Originally published on Torontoist on August 9, 2013.
When Yonge-Dundas Square officially opened to the public a little over ten years ago, in the spring of 2003, there was plenty of head-scratching. Touted as the latest curative for an ailing Yonge Street, it appeared to be little more than a granite-covered space amidst construction hoarding and video displays. The collection of jean shops, burger joints, and surface parking lots it replaced might have been disreputable and tatty, but they had character.
Perhaps the problem was that the square was a puzzle piece in a jigsaw effort to create Toronto’s version of Times Square. The space wasn’t finished when Snow and Treble Charger graced the stage in front of 10,000 people on opening night on May 30, 2003; there were still light standards to install and a TTC entrance to complete. Circling the square were incomplete projects like Metropolis (which evolved into 10 Dundas East, sans proposed tenants like Virgin Megastore) the Torch building (which went from showcasing Olympians to housing CityTV), and renovations at the Eaton Centre.
Supporters of the square urged patience. Star architecture critic Christopher Hume admitted the unfinished state made it hard to appreciate the site’s possibilities as a gathering spot. His peers on the Star editorial page were harsh: “Does this flat black patch not look for all the world like a parking lot at a Scarborough strip mall?” they wondered. “It doesn’t help that one end is covered by what appears to be a missing off-ramp from the Gardiner Expressway.”
Yonge-Dundas Square owes its existence to a major transportation decision made during the first decade of the 20th century. To create a new crosstown route, side streets were stitched together to extend Dundas Street east of Ossington Avenue. The square emerged when a jog separating the former Agnes and Wilton streets was bypassed at Yonge Street. Until the late 1920s, the road along the south side was known as Wilton Square, a name that survived at least one petition to change it to its present moniker.
From 1948 through 1972, one of the square’s major landmarks was the Downtown theatre. Located on the northeast side of the intersection of Yonge Street and the Dundas Square roadway, the Downtown was noted for its 4,000-light marquee and one of the busiest concession stands in Canada. It complimented nearby cinemas along Yonge like the Biltmore, the Elgin, and the Imperial. Following its demolition, the Downtown’s site was home to businesses ranging from a Classic Bookshops discount outlet to a Lick’s.
The rest of the square housed restaurants and retailers, with a surface parking lot at the back. During Yonge Street’s sleazy era, proposals emerged to improve the streetscape around Dundas Square to increase safety and combat street vendors illegally hawking their wares from doorways. An idea that reached the city’s public works committee in 1977 would have turned the Dundas Square roadway into a cobblestone-lined pedestrian mall housing 30 licensed street vendors. Objections from neighbouring jewelers, who feared the impact of a street closure, killed the plan.
Between 1996 and 1998, City Council and other government bodies granted approvals aimed at transforming the square into an open area. The major proponent was Councillor Kyle Rae, who felt it would cleanse the neighbourhood. He wasn’t unhappy to see the existing streetscape—and its reputation for drug dealing—vanish when demolition began in 1999. “The city expropriated those buildings, which were at the extreme end of their life,” he told the Star in a 2003 interview. “They were basically a criminal landscape. There’s no other way of saying it.”
A design competition attracted over 65 hopefuls. The winner was Brown + Storey Architects. Working with the high volume of pedestrians and vehicles passing by the square, they kept intrusions to a minimum. As architect James Brown told the Star in 2002:
The square is porous. We’re moving water through it, people through it…it’s the new landscape, artificial, man-made, though the granite is real, natural. But we’re making it porous, connecting the underground systems, pedestrian linkages, lighting, electricity, water, subway, everything that serves the upper surface. We’re applying the same principles in any ecological system to the surface. That’s what’s interesting about the square. It’s also about cultural infrastructure.
Brown and partner Kim Storey earned a Progressive Architecture citation from Architecture magazine in 2000.
Crowds took advantage of the square soon after the hoarding came down in late 2002. Protests against the Iraqi War tested how the space would function for mass gatherings. The first year of official programming included concerts, tie-ins to Caribana, and a mayoral debate. (We weren’t able to find out when the first free samples of soda were handed out.)
By the end of the square’s first year, opinion remained mixed. The National Post’s Peter Kuitenbrouwer admitted that the square’s minimal décor was starting to seem more appropriate as buildings rose around it. “It’s a crossroads,” he observed, “a place to take a breath between shopping and dining and movie-going and ersatz bobsledding. A respite from all the flash.” On the other hand, a new publication called Spacing was less entranced by the ad overload and rules meant to prevent users from chalking the surface. “It’s sanitized and militarized,” magazine co-founder Matthew Blackett told the Star. “It’s a public space, apparently, but it’s a mirror to the mall.”
Time has mellowed some early critics. Writing for Eye Weekly in 2003, Edward Keenan lamented the replacement of a streetscape that had grown organically with a square “that looks like an abandoned bus terminal.” On the cusp of tonight’s tenth-anniversary concert, he reflects that “it works because it doesn’t get in the way by trying to be the big attraction itself…it turns out to be a monument to people. To us. To Toronto.”
Additional material from the January 16, 2003 edition of Eye Weekly, the September 2, 1977 and October 6, 1998 editions of the Globe and Mail, the June 4, 2004 edition of the National Post, and the May 8, 1926, September 2, 1977, March 18, 2002, May 29, 2003, June 1, 2003, and December 3, 2003 editions of the Toronto Star.