Queen Street West retailers in Toronto are concerned about how they will be impacted by the decade-long construction of Metrolinx’s new Ontario Line.
The line is planned to run under Queen Street from around Portland Street to Sherbourne Street. This section of the line will be bounded on the West by Queen-Spadina station and on the East by Moss Park station.
But the Queen Street West community feels their concerns are being neglected.
“The construction is going to be nightmarish,” she said in an interview at her store, which is about a five minute walk from Queen and Spadina streets.
She expects the number of pedestrians in the area is going to plummet for the duration of the construction, stalling the neighbourhood’s post-pandemic recovery.
“It’s going to be annoying for people to get around. They’ll say, ‘Well, why don’t we go somewhere else instead?’” She said.
In an email to Retail Insider, Metrolinx said they are working with the City of Toronto and the TTC on a transit detour to minimize this loss in foot traffic.
Although White expects her business to survive the construction, she added that others can’t say the same.
“For those of us that are still around after the construction, the new line will be great,” she quipped.
She said she was also concerned about how the new line will increase Queen Street West’s property values, and by extension the rent she pays.
“In that way, it’s good for landlords, but bad for small businesses,” she said.
Construction over communities
Metrolinx said they maintain a constant line of communication with BIAs, businesses, property owners, and other stakeholders.
But White said she feels the Queen Street West community is out of the loop, exacerbating their anxieties about the project.
“We want to make sure they actually listen to our concerns,” she said.
“When small businesses, small homeowners and renters – the people who can’t afford a lawyer – are approached by the government, they get bullied,” Rayman said in a phone interview.
He believes when governments say they’re looking out for local interests in projects like these, they’re really just looking for ways to cut costs and save time. He added he doesn’t believe businesses should sign anything without a lawyer.
“I’ve worked with a lot of people who’ve signed documents because they had a bit of money given to them, only to realize after the fact that they’ve waived all of their rights to compensation,” he said.
He explained there are two circumstances in which businesses can be entitled to compensation because of projects like the Ontario Line.
The first instance in which businesses can be compensated is when land or property is expropriated (taken away by a government or authority). Those impacted by expropriation have the right to be made whole (relocated and awarded sufficient compensation for lost business as a result of being moved).
The second circumstance in which businesses are entitled to compensation is when they experience injurious affection – this is when land is not taken away, but the business was still substantially and disproportionately harmed. Rayman added this second circumstance is much harder to prove.
“If your sales go down by 30, 40, or 70 per cent, that might be severe. It also has to be something not everyone incurred,” he explained.
A repeat of Eglinton?
Rayman noted that Metrolinx has a history of putting projects before communities.
“The Eglinton line has been a nightmare for more than 10 years now. It’s not finished yet, and businesses are suffering horribly from it,” he said.
Rayman is referring to the Eglinton Crosstown light rail transit line, which is being built by Metrolinx as an extension to the Toronto subway. Construction began in 2011, with an estimated completion date of 2020. In December of 2022, Metrolinx announced the project would likely be completed in 2023.
He recalled how some expropriated businesses in Eglinton signed release forms, which stripped them of their right to compensation. Because he believes stories like these are all too common, he’s worried about the fate of Queen Street West.
“With these projects, a lot of promises aren’t really kept. It’s not always due to malice, sometimes progress just gets in the way of commitments to local communities,” he remarked.
White echoed Rayman’s fears about the Ontario Line.
“Everybody’s worried about what happened in Eglinton and how painful of a process it was,” she said.
The foundations of a community shaken
White added the construction of the line has deeper implications for Queen Street West – about 100 feet deep, in fact. From University Avenue to Bathurst Street, Queen Street West is designated as a Heritage Conservation District under Part V of the Ontario Heritage Act.
Many of Queen Street’s buildings date back to the 19th and early 20th centuries, including the building in which White’s business is located, which was built around 1899. But their underground foundations have not aged well, and don’t hold up to the sturdiness of their contemporary counterparts.
White is concerned about how much the construction of the underground line will push these older foundations to their limits.
“Is my building going to be shaking?” She joked.
In addition to safety, she hopes the project will take care to preserve as much of the street as possible.
Metrolinx said they are working with conservation specialists to ensure the protection of Queen Street West’s historical value.
“We always strive to reduce or avoid impacts to heritage properties,” they said.
As of November of 2022, Metrolinx estimated the Ontario Line will be completed by 2031, and will cost between $17-billion to $19-billion. Upon completion, it is expected to service more than 400,000 passengers daily.