Making sense of Elgin Street's rapidly changing face

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If you think Elgin Street just ain’t what it used to be, you’re not imagining things. More than a dozen businesses on the commercial thoroughfare have either closed or rebranded themselves in the past two years, according to a Metro analysis.

By Dylan Robertson

With Elgin preparing for a drastic overhaul, Metro talked to proprietors and community leaders associated with the area about  what accounts for the changes, whether they’re occurring at an unhealthy rate, and what the future holds for the street.  

Three themes recurred in many conversations: rising rent, the upcoming renovation, the need to establish a business improvement area.

Rising rents

Some of the Elgin Street businesses Metro spoke to cited commercial rents, which in Ottawa generally require a five-year commitment, by way of explaining why they pulled the plug before times got tough.

Oz Kafe closed its doors last June after 12 years on Elgin. As the business’s profile rose, so did its rent. Gold Medal Plates awards in 2012 and 2013 brought tourists from across Canada to Balpinar’s establishment, just as her landlord’s fees started tripling.

“The landlords are getting greedy, and the only people who can actually afford it are the people who have a corporation behind them,” said Oz Balpinar, who plans to reopen within two months inside a ByWard Market heritage building. “You work so hard to establish a spot; the last thing you want to do is just take it out of the neighbourhood.”

 

Looming construction

Pending a spring vote, the city is set to widen Elgin’s crumbling sidewalks and halve its parking spots, making way for benches, cyclists and buses. Construction could start in 2019.

Local councillor Catherine McKenney is pushing for fencing to keep Elgin pleasant. She notes an online consultation netted 1,090 responses. “People across the city care about Elgin Street,” she says. “Everyone loves Elgin.”

Gloria McCann, co-owner of Al’s Steakhouse, admits contradictory feelings. While Elgin desperately needs a new look, she said, she can’t bear to see her road torn up.

“What’s gonna happen to the mom-and-pop shops?” she said. 

“We have to do it,” Balpinar said of the refresh. She recalled cancelling a Saturday dinner service after a decades-old water main burst. Yet she fears a “terrifying” long-term closure will “kill a lot of the independent businesses.”

No BIA

Multiple entrepreneurs pointed out Elgin has no Business Improvement Area. Enacted through provincial law, BIAs charge membership fees to act as spokespeople, political advocates and promotional agents for businesses. Some run events, others advertise and lobby City Hall for street improvements. 

BIAs are “almost always created out of conflict,” said Zachary Dayler, head of the Wellington West BIA, which itself formed in opposition to controversial road construction. He said an Elgin Street BIA could use advertising and other means to make up for the loss of tourist traffic that will inevitably accompany the construction. 

“Ottawa’s good for museums and Parliament, but not at marketing its neighbourhoods to tourists,” he said.

Businesses that have have closed, suspended operations, or rebranded 

1. Maxwell’s 

340 Elgin St.

Date closed: January 2016

Current status: replaced by Pure Kitchen vegetarian bistro

2. Boushey’s Fruit Market 

347 Elgin St.

Date closed: July 2016

Current status: replaced by Quickie’s convenience store franchise

3. Fresco Bistro Italiano / Guest room 

354 Elgin St.

Date closed: January 2017

Current status: to be replaced by The Captain’s Boil franchise

4. @Home 

231 Elgin St.

Date closed: Autumn 2016

Current status: replaced by The Whalesbone’s second location

5. Slice and Co. 

399 Elgin St.

Not closed.

Current status: Under renovation as of January 2017

6. Izakaya 

339 Elgin St.

Not closed

Current status: replaced by The Waverley

7. Mags and Fags 

254 Elgin St.

Not closed

Current status: rebranded Sept 2016 as The Gifted Type

8. Oz Kafe 

361 Elgin St.

Date closed: June 2016

Current status: Relocated to ByWard Market

9. Elgin Video 

258 Elgin St.

Date closed: May 2015

Current status: replaced by the recently opened Tokyo Shop

10. Hill Cleaners 

244 Elgin St.

Date closed: Summer 2016

Current status: replaced by Pot & Pantry kitchen store in fall 2016

11. Wendy’s 

200 Elgin St.

Date closed: Late 2014

Current status: Replaced in summer 2015 by Clocktower Brew Pub franchise

12. Mayflower Restaurant and Pub 

247 Elgin St.

Date closed: October 2013

Current status: replaced by Deacon Brodies Scottish Pub

13. Era Nightclub 

380 Elgin St.

Date closed: 2015

Current status: replaced by Datsun pan-Asian restaurant

This article originally appeared in Metro News.