Christopher Hume: Is Toronto home to the world’s smallest coffee shop?
|Toronto Star 25 Jun 2018 at 18:44|
In a city that only recently discovered itself, it’s no surprise that land has grown so valuable so quickly. One result is the paradox of bigger-than-ever buildings filled with smaller-than-ever units. We live and work in spaces once used as closets. Three-hundred-square-foot apartments are no longer unusual. Toronto has become a city of Murphy beds.
But when Joshua Campos opened The Coffee Lab at Spadina Ave. and Richmond St. W. several months ago, he took less-is-more to least-is-most. As long as he remains upright, his telephone booth-sized cafe has just enough room for him and his equipment. Customers, who wait on the sidewalk, are served through a window. That will change next week when the bench Campos ordered is finally delivered.
“My idea was to keep things small,” he said of his 18-square-foot cafe, which he’s asked Guinness to certify as the world’s tiniest. “But we do about the same per-square-foot business as Apple — $2,200. We serve a couple of hundred customers a day. Most of them think this is some kind of art display.”
At first, the building owner refused to take the proposal seriously. Countless phone calls later, however, he relented and offered Campos his display window of opportunity. The sidewalk is free — although, in anticipation of the cold weather ahead, he plans to install an outdoor heater to warm customers waiting for their morning caffeine fix.
The Coffee Lab’s success shows how Torontonians are adapting to an ever-evolving city. There are many other examples of how the pressure to use every bit of available space has changed things. Not far from Campos’s tiny cafe is the still new Bentway. Although it just opened in January, it has already transformed a shadowy expanse beneath the Gardiner Expressway into a multi-use public facility, complete with a series of outdoor “rooms,” skating track, outdoor performance space and a trail.
Before that there was Underpass Park, at the other end of the Gardiner. Beloved by teenage basketballers, the pioneering project has reinforced awareness of waterfront revitalization and brought life to a long-neglected precinct on Toronto’s lower east side.
Other schemes take advantage of spaces that are only temporarily empty. The most memorable, perhaps, was the golf course that appeared west of Spadina and north of the Gardiner in 2000. The nine-hole facility was never intended to host the Canadian Open, but it offered a great view of the expressway. Although it was only around for a few years, it served as a playful reminder that real estate was too expensive to let sit.
Sadly, the fallout of rising property values often goes no further than paving a site and turning it into a parking lot. There’s one right now on Yonge St. north of Davisville Ave. Having razed everything on land he owns, a local developer discovered getting city approval for his plans would take longer than expected. So what better way to profit from empty space than to fill it with cars? This sort of pop-up parking lot is an indication not just of the haphazard nature of Toronto planning but of the necessity to take advantage of unexpected circumstances.
Regardless of how the private sector responds, however, the needs of the larger community must take precedence when dealing with unused land. Inexcusably, there are sites that have been left empty for years. But the city abhors a vacuum. Clearly, these gaps in the urban fabric should be put to some purpose, whether pocket park, market or parking lot.
Some years ago, the corner of Bay and Wellesley became a temporary skateboard park after the site had been cleared for an opera house that never got built. “You can’t just let it sit there,” former Toronto planning commissioner Stephen McLaughlin said at the time. “The province felt it had a responsibility to show good urban manners.”
Good urban manners. What a concept, especially as the rush to cash in on the real estate gold mine has left the city disrespected and often brutalized. Toronto is a commodity, up for sale to the highest bidder. But as urban space is divided into ever smaller parcels, details are more crucial than ever. When 18 square feet is enough for a man to make a living, no site is so small that it doesn’t loom large.