Businesses prepare for Colborne demolition

It may be lunch hour, but Kristjen’s Cafe at 97 Colborne St. was noticeably empty on a Thursday in mid-October. A lone customer occupied a table while owner Lana Plank and her husband, Mark, discussed their grocery needs. Since residents began vacating South Colborne after expropriation was approved in August, the amount of walk-in customers has declined. “Now, there’s nobody,” Plank said of the neighbourrhood. Residents and businesses have until Nov. 30 to vacate the properties.

Still, she finds reasons to come and cook. Various groups meet at the cafe, and she cooks for them. Besides the remaining regular customers, there are a steady number of individuals who buy Plank’s gluten-free products. Demand for her catering is “booming.”

Kristjen’s Cafe, which only opened its doors this past January, is one of the businesses forced to move due to the expropriation, and pending demolition of the South Side of Colborne Street between Grand River Hall and Icomm Drive. Currently, the restaurant is planning to move to 126 Market St., across from Strodes Express. This new location requires plenty of renovations: the kitchen needs to be expanded, the washrooms need to be made wheelchair accessible, and structural changes are in order – to name a few. The current location also required extensive alterations– Plank estimated $30 000 was spent on renovations. Still in the initial stages of planning and comparing quotes, there is no word on how much renovating the new building will cost.

More alarmingly, Plank said that despite fairly regular contact with city officials, she has, at the time of interview, been given no final date for when she has to move – or how much the City will compensate her business. Moving at the end of November would cause her to be closed during one of the busiest seasons and cause her to lose even more money.

Her eyes lit up when she mentioned how excited her customers are about the new location with its increased parking opportunities. But she finds the numerous questions about when her business will move trying. While “cautiously optimistic” about the restaurant being relocated by the new year, she doesn’t have any answers to give her inquiring customers.

In August, City Council decided to demolish the middle block of buildings first, then the East Block next to Grand River Hall, and finally, the West Block closest to Brant Ave. South Colborne Task Force Chair Mark Littell confirmed in an email to the Sputnik that demolition will begin in 2010 and be done in stages. Manager of Real Estate, John Wyatt, was unavailable for an interview.

Even businesses owners who have found new locations for their commercial ventures are looking for answers. Not long after expropriation was approved, Kreative Khaos celebrated its grand opening at 128 Colborne St. Previously, the tattoo parlour had been located at 111 Colborne St. – the location where it opened in 1989. The business has “lived through it all,” said owner Dave McCabe. McCabe, who also rents storage space from a Water Street location also being expropriated, found out about the City’s intentions in May. He said his initial reaction to the news was “pretty mixed,” his primary concern was finding a new locale for his business. While McCabe acknowledges downtown has its “issues,” he called the decision to expropriate the South Side of Colborne Street “ignorant – like asking someone to get out without just cause.”
While the move has allowed him more exposure, and more parking space, it has come with a cost – a $25 000 moving bill and a doubled rent. He called the contact he’s had with the City “terrible.” As of mid-October, he had not been told how much he will be reimbursed for, or when he can expect that money.

And he isn’t the only anxious businessperson. Kirsten Stemmler has been a server at My Thai, located at 89 Colborne St., longer than any other current employees – she started there when the restaurant opened 4 ½ years ago. According to Stemmler, city officials suggested the restaurant move to Harmony Square, but that would mean paying at least three times their current rent. Stemmler said the restaurant is planning on moving to 393 St. Paul Ave, the former site of the Bibles for Missions thrift store.

But Stemmler isn’t sure when the move will be taking place. The City “say[s] they’re doing things to benefit the restaurants, but not really,” she said. She said the City talked about shutting the restaurant down for a few months – during their busiest time. And while under the Expropriation Act tenants legally have to vacate the properties by Nov. 30, with no confirmed date of demolition, Stemmler says her and her colleagues “could be here until March. We have no idea.”

While the move to St. Paul Ave will allow for customers to have more parking, and potentially allow the restaurant to see an increase in dinner customers, it will come with losses. Many downtown businesspeople regularly eat lunch at My Thai. Stremmler says some have already informed her they won’t be able to frequent the restaurant once it moves.
For Stemmler, who is currently studying real estate in Toronto, the uncertainty makes her “really anxious.” “I need this job,” she said.

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