NORTH YORK, Ont. – If you drive by the Bathurst Manor Plaza on Wilmington and gaze at the largely vacant parking lot and boarded-up businesses, it would be hard to imagine the plaza was ever a going concern.
But in its heyday in the early 1960s and right up until about a dozen years ago, the plaza was a viable, bustling commercial centre. The expansive parking lot was full as people shopped at the LCBO, did their banking at the local CIBC branch, visited the Shoppers Drug Mart, and bought groceries at the Sunnybrook Food Mart. With strong anchor tenants, the plaza’s smaller businesses prospered as well.
But that began to change more than a dozen years ago, after Sunnybrook had closed its doors. The landlord, Biddington Group of Properties, applied to the city of Toronto to knock down the plaza and redevelop it with condos, townhouses and some ground level commercial tenants. That process has been bogged down in red tape and slowed by neighbourhood opposition over the proposed scale and density of the development.
Over the years, the larger anchor tenants moved out, many to the plaza at Rimrock and the Allen Road. A few of the smaller businesses have hung on without leases on a month-to-month basis, but a few months ago, they were given notice that the landlord, the Biddington Group, plans to shut the plaza for good. All have been told to leave by July 31.
Several of the remaining businesses are unhappy with that turn of events. Uri Hazan, owner of King David Pizza, is particularly upset, saying he was led to believe there would be a place for him in the proposed new development. Even as he saw his business deteriorate over the years, as tenants moved out and traffic slowed, he held on in the expectation that he could recoup his losses when hundreds of people moved into the new residences proposed by the landlord.
Hazan has been in the plaza since 1997 and in his current location, a former gas station, since 2002. In the early days, his business was very good, but it has dropped over the years. He still has a good trade at lunchtime, when kids from nearby Anne and Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto come to eat.
Business began to drop after Sunnybrook closed. Now, it looks like his future will have to be elsewhere, though he does not yet have a new venue for his restaurant, and he’s angry and feels “betrayed,” he said.
His customers are surprised at the closure. “Everybody is sad. Everybody is in shock,” Hazan added.
Across the plaza parking lot, the owners of Man About Town, a clothing store, are likewise perturbed that their business will have to shut down and move. The store has been in the plaza for 30 years. “It’s been difficult for us. It’s been a struggle to find a place in the same vicinity,” said Sam Cossidente, one of the store’s owners.
He estimated that 60 to 70 per cent of the store’s clientele are repeat customers, and many live in the immediate neighbourhood. He expects most will follow them to their new location on Rimrock.
Nevertheless, his customers are “very disappointed that the plaza has come to this state,” Cossidente said. “This was a thriving plaza in the past… The parking lot used to be full. Now you see people doing drivers tests in here. It’s wide open.”
Dr. Irving Zelcer of Overbrook Medical Centre has run his practice on the second floor of the plaza since 1970.
At the time, Stan Vine owned the plaza and now his son-in-law, Norman Glowinsky, operates it through the Biddington Group, he said.
The plaza was always a hub of activity, especially around Passover, when people did their shopping and the parking lot was jammed with cars.
At 72, Zelcer plans to hang up his shingle and retire. At this stage of life, he’s not ready to start again, though Dr. Harriet Train, also of Overbrook Medical, will be continuing in a new location, he said.
Suzanne Morris-Marcus remembers the plaza at its best, in the 1960s and ’70s. “Goodman’s China was where every Jewish girl getting married had their bridal registry,” she said. Edith’s Clothing catered to a largely upscale Jewish clientele.
Morris-Marcus has a unique connection to the plaza. Back when it was first developed, her late father, George Morris, of Kramer and Morris Signs (later changed to George Morris Signs), designed the first signs that publicized its opening. She recently found a couple of photo slides of her father’s artwork – billboards that advertised Bathurst Manor Plaza as “a complete community shopping centre” and gave directions to the plaza, because back then, “it was remote,” she said.
One sign she believes dates back to around 1960 advertises the original businesses in the plaza that were “now open”: Pollock Shoes, Plaza Drugs, Louis Bakery, Bathurst Manor Cigar Store, Soriano Shoe Repair, Plaza Barber Shop, Dominion Store, Canadian Bank of Commerce, Fagot & Sons Hardware, Kiddiville, Bestway Cleaners, Regent Beauty Salon, LCBO and Sight & Sound Record Bar.
James Pasternak is the Toronto city councillor representing Ward 10, where Bathurst Manor Plaza is located. “The saga” over the future of the plaza has been going on for many years, during which many alternative proposals have been considered. Some 400 people attended community meetings at Beth Emeth Synagogue about the development, he said.
Despite the lengthy approval process, “we’re a long way off from a final decision… The whole thing is quite sad. It was a vibrant neighbourhood plaza at one point.” Its imminent closure will mark “a sad end to a neighbourhood plaza that was cherished,” he said.
Alessandro DeRosa, partner in Man About Town, believes that once all the tenants have left, a fence will go up around the property and the inevitable deterioration will begin, which just might be what the owners want anyway.
“If we’re out, it will pressure the city and the general population to make a decision, or look at an eyesore for the next five or six years. It’ll be a green fence, filled with rubble,” he said.
The Biddington Group declined to respond to CJN queries, with Arnie Lash, the company’s construction and development manager, saying in a voice message, “We’re working on the development, but right now we have no further comment.”
Pasternak believes the plaza’s future is bleak. Not only is there no prospect for a shovel-ready project, but it’s likely to remain vacant for some time.
A sad end to a once proud community jewel.