Pinball Cafe closure over having more than two pinball machines highlights absurdity of bylaw bureaucracy at City Hall

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1332773382_newsI’m old enough to remember when video arcades were considered a significant urban blight in Toronto — and not without reason, really. They were like magnets for lowlifes, not least the proprietors. Parents didn’t want their kids anywhere near them — at least no one tries to sell them weed when they’re locked in the basement with the Xbox — and we’re well rid of them. As underwhelming as much of downtown Yonge Street remains, it’s like a family values theme park compared to what it was when I was a kid, let alone in the 1970s.

But should that mean a folksy joint full of vintage pinball machines shouldn’t be allowed to operate on Queen Street West, on account of an ages-old bylaw prohibiting more than two machines in an amusement establishment? Even to ask is absurd. In a sense, the proprietors of Parkdale’s Pinball Cafe seem to have brought their much-lamented demise on themselves: They claim to be victims of city hall, but never even got a business licence, let alone pleaded their case for a zoning change or variance to bring it above board.

But that simply raises a more fundamental question: If someone wants to rent space and put some pinball machines in it, or serve wine on a small patio, or pursue some other inconsequential entrepreneurial ambition, why should anyone at city hall give a damn except to encourage it? These rules don’t trace back to Magna Carta. If we don’t want them any more, we can just get rid of them.

I’m also old enough to remember when Queen Street in Parkdale was a pretty desolate place, where women weren’t necessarily OK with walking around alone at night and there weren’t a whole lot of places to grab a civilized drink or bite to eat. That was a bit more recent. As in 2005. I miss the down-at heels vibe, the cheap rent, Bacchus Roti, the Rhino, the Cadillac Lounge and the Skyline Restaurant. But most of the other great stuff in that booming neighbourhood has arrived since. The house I lived in was recently on the market for an improbable $1-million.

On Oct. 30, city council voted 40-0 to stop the boom in its tracks. At local councillor Gord Perks’ behest, any new or expanded “restaurant, take-out restaurant, rear yard and rooftop patio, bake-shop, place of amusement, place of assembly, or club” is now prohibited for a year.

“All of the sudden, what was supposed to be a neighbourhood shopping area has turned into an entertainment area,” Mr. Perks told the National Post this week. “The streets are packed all night and empty all day.”

Interesting choice of words there. It was “supposed” to be a neighbourhood shopping area … says who? Is the terribly misnamed Entertainment District “supposed” to be full of greaseball nightclubs? Is Danforth and Woodbine “supposed” to be a dump? Was Ossington Avenue “supposed” to be an anonymous stretch of tumbledown miscellany before bars and restaurants started colonizing it, and council imposed a similar “interim control by-law” to slow things down in 2009?

(That’s the good news, at least: Look at Ossington today and it’s pretty clear not even city council can stop progress in this city.)

There is a philosophical debate here about city-building: Either you think a popular new restaurant or bakery might threaten a neighbourhood’s fundamental essence, and that politicians ought to try to stop it; or you think a neighbourhood should be allowed to transform organically as the tastes and needs of its residents and business-owners, and everyone else in the city, evolve. To my mind, the latter happens anyway; it can’t be stopped in a fundamentally free society like Canada.

But it could certainly be freer. If a city councillor finds himself advising a new business in his ward that he needs to go to the Committee of Adjustment because a bylaw says he has one too many pinball machines, that councillor should make it his business to advocate getting rid of that stupid bylaw — and many others besides, hopefully. Council itself seems to be barrier enough to progress. We don’t need all this red tape as well.


Chris Selley

National Post