By Emily Bowers
John Mikrogianakis has been watching the intersection for a long time.
For 20 years, Mikrogianakis has seen the students and tourists pass by — thousands of them every day. While the City of Toronto and the people who march along the construction site sidewalks await the entertainment complex that’s said to be on the way, Mikrogianakis remembers with weary regret the days when he was a fixture at the famous intersection — Yonge and Dundas — one of the most active crossroads in Canada.
The store at 317 Yonge Street, just north of Dundas Street, was once the flagship of Mikrogianakis’ tiny fast food fiefdom. As owner of the Harvey’s franchise there, he enjoyed steady streams of Ryerson students and tourists who looked to him to satiate their cravings for burgers.
But Mikrogianakis and 11 other store owners between the Hard Rock Café and HMV lost their property in 1998 when the city of Toronto expropriated the land for Pen Equity Management Corp. and AMC Theatres Inc., who planned to revitalize what the city felt had become a run-down strip.
“I got burned,” says Mikrogianakis. Two and a half years after the final decision was made forcing him to leave his property, Mikrogianiakis’ city-inflicted wounds are still festering.
After the expropriation, Mikrogianakis opened a Second Cup franchise in North York. He also runs a Second Cup and a Harvey’s at a Home Depot in Scarborough.
“The business is no good, no good,” he says, remembering the bustling days at Yonge and Dundas. Mikrogianakis has also run the Harvey’s in the Eaton Centre food court for the past six years, another business that he says can’t compare to his flagship store.
“[Yonge and Dundas] was the best property in the country,” he says.
Mikrogianakis and his business partners were paid just over $2 million for their property, according to City of Toronto committee report from December 1998. The owners were paid the market rate for their land, but many felt they could have got more money from private sales.
In retrospect, he says he should have fought harder to keep it.
When Mikrogianakis and the other owners first learned they would lost their property in 1996, they invested $1.7 million in a legal fight and engaged the city in a two-year battle before an Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) tribunal.
According to the OMB documents, the city argued, under a section in the Planning Act, that it is allowed to take away land for a community improvement project. The owners, in turn, argued their area did not need the dramatic fix the city had planned. In June 1998, the OMB gave the city permission to go ahead with the expropriation.
All property owners between the Hard Rock Café and HMV faced expulsion.
Gary Stanoulis, a lawyer whose family ran Kentucky Fried Chicken and Flora Electronics at 323 Yonge Street, north of Dundas Street, is worried the coming change will only be a cosmetic one.
“They’re trying to make it like Times Square in New York City,” Stanoulis says. He says the city of Toronto isn’t committed to the same clean-up effort that New York undertook throughout the 1990s.
Downtown city councilor Kyle Rae disagrees, saying the redevelopment will change the entire attitude of the intersection, and will drive out the crime and homelessness that have plagued the area.
And Rae has little sympathy for the merchants who were kicked out of their property. “They were the centre of the problem. The area was a vortex of misery,” Rae says. “They wouldn’t work with each other.”
Despite fierce competition between the Yonge-Dundas merchants and jealousy of each other before they were threatened with expulsion, they managed to come up with an alternate plan to present to the city.
They wanted to build two office towers with retail space on the land where the city was planning to build Dundas Square but didn’t get a chance to present the proposal to the city. And now they have seen their property turned into a wasteland of debris and mud behind the blue makeshift construction walls.
Mikrogianakis and Stanoulis say they were not surprised the redevelopment has hit snags and was plagued by uncertainty.
“Any project like that, there’s always three or four years of delay. And there’s going to be more delays and more delays,” says Mikrogianakis. “There’s no doubt about it.”
No matter how long it takes, Mikrogianakis will have to watch and wait from the sidewalks like the rest of the public. Tired of the fight, he gave in to the city and watched his building he demolished after he moved out.
But he remembers when he used to stand behind a swamped counter, serving students and tourists burgers and fries at an address that no longer exists.
“I was fed up and I gave up,” he says.
Now Mikrogianakis feels he gave in too easily. “I regret it. I should have fought more.”