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Mile End’s Arts Café Closes After Steep Rent Hike [Updated]

Community group Mile End Ensemble shared the news of a 40 percent rent increase on social media

chairs stacked Arts Café/Facebook

Cozy Mile End breakfast and brunch haunt Arts Café is the latest business to succumb to the neighbourhood’s ever-escalating rents, its owner Grégory L. Paquet says.

Word of Arts Café’s departure from Fairmount Avenue began to spread Thursday after a photo of a moving truck filled with what looks like a refrigerator and some chairs parked in front of the restaurant was posted to Instagram by Mile End Ensemble, a neighbourhood anti-gentrification group that formed mere weeks ago, after news of another, more outrageous, rent increase imposed on second-hand bookstore S.W. Welch began to circulate.

The group, which advocates on issues affecting both residential and commercial tenants, posted the photo on Instagram on March 25, saying that the business had folded in the face of a 40 percent rent increase — something that has, over the years, become woefully common in the area, even amid the pandemic.

Arts Café had been closed to the public since December 28, 2020, and its social media accounts dormant since about the same time.

Reached for comment Thursday evening, Paquet confirmed the news, explaining that his landlords had given him a notice of a rent increase in fall 2020. He said the notice proposed a 40 percent bump for the first year, plus 7 percent more each following year, for a five-year term.

After refusing the increase, the two parties, aided by lawyers, negotiated the initial hike down to 25 percent, but were unable to reach a consensus on the 7 percent yearly increase thereafter, Paquet says. It was in late January that Arts Café ultimately received an eviction notice stating that they’d have to vacate the premise by the end of their lease, which was up on April 1, 2021, Paquet says. He and his mother, Diane Leclair, with whom he runs the restaurant, have been packing ever since.

In a written statement provided to Eater on March 27, the building owners, Santos Brizuela and Mai Ly, say that they initially sent a letter to Paquet in October to renegotiate the lease terms but that it went unanswered until January. Brizuela and Ly claim that once Arts Café did reply, they were “aggressive,” “threatening,” and “tried to intimidate two elderly owners who have been retired for years now and have no other source of income other than that of the building.”

While Brizuela and Ly did not dispute the proposed 40 percent hike in their statement, they contend that issues regarding the timely payment of rent, unauthorized changes to the property, and the meeting of certain security regulations put Arts Café in violation of their lease, and that these were the main factors behind their decision not to renew the lease.

Paquet said he has generally had a cordial relationship with the building’s landlords, though they did not have a direct conversation about rent before notifying him of the increase. “I just feel like if we’d sat down with them, no lawyers, we could have maybe come to a resolution,” Paquet says. “They aren’t bad people. They seemed misguided more than nefarious, but the end result is kind of the same. You know?”

The mother and son duo took over Arts Café in 2012 (the previous owners founded it in 2002), and have run the corner establishment spotlighting seasonal ingredients and local art ever since.

According to Paquet, earlier this week, at the sight of a forlorn Arts Café stacked with moving boxes, the landlords appeared to have a change of heart, and pleaded with Paquet and Leclair to stick around. Paquet suspects that their lawyer or real estate agent had previously “been calling the shots for them,” and that the eviction notice may have been a bluff designed to get them to reconsider the rent increase. In any case, at that point, “the ship had sailed,” Paquet says.

But Brizuela and Ly say that the reason they stopped by the space is because they’d been hearing “noise like drilling, hammering, sawing, bumping,” and they wanted to make sure that their property wasn’t being “destroyed.” They claim to have never asked them to reconsider staying.

The landlords say the rent increase “was never the only reason” motivating their decision not to renew the lease, and clarified through their attorney that they were willing to negotiate further on that front. They also point to their having opted into the Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance (CECRA) program, which reduces tenants’ rents to 25 percent during the pandemic, with the government covering 50 percent, and landlords the remaining 25 percent.

“We, more than anybody, can understand the situation that this pandemic has put many businesses and families in, but we also have to look out for ourselves if we want to keep our only property and finish our days in peace,” Brizuela and Ly’s statement reads. According to Find My Landlord, a website that aggregates information from public records, this is the sole property Brizuela and Ly own in Montreal.

Queer café Le Cagibi and patisserie Chez de Gaulle are among the most notable examples of businesses forced to withdraw from the area over the past couple of years due to massive rent hikes. More recently, news that S.W. Welch might have been priced out of its space by a 150 percent rent hike served to reinvigorate discussions of Mile End’s shifting landscape and the harm being caused by gentrification. (In the wake of public pressure, S.W. Welch and landlord Shiller Lavy renegotiated the figure for an additional two-year stay.)

At this point, Paquet isn’t sure where, when, or in what form Arts Café will return, but he can confirm that an eventual comeback is the hope. “We haven’t had much time to dedicate to that yet — there’s always another drawer to empty. But, yeah, the idea would be to get another space. When we got Arts, we’d never had a restaurant before, so there are a lot of stuff we might do differently next time. But the flavour of Arts will be felt in whatever new endeavour we tackle.”

What is likely, however, is that Mile End residents, buoyed by the success of recent protests, won’t take the news of yet another vacancy hastened by an exorbitant rent hike quietly — especially as small businesses across the city struggle to keep afloat during the pandemic. Even after news broke on March 8 of Shiller Lavy’s about-face on the S.W. Welch rent increase, hundreds stuck to their plans to mobilize on March 13 for a “read-in” protest, reaffirming their ongoing commitment to challenging the predatory practices of landlords in the area — and getting government officials to do the same.

Update: March 26, 2021, 10:35 a.m.: This post has been updated to include commentary and confirmation from Arts Café owner Grégory L. Paquet.
Update: March 26, 2021, 5:15 p.m.: This post has been updated to include information regarding Arts Cafe’s landlords.
Update: March 27, 2021.: This post has been updated to include comments from the Arts Café’s landlords.