members of The Pikes (Schmid, Jay Semko, Bryan Potvin, and Kevin Kane) gathered in downtown Calgary with only their band ethos – “art before ego” – as their guide. The group arrived at Studio Bell with only a couple song sketches prepared. As Semko says: “it was an experiment and an adventure.” Over the course of just 16 days and two separate sessions (10 days in February 2018 and another six days in July) they collaboratively built the 10 songs from the ground up – tracking seven at the first session in the spring and the remaining three when they returned to Studio Bell mid summer. Working with engineer Graham Lessard (The Barr Brothers, Basia Bulat, Kevin Drew) and NMC Audio Technician Eric Cinnamon, the foursome recorded these songs one by one live off the floor using a Trident A-Range analog console — only one of 13 built and sonically superior to anything available these days. Due out in 2019, the record (the band’s first studio effort in 16 years) remains untitled. The result is an eclectic disc unlike any the Northern Pikes have captured in the studio before.

It is marked by some fairly heavy songs, a little bit of social/political commentary, some power-pop, and some acoustically-inclined numbers.

“Even though we were using modern technology with multi-track recording, we were going through a lot of vintage gear, which warms up the sound and creates a cool vibe,” explains Semko.

“It definitely sounds different,” Schmid adds. “It sounds gritty and real. Listen to how quiet everything is in the digital age … there is no hiss. At some point maybe music should have some other idiosyncrasies.”

World class, unique, and idiosyncratic are exactly how each band member described the Studio Bell setting — ranking the facility on par with historic haunts where they’ve made records in the past including Bearsville Studios in Woodstock, NY and London’s Abbey Road. The NMC studios include: three control rooms, three live rooms, three isolation booths and a plethora of historic gear to use.

“It’s possibly my favourite studio that I’ve ever recorded in,” says Kevin Kane, guitarist for The Grapes of Wrath, and the Pikes’ newest member, who joined the band for the Big Blue Sky 30th anniversary tour in 2017. “With the demise of the record industry, well, it’s not dead, but it is but a shadow of its former glory, there are fewer and fewer big studios.”

The National Music Centre living musical instrument collection includes more than 300 musical instruments (in working order) spanning 450 years of music technology: everything from a 1591 harpsichord to the legendary monster synth TONTO (a.k.a. The Original New Timbral Orchestra) that was a big part of Stevie Wonder’s sound, a grand piano that once belonged to David Foster, and a rare Novachord of which only six remain in the world. Artists record using one of three historic analog consoles in any combination of adjoining live rooms; each live room is designed to have its own sound and has a selection of historic musical instruments suited for the uniquely designed spaces. One of those rooms is the Rolling Stones Mobile recording truck where iconic songs were cut, such as: “Stairway to Heaven,” “Smoke on the Water,” and “No Woman No Cry (live).”

“Unique to our living musical instrument philosophy is that we are not collecting just for prosperity sake,” Tawkin explains. “We feel those objects are better appreciated when they are actually used as they were intended such as the Rolling Stones Mobile recording truck. It would be a shame if another record were never made with that truck.

“A great deal of inspiration comes from working with such historic pieces,” he adds. “That positive energy and that creative spirit of working with such important pieces of music technology translates into amazing things.”

One of the most recent donations to the NMC collection, which The Pikes took advantage of, was a 1958 Fender Pro Amp, owned and used by Neil Young. Bryan Potvin had not recorded through an amp in the last 15 years, but he and Kane both plugged into this vintage amplifier during the second session for the record. The Pike’s guitarist christened it “Old Nasty!”

“Imagine what this amplifier sounded like to break that 15-year streak!” says Tawkin.
One of Kane’s favourite memories from the NMC sessions occurred when the band had only one day left in the studio and they felt they were still short one song.

“That night Bryan [Potvin] presented an idea he had for a verse with a few lyrics,” he concludes. “The four of us sat around the hotel room and, as I listened to Bryan and Jay talk about the song conceptually and play around with some melodies and chords, I scribbled down a few lyrics based on what they were saying. The next morning, Don sent us all a text with the final lines of the song and we had ‘Don’t You Give Up’ completed by the time we walked into the NMC.”

Learn more about recording at Studio Bell, home of the National Music Centre, here.

New “Old Direction” for Dennis Ellsworth

“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” – Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr (Les Guêpes, 1849)

This above oft-quoted epigram from the 19th Century French critic and novelist is usually translated as “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” The phrase refers to how a large-scale change may appear monumental on the surface, but on closer inspection, the fundamentals remain.

Catching up with Dennis Ellsworth to chat about Things Change (his fifth solo album), we find the 41-year-old in the midst of a domestic existence. Ellsworth has just returned from Home Depot, where he was picking out kitchen cabinets and paint samples. Karr’s well-worn phrase sums up the songwriter’s current state; it’s also an apropos tagline to describe his new record.

Ellsworth quit drinking more than a year ago; he and his wife bought a house near where he grew up in the suburb of Stratford, PEI (on the other side of the Hillsboro River from Charlottetown); and he’s set to become a first-time father. Upon an initial spin, Things Change sounds like a departure for the songwriter. Gone is the alt-country sound that’s served as his wheelhouse. Replacing the roots vibe is a radio-friendly wall of sound, with a sprinkle of pop. Listen deeper, and you’ll still hear the poetic lyrics, and Ellsworth’s ability to make a song speak to us all – confirming Karr’s words. The building blocks of this songwriter’s art remain the same.

“I didn’t want to commit to the same old routine that everyone says you have to do.”
Pursuing Publishing PlacementsImagine turning on the TV and hearing your song played while watching a well-loved Canadian CBC drama. That’s one of the feathers Dennis Ellsworth can now add to his songwriting cap. His song “Hazy Sunshine,” from the 2013 record of the same name, appeared on Heartland last season.

Vince Degiorgio, President and founder of Chapter Two Productions (which includes Cymba Publishing) first met Ellsworth at a song camp a few years ago. Immediately, he was struck by the artist’s abilities, and a year later signed him to a publishing deal.

Another recent publishing credit is a song in the Canadian rom-com The New Romantic, which made its world premiere this past March at SXSW. “Vince sent me a message asking if I had any songs that sounded like ‘Skinny Love’ by Bon Iver,” says Ellsworth. “I said, ‘I don’t,’ but I’d just written a song that was close enough, so I sent him a demo. Vince called back immediately and asked, ‘How soon can you get in the studio?’”

Ellsworth cut the song, sent it to Degiorgio, who forwarded the track to Instinct Entertainment — the Toronto-based music supervision and licensing company representing The New Romantic. Then the publisher went to Japan for more than a month, so the songwriter didn’t hear anything. “I figured they weren’t interested,” says Ellsworth. “Then, one day after Vince got home, Instinct got in touch with him and said the song was going to be in the movie!”

“It’s not so much that I took my songwriting in a new direction, it’s more like I went back in time to an ‘old direction,’” says Ellsworth explains. “I’m a child of the late 1970s. When I first started collecting records, what I chose to listen to was late-‘80s and early-‘90s stuff. The early ‘90s were marked by alternative music that featured heavy guitars, and that music inspired me a lot in my formative years.

“When I started writing songs for this record, and I got a feel for where I was going, I intentionally listened to artists like Matthew Sweet, The Lemonheads, and The Jesus & Mary Chain,” he continues. “I used their music as my inspiration.”

Once the song bones took shape, it was “the icing on the cake” to hire fellow East Coaster Joel Plaskett to produce the record. The pair convened at the JUNO Award-winner’s New Scotland Yard studio in Dartmouth, NS. “With Thrush Hermit, he lived in that alternative rock and Sub Pop [Records] world back in the ‘90s,” says Ellsworth.

Adding to the throwback vibe, Plaskett recruited The Super Friendz’ rhythm section (Dave Marsh and Charles Austin) to join them in the studio. “Recording this made us all feel like we were in our 20s again,” says Ellsworth. “As I get older, nostalgia plays a bigger role in my life. I’ve chosen music as the way that I write and express myself. Six months on, I feel Things Change is the best record I’ve ever made.”

While not a concept album, several of the songs on the record (“Absent Mind,” “Caught in the Waves,” and “From the Bottom”) describe Ellsworth’s feelings of career ennui, and the personal transformation he experienced in the last 365 days – especially his decision to put the plug in the jug.

“I wasn’t an abusive drinker,” he admits. “I was a constant social drinker. I didn’t want to quit because I like the taste of beer, scotch, and red wine, but I realized I needed to pull myself together a bit more, on a personal level, to strengthen my chances of survival. The benefits far outweigh the losses.”

Two decades into his artistic career, Ellsworth’s music keeps getting stronger. With this maturity, he’s also re-prioritizing where best to invest his energy. That means more time in the studio, recording demos, writing and co-writing songs every week, and less time away from home in the grind of touring. Signing a publishing deal three years ago with Cymba Music Publishing (see sidebar) was the main driver for this switch.

“I’m less of a performer and more of a songwriter, anyway,” Ellsworth concludes. “I just changed the parameters and structure of what I believed in. I didn’t want to commit to the same old routine that everyone says you have to do. I still want to make music, write songs, and make records, but if I can switch my focus to songwriting more than performing, that’s a transition I want to make.”

SIDEBAR: Pursuing Publishing Placements

Imagine turning on the TV and hearing your song played while watching a well-loved Canadian CBC drama. That’s one of the feathers Dennis Ellsworth can now add to his songwriting cap. His song “Hazy Sunshine,” from the 2013 record of the same name, appeared on Heartland last season.

Vince Degiorgio, President and founder of Chapter Two Productions (which includes Cymba Publishing) first met Ellsworth at a song camp a few years ago. Immediately, he was struck by the artist’s abilities, and a year later signed him to a publishing deal.

Another recent publishing credit is a song in the Canadian rom-com The New Romantic, which made its world premiere this past March at SXSW. “Vince sent me a message asking if I had any songs that sounded like ‘Skinny Love’ by Bon Iver,” says Ellsworth. “I said, ‘I don’t,’ but I’d just written a song that was close enough, so I sent him a demo. Vince called back immediately and asked, ‘How soon can you get in the studio?’”

Ellsworth cut the song, sent it to Degiorgio, who forwarded the track to Instinct Entertainment — the Toronto-based music supervision and licensing company representing The New Romantic. Then the publisher went to Japan for more than a month, so the songwriter didn’t hear anything. “I figured they weren’t interested,” says Ellsworth. “Then, one day after Vince got home, Instinct got in touch with him and said the song was going to be in the movie!”

MICHELLE SIU/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Live music’s last hurrah?

Toronto’s booming real estate market has led to escalating property assessments and rents in commercial buildings. Clubs that once staged local favourites and stars alike are closing.

It’s a Thursday night here on Queen Street West. Inside The Cameron House, Corin Raymond and The Sundowners are on stage. It’s standing room only for 100 music lovers who cram the narrow bar’s front room to hear Mr. Raymond’s weekly pay-what-you-can gig – one of the longest running artist residencies in Toronto, at 13 years and counting. Above the bar, a sign says: “This is Paradise.”

The Cameron House may indeed be a Utopia for musicians and fans alike but, along with the nearby Legendary Horseshoe Tavern, which turned 70 this year, it’s one of the few left in the downtown Toronto neighbourhood that once had handfuls of places where live music could be heard on a nightly basis.

Leave The Cameron and head north on Spadina Avenue. Eventually, after a few blocks, on the west side, you’ll stumble upon The Silver Dollar Room, which opened in 1958. The venue, where Bob Dylan, Levon Helm (The Band), Barenaked Ladies and Blue Rodeo once played, closed this past May; a high-rise student-housing complex is set to take its place.

Other notable recent venue casualties in Toronto include The Hideout, Soybomb, The Hoxton, The Central, Holy Oak, Harlem, and Seven44. They followed the earlier exit of the The Colonial Tavern, Albert’s Hall, The Gasworks, The Edge, The Diamond, and The Bamboo. As Toronto arts weekly Now Magazine noted last March, seven music clubs alone closed in the first three months of 2017.

They’re falling in succession amid a perfect storm of economic factors that threatens them and other small businesses: As core real estate soars in value, property assessments and taxes rise in concert. Landlords then either find wealthier tenants who can afford escalating rents or sell to developers eager for their coveted properties.

“Progress is inevitable,” says Erin Benjamin, executive director at Music Canada Live, the voice of Canada’s live music industry. “Real estate will continue to rise.”

The net effect for musicians, particularly the younger ones learning their craft and not yet ready for the city’s bigger halls and arenas, is troubling – fewer small venues means fewer opportunities to play. Fans lose out, too.

Toronto isn’t alone, either. Other major cities with robust real estate markets are experiencing the same trend.

Despite what many call a crisis, it’s not all doom and gloom, though. Amid these countless closings, some Toronto venues have reopened (Hugh’s Room) or are set to reopen (El Mocambo) with new looks and new business models. Additionally, Massey Hall, part of the non-profit charitable corporation that also operates Roy Thomson Hall, is entering the second phase of a massive revitalization project that will include two new performance spaces.

The other good news: City councils, not just in Toronto, but other metropolitan areas such as Hamilton and London, Ont., are taking notice, adding “music offices” inside their local governments as liaisons with the music industry. “The news of venues closing is always a concern,” says Toronto councillor Josh Colle, who is a member of the Toronto Music Advisory Council (TMAC). “It alerts us to how important these venues are.”

Mr. Colle says TMAC is working on dozens of reviews related to live music venues: everything from bylaw changes to conversations between developers, planners and landlords. He acknowledges that taxes and rising real estate affects more than just music clubs. “We are losing bookstores, green grocers, shoe stores, etc.,” he adds. “The way MPAC [the provincial Municipal Property Assessment Corp.] assesses properties based on their highest and best use is a threat to every local business.”

Fellow councillor Mike Layton, who previously served on TMAC, adds: “There’s no doubt rent is playing a significant role in many of these closings. Unfortunately, there is not much we can do in limiting commercial establishments and the taxes they pay; that’s not within our powers but it is adding significant pressure. In municipal planning, we don’t zone for people, or for the tenants, we zone for the use.”

The cost of real estate makes it prohibitive for certain kinds of businesses such as live music venues to thrive in certain neighbourhoods. Besides trendy Queen Street West, take Yonge Street. This is an issue close to Mark Garner’s heart. Following the recent closure of Hard Rock Cafe on Yonge after its lease expired and the owner was asking for $2-million a year in rent, plus taxes and other expenses, the chief executive officer of Downtown Yonge Business Improvement Area is now working to help protect more of these legacy venues.

“We do a great job in Toronto of protecting the facades of our buildings, but we don’t protect the interiors,” Mr. Garner explains. “Taxation increases are really what is decimating these businesses – especially in our patch of the city. What happens on Yonge will eventually happen on Ossington [Avenue] and other neighbourhoods.

“We did an analysis of buildings on Yonge, from Queen Street to Bloor, and found buildings appraised in 2012 for $2.6-million are now valued at $12.2-million,” Mr. Garner continues. “How do you phase in that kind of tax increase?”

More than 100 people recently attended a live music town hall at Lula Lounge on Dundas Street West in Toronto. Present were Mike Tanner of Toronto’s music office and Jeff Cohen, the majority owner The Horseshoe and Lee’s Palace. Other venue owners, music industry stakeholders, journalists, artists and patrons of live music also attended. Issues discussed and debated ranged from loading zones outside venues and noise bylaws to what everyone agreed was the elephant in the room – rising real estate prices in the metropolitan areas across Canada and the ensuing rise in commercial property taxes.

Most club owners lease space from a landlord. When that lease expires, there is often no barrier to how much that rent can increase. While rent control exists for many residential properties, that’s not the case when it comes to commercial buildings.

Sam Grosso, owner of Cadillac Lounge on Queen Street West, is one of the lucky operators who also owns the building. Still, it’s a struggle. And, that’s one of the main reasons the small-business owner recently decided to put the building up for sale.

“I pay my mortgage every month, not rent to a greedy landlord who keeps jacking up my rent until my lease expires,” Mr. Grosso explains. “It’s a double-edged sword. I bought the property for a good price years ago, but I’m still struggling to make the business happen and get people in the door.

“Meanwhile, I’m sitting on all this property that is worth a lot of money. You are beating yourself against the wall, and sometimes I ask myself: What am I doing?”

At the end of the day, Ms. Benjamin at Music Canada Live says all discussions about live music venues and real estate need to be long-term; there is no short-term solution.

“It’s important for TMAC and for other cities to pay attention and prioritize live music spaces in that big picture,” she says. “Once they are gone, it’s hard to bring them back.”

This article was published in The Globe & Mail December 18, 2017.

Meet Tebey: Professional Country Songwriter has his own EP To Do

Depression digs deep. It hides. It waits. Often, it seeps in slowly, and materializes when you least expect the darkness. That’s exactly what happened to hit Canadian country singer-songwriter Tebey (a.k.a. Tebey Ottoh). Though he’s battled anxiety and depression ever since he can recall, one of those unexpected episodes came on strong a couple of years ago, and didn’t let go.

“I was getting overwhelmed by the music business,” Tebey says. “It’s a tough business, and it wears on you. The BS I have to deal with every day is tremendous. As I get older, I don’t have the tolerance sometimes for it. I just hit a wall. I wasn’t feeling very creative, and didn’t want to do music anymore.”

Tebey opened up earlier this year about these struggles with mental illness – penning a letter for Bell as part of its Let’s Talk Day campaign. “I wanted to be honest with people,” he says.

Sometimes writing songs helps artists heal. Not this time. Not for Tebey, at least initially. The support of his wife, and a sabbatical with his family, travelling throughout Asia (South Korea, Thailand, and Tokyo) provided the respite the songwriter needed to get in the right frame of mind to let the muse back in. He also admits that he was afforded the luxury to take some extra time off, without immediate financial worries, after “Somebody Else Will,” which he co-wrote for American country artist Justin Moore, was a Billboard No.1 in 2017; it was Tebey’s first No.1 single South of the border, as a songwriter.

We catch up with Tebey in Toronto on the release date for his new six-song EP Love a Girl — a collective effort between Tebey and Danick Dupelle (Emerson Drive), his co-producer and “co-captain,” who helped him push the envelope and take the songs in a new direction. It’s Tebey’s fourth recording, following a period of producing records for others, and writing, or co-writing, hit songs for a diverse range of artists, from pop to country stars – including One Direction, Cher, Fifth Harmony, and Big & Rich.

His own first single from Love a Girl, “Denim on Denim” – co-written with fellow SOCAN member Kelly Archer and American songwriter Nathan Spicer – is an infectious, country-leaning song that’s already climbing the charts at interview time. The rest of the five cuts fuse Tebey’s pop sensibilities with his love of mainstream country. “We took some chances with this record,” he says. “I think we succeeded.”

Take the title cut, “Love a Girl.” Lyrically, it’s definitely a country song, but production-wise, it’s something else entirely. “I believe that song is as far to the pop side of things as we’ve ever been,” says Tebey. “The lines today are blurred, especially with country music fans. They’re listening to Chris Stapleton one minute, and five minutes later they’re kicking the new Drake! I wander around the campgrounds at festivals like Boots and Hearts, and I hear their playlists.”

“Who’s Gonna Love You,” written for Tebey’s wife, is another song that, at interview time, was expected to garner a lot of airplay. Lyrics like the following are ones likely to resonate with listeners:

I’ve been known to steal a couple of curly fries from her side of the table on a date
I’ve been known to flip the finger to the guy driving slow over in the fast lane
And when I steal the covers on the bed, or lose a twenty on a stupid bet
She shakes her head, smiles at me and says, who’s gonna love you if I don’t?

“I talk about all the stupid things I do daily that drives her mental,” says Tebey. “I’m sure people will smile when they hear those lines and say, ‘That’s me!’”

When it comes to writing lines that linger long with listeners, he believes a memorable melody is still the key to a great song. “That’s one thing that will never change,” says Tebey. “Production, and what’s hot at the moment, will always change, but classic melodies won’t… They’ll be around forever. Think about a song like, ‘I Want it that Way’ by Backstreet Boys, or classic songs by Journey. Those are melodies that’ll never go out of style. Using the latest sounds and the hottest production is fine, and keeps things current, but melody is still king.”

Tebey admits he’s a melodic songwriter. Melodies come naturally to him, but they also come very meticulously. “Often, I have to grind them out to find them,” he says. “I also don’t settle. I need to explore every option with that melody before I can say, ‘This is the best it can be.’ It’s one of the things younger songwriters don’t do. They settle, and don’t even know they’re doing it. There is a big difference between a good melody and an undeniable melody.”

When asked if there are any undeniable melodies on the new EP, Tebey laughs, then says, “You don’t swing and knock it out of the park every time!”

Tebey’s Top Three Tips on Co-Writing

“Write with people that don’t write the same style/genre that you do; the variety is good.”
“Collaborate with people you enjoy working with, and write with people that challenge you. That’s a big one. I love working with people who are better and bigger songwriters than me. You can always learn. I’m learning constantly.”

“Every session is different. The more you write with people, the more you understand their process. Still, there’s no magic formula. You need to continue to work at it, and be 10 per cent better than everyone else all the time… that’s what I strive for.”

When it comes to the craft, Nashville-based Ashley Gorley is one of his songwriting heroes, but Max Martin is Tebey’s touchstone; someone who hits more home runs than most. “To me, he’s the greatest pop songwriter of all time.” [Martin is a Swedish songwriter who’s won the ASCAP Songwriter of the Year Award a record 10 times, and has the third-most No.1 singles on the Billboard charts, behind only Paul McCartney and John Lennon. He’s written or co-written songs with the likes of Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, and Pink, to name a few.]

Hit singles and sales aside, for Tebey, a song’s success lies more in how deeply it resonates with listeners. “When people spend their hard-earned money to download your song, that’s when you know you’ve connected with them,” he says. “No. 1 songs may not necessarily connect with fans, even if they’re big radio hits. I want to write songs that connect with people. It’s a crapshoot, though. You never really know what’s going to hit. There’s no secret formula. You just write your best songs and use your gut instinct.”

Another key is honesty. “You can’t chase stuff,” he says. “That’s what’s important. As a writer, or for upcoming songwriters who might read this, my best advice is, it’s important to be yourself. You can’t be someone else: all the best bands, artists, songwriters, etc., do what they do best, not what someone else does best.”

Besides writing melodic songs, what Tebey also does best is help others face their demons. Born in Peterborough, and now based in Nashville, at interview time the country star was going to return home at the end of the month for an annual golf charity event he started last year, expected to raise about $25,000 for mental health projects through the Greater Peterborough Health Services, Your Family Health Team Foundation. “It’s a cause that is so close to my heart,” he says.