Lockdown 2.0? Cabbagetown construction feels like height of pandemic, shop owners say

Regina Sheung, owner of Labour of Love, started a petition to raise awareness of how much construction in the area is affecting local businesses. (Talia Ricci/CBC - image credit)
Regina Sheung, owner of Labour of Love, started a petition to raise awareness of how much construction in the area is affecting local businesses. (Talia Ricci/CBC - image credit)

Regina Sheung's carefully curated gift boutique, Labour of Love, was always meant to be an in-person shopping experience.

The business owner geared up for customers to make a comeback after the pandemic, but instead, it's felt like lockdown all over again.

"But it's a completely different lockdown, it's construction lockdown," she said.

Sheung recently started a petition highlighting the challenges businesses in Cabbagetown are facing due to the construction projects, and also calling on the city to take action to alleviate some of the impact it's having on people like her.

"We have been seeing foot traffic drop to up to 70 per cent over the last couple months," she said.

"We want to recuperate from what we have lost and pay our bills moving forward, but the holidays are coming up and it's been deserted."

Vedran Lesic/CBC
Vedran Lesic/CBC

Businesses in Cabbagetown say transit-related construction happening on College Street is diverting would-be customers from the area completely. Meanwhile, a water main replacement project on Parliament Street has made it difficult for both pedestrians and customers with cars to get to certain shops.

After barely making it through the lockdowns during the pandemic, these business owners say the city should work to complete this construction faster. The city says these projects are necessary infrastructure projects. It says construction on College is expected to be completed by the end of December 2022 and the water main replacement on Parliament will be wrapping up in the spring. But businesses worry they won't survive until then.

Kaelo Gallagher, owner of Menagerie Pet Shop on Parliament, says over the last few weeks, trucks haven't been able to get in with supplies due to the road being torn up right in front of his business.

"We've been starved of our inventory," he said.

"We've been losing $1,000 to $1,500 a day in sales just because of this construction."

Talia Ricci/CBC
Talia Ricci/CBC

The petition is calling on the city to reduce the timelines for completion by 50 per cent. It's also demanding support and better communication with local businesses.

Gallagher says he's even extended his store hours in an attempt to attract more customers and says he would have appreciated more details on timelines.

"The city didn't really explain how impactful it was going to be," he said.

"They didn't ask us what our needs were. They should have had some designated loading zones for trucks."

City says it takes 'no-surprise approach'

In a statement, the city said the construction taking place on Parliament and College is part of its comprehensive, coordinated strategy to rehabilitate and upgrade Toronto's roads, transit and underground infrastructure for current and future needs.

"It ensures that the city's infrastructure is in a state of good repair and able to meet the needs of Toronto's growth now and in the future."

The city goes on to explain the construction on Parliament is to replace a smaller, 146-year-old water main with a larger, modern water main, and construction on College from Bathurst Street to Bay Street is for important infrastructure upgrades, including TTC track replacement, installing a separated cycle track and streetcar platform, as well as pedestrian safety upgrades.

The city says it recognizes the challenges and inconveniences construction presents to local communities and encourages feedback from residents and local businesses.

"Staff take a no-surprise approach to construction with the goal of informing residents, local businesses and road users about construction activities and how to plan for them well in advance. This may include regular meetings with local BIAs, residents associations, mail outs to residents and on-street signage."

Talia Ricci/CBC
Talia Ricci/CBC

In a written statement, the Cabbagetown BIA says while this work is necessary, it does put stress on the residents and businesses, adding it's seen a reduction in traffic in the area.

"To help mitigate these stresses, we've built a strong relationship with the city and the construction company, continuing to meet with them weekly for updates and to ensure the area is well maintained," the statement reads.

Meanwhile, the area's councillor-elect, Chris Moise, says he sympathizes with the businesses.

"The city and the contractors could have done a way better job communicating with the community," he said.

"I hope we can reduce the time of the project. I will be in conversation with the mayor about this."

'I'll go out of business, it's very simple'

Pointing to an empty sidewalk outside his window on Granby Street, Stuart Ross says the view is reminiscent of the height of COVID-19, when universities were shut down. His shop, Bulldog Coffee, is just a few minutes walk from Toronto Metropolitan University.

"It's been horrible," he said.

Talia Ricci/CBC
Talia Ricci/CBC

If construction doesn't finish soon, Ross says he'll be faced with a difficult decision.

"I'll go out of business. It's very simple."

Sheung is uneasy about the future too.

"It doesn't matter how hard you work. If you move everyone away from this neighbourhood, and you block our storefront, there's no way we can survive."