Toronto

Big Slice closure is the end of an era, but some say it's just natural city growth

The Big Slice pizza shop closed its doors Monday after 45 years on Yonge. But while people are sad to see their favourite pizza spot go, some say it's just part of the city's natural evolution, and that the change is a good thing.

Others highlight need for city to make space for smaller retailers, not just big box stores

The Big Slice is the latest in a number of long-time establishments to close or leave the area, following on the heels of Sam The Record Man and the Yonge Street Mission. (CBC)

The Big Slice pizza shop closed its doors Monday, a sign on the door citing an upcoming condo development as the reason it can no longer stick around.

But while people are sad to see their favourite pizza spot go, some say it's just part of the city's natural evolution, and that the change can be a good thing.

The shop, located in a heritage building, was there for 45 years. It's the latest in a number of well-known Toronto institutions to close — nearby Sam The Record Man shut its doors in 2007, the Yonge Street Mission is moving to Chinatown after 120 years on Yonge, and Honest Ed's in the Annex is up next.

But some say the fuss is more of a nostalgia thing than concern about the kinds of development moving in.

'Cities are organic'

It's showing that our main street of the city is actually becoming more of a main street and not just kind of a dumpy retail experience.- Matthew Blackett, Spacing magazine

The building that was home to The Big Slice is a heritage building. That means that part of it will be maintained when it gets turned into condos.  

But it will still be a huge change to the neighbourhood — one of the condo towers will be 62 stories high, while the other will be 73 stories. All in all, they will hold 1,100 units.

"Cities are organic. They're changing, they're about progress, and things like Big Slice are going to move around," said Matthew Blackett, the editor and publisher of Spacing, a magazine that looks at development, urban design and transit in cities.

John Sewell, a former mayor of Toronto, said with big condos, there are fewer and fewer opportunities for small independent businesses to open shops in the downtown core. (CBC)

Blackett said this change is actually beneficial to the city, and in particular, to Yonge Street.

"It's showing that our main street of the city is actually becoming more of a main street and not just kind of a dumpy retail experience."

He said that while it's sad that places with charm like The Big Slice are closing, it's never good for a city to be static.

Condos can 'deaden' the sidewalk

Former Toronto mayor John Sewell agrees that change is not necessarily a bad thing. But he said he's concerned about the types of stores and buildings that are replacing these iconic establishments.

Famous Toronto urban planner Jane Jacobs once said that new ideas must use old buildings, since new business owners are often not the ones that can afford brand-new spaces.

Sewell says that the new condos that are being built don't allow for that.

"We're building all these new buildings — well then there's no place for these little things that have managed to become The Big Slice," he said. "It means you can't have small shops or people starting up little businesses and doing really interesting things in the downtown core."

That sentiment is echoed by Craig White, the managing editor of UrbanToronto, a website dedicated to development news in the city. He says that most often, it's things like banks, dry cleaners and sandwich or coffee chains that move into the retail spaces of new developments.

"What you're seeing in the windows isn't that interesting," he said. "And there are fewer doors. And fewer doors on the street means less interest for people walking by, and less reason for people to walk by, so it sort of deadens the sidewalk."

A condominium construction site, seen in Toronto in 2014. Two new condos, one of which will be 62 stories high and another that will be 73 stories high, will move into the spot where The Big Slice once was. (Aaron Harris/Reuters)

City focus is on form, not function

While the city says it wants a balance of large and small retail shops, it's difficult to mandate since developments are devised in a variety of ways.

So the city prefers to mandate form, not function; retail trends change often, so the retail spaces need to be made to last, says Gregg Lintern, the city's director of community planning.

"That way through design, you've set up for the possibility of small-scale retail, but we still can't say that it's going to be a chain versus a non-chain," said Lintern.

"It's an area where some developers are better than others, and as the city matures and we get more and more experience with good examples and bad examples, we can all point to ones that we think work better than others."

'Any Street USA'

We need to talk about how to maintain smaller square footage ...  or, what winds up happening is it just becomes 'Any Street USA.- Mark Garner, Downtown Yonge BIA

Sewell said the city needs a better plan to ensure that a variety of buildings can thrive.

"You have to try and make sure that the natural turnover proceeds at a pace that allows the city to have the kind of life that makes it healthy," he said.

And the Downtown Yonge Business Improvement Area has been advocating for a balance of buildings.

"You want to make sure the neighbourhood is vibrant. There's got to be a more holistic view," said Mark Garner, the BIA's executive director.

He said the city needs to work with developers to ensure this "holistic view" is adopted.

"We need to talk about how to maintain smaller square footage, keep it affordable for small businesses, and then try to work with the developers to try to maintain that neighbourhood feel," he said. "Or, what winds up happening is it just becomes 'Any Street USA.'"

About the Author

Laura Wright is an online reporter and editor for CBC News in Toronto. She previously worked for CBC North in Yellowknife.

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