After years of legal battles over empty Queen West market, city wants to 'take it back'
City of Toronto has filed application in Superior Court to end tenant's 50-year lease
Queen Street West is always bustling — so why is a city-owned marketplace on one of Toronto's main strips sitting vacant?
Just east of John Street, the St. Patrick's Market building features gates and padlocks on both its main entrances. "For lease" signs are splashed across the front, while the windows encircling the century-old building are covered in grime and graffiti. And there's not much to see inside anyway: All the vendor stations are barren.
Toronto's legal team has now filed an application in Ontario's Superior Court to terminate the current tenant's lease on the historic building, CBC Toronto has learned.
And here's the catch: It was a 50-year lease signed between Toronto and the tenant back in 1989 — meaning there are still 20 years to go.
"After decades of attempts to animate this public space, we want to take it back for the city," said the area's councillor, Joe Cressy, on Tuesday.
The saga of St. Patrick's Market is indeed a long one.
Back in 1837, prominent lawyer and politician D'Arcy Boulton bequeathed the property to the city, with the expectation that it would be used as a public market.
The existing building was constructed around 1914, with the city leasing it out for decades to a poultry slaughterhouse.
In the late 1980s, Toronto aimed to renovate it into a proper food market as Boulton had hoped — and soon after, a company called Market Inc. submitted a winning proposal to transform the space into a marketplace filled with businesses like a butcher shop, bakery, and grocery outlet.
The terms for the lease involved the company paying just $1 a year for the first decade, given the renovation costs needed to transform the site.
After that, the base rent would start at around $50,000, with hikes every five years, plus a chunk of the profits.
So began the leaseholder's half-century claim to the entire main floor. But for the last decade of that lease, the company and city have been locked in court battles over the space.
Decade of court battles
In 2008, Toronto launched legal action to collect rental arrears from Market Inc., city documents show. Council directed the city's legal team to seek a court order ending the lease, on the basis that the terms required the building to be used as a food market.
Instead, vendors came and went and courted controversy, as onlookers filmed mice crawling on a vendor's baklava through the front windows in 2017. Toronto Public Health promptly shut the market down.
Fast forward to this summer, and multiple issues still weren't resolved, according to the city.
The latest court documents filed by Toronto's legal team say a notice of several breaches of the lease — including failing to operate a food market and to provide audited financial statements — was sent to Market Inc. in July.
Other breaches from that notice were a failure to pay rent and to maintain and repair the building as per the lease agreement, but those have since been addressed, the filing continues.
The city also claims Market Inc. has not paid roughly $14,000 in compensation, saying it's money owed due to the breaches outlined earlier this year.
"To date, Market Inc. continues to breach its duties to operate the Market Building as a mini-food market," the city alleges in a notice of application filed on Sept. 27.
Toronto's legal team is now waiting for a hearing date from the Superior Court.
Legal action 'total surprise,' says leaseholder
Developer George Friedmann, the leaseholder operating Market Inc., spoke to CBC Toronto by phone and said the city's latest application came as a "total surprise."
All the rent has been paid "on time, always," he claimed, adding he's spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on renovations to the currently-empty building.
"We are remaining committed to this project ... I don't really understand the city's motivation," said Friedmann, who also operates the boutique Windsor Arms Hotel near the city's posh Yorkville neighbourhood.
The motivation, Cressy said, is transforming the building from an empty, unused space into something the public can actually access.
"This is publicly owned land, it should be used for public benefit," he said.
Passerby along Queen Street West shared his sentiment on Thursday, suggesting potential uses for the market, which abuts a city-owned park and pool to the north: Perhaps it could be a community centre, a shopping district, a gathering space for students from the nearby OCAD University.
All those ideas are possible, Cressy said — if the city wins in court.