The Quest for More Pedestrian Space at Yonge and Eglinton in the Early 2010s

Squaring Off at Yonge and Eglinton

Originally published on Torontoist on March 30, 2010.

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On any given lunch hour, the plaza in front of the Yonge-Eglinton Centre is populated by office workers enjoying a sun-soaked lunch and smoke break, high school students heading toward the food court or other nearby fast food joints, and companies handing out the corporate sample of the day to pedestrians. The sculptures lining the plaza had slightly more company than usual yesterday thanks to a protest over whom the space should serve: its private owner or the surrounding community.

Depending on the media source, between fifty and 125 protestors showed up waving signs urging site owner RioCan and local politicians to “keep Yonge for the young” as they chanted “save our square.” Local media was there in full force, which must have pleased the organizers from the Yonge-Eglinton Square Coalition—at times it felt as if there were more cameras and microphones about than concerned citizens (a running commentary on Urban Toronto made fun of the size of the protest relative to the square). At issue is RioCan’s plan to redevelop the Yonge-Eglinton Centre by topping the two existing office towers with additions of five and seven storeys apiece and the encroaching three storeys of new retail space onto the square thanks to a four-thousand-square-metre addition that will include a rooftop garden.

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RioCan has set aside a gallery in the mall to show off its plans for the site. While the hours listed on the doors to the gallery indicated that it was open to the public yesterday, both of our attempts to take a look were met with unexplained locked entrances. It may be coincidental that the company’s official website for the redevelopment is under construction, though some sketches are still available for viewing.

According to its website, the Yonge-Eglinton Square Coalition represents four local residents’ associations that wish to preserve the lone accessible open space at the intersection. They hope that rather than build more retail onto it, the barren plaza be transformed into a people-friendly “welcoming oasis in the middle of the city.” Supporters were among the community members, city officials, and local developers who participated in a workshop last November [PDF] that examined ways to handle the redesign of the space and the intensification of the neighbourhood in general.

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As far as public space was concerned, the workshop concluded that:

The northwest quadrant is a commercial hub, a focal point, and a regional destination. However, this quadrant needs a refit in its mid-life, including added retail and redesign of the indoor plaza. As well, currently, the square is not a good quality and pedestrian supportive environment as it is: a windy space with bad grades; without appropriate programming; lacking in adequate street furniture; and is seasonally constrained with piles of snow and salt. Therefore, the square in this quadrant, which is one of the key open spaces in the area, should be redesigned and improved…There is a shortage of open space at or near the intersection of Yonge and Eglinton. It is recommended that all four quadrants abutting the intersection contribute to remedy this shortage. Issues related to quantity of open space should be balanced with consideration for high quality design, pedestrian vitality and interest.

As for whether an open public space is legally required at Yonge and Eglinton [PDF], disputes that there were any written guarantees in the land title or any references in contemporary planning reports and council minutes that “require the land to remain as open space in a quid pro quo arrangement for Starrett Avenue [which was closed off to build the complex].”

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Toronto District School Board trustee Josh Matlow (Ward 22, St. Paul’s) listens to Lydia Levin of the Yonge Eglinton Square Coalition.

Organizers of the protest hope their efforts will encourage concerned residents to contact city councillors before a final vote is taken on the project on Wednesday or Thursday. So far, RioCan’s proposals have been approved by the North York Community Council. At least two of the neighbourhood’s councillors are divided in their opinion of the project. Strong support for the redevelopment plan from Karen Stintz (Ward 16, Eglinton-Lawrence) has caused head-scratching among some local taxpayer groups, as she initially ran for municipal office on a wave of residential opposition to the construction of the Minto Quantum condo towers. A March 24 post on her website rebukes opponents of the plan by articling five points about the redevelopment, which include economic, aesthetic, and cultural benefits on land that is privately owned. As Stintz summarizes, “people are free to protest, but this application represents a fair balance for the community who wish to revitalize this corner and the property owners who wish to realize a benefit from their investment.”

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Neighbouring councillor Michael Walker (Ward 22, St. Paul’s) supports those hoping to prevent the encroachment on the space from going ahead. As he told CTV News, “We don’t want to lose it and we should say no. It’s easy to say and the politicians shouldn’t cave to another deal-making exercise. There’s a point where profit has to take second place to city building and it starts right here where we’re standing.” Toronto District School Board trustee Josh Matlow, who is running to fill the retiring Walker’s council seat, lent his support to the protestors. “The reality is that nobody wants the square to be the way it is,” Matlow told the National Post. “It needs some work. Our community wants this to be revitalized, not lost to a shopping mall. It’s not a lot to ask.”

A Pedestrian Square Grows in North Toronto

Originally published on Torontoist on July 29, 2011. Images for this story no longer appear to exist.

North Toronto probably isn’t the first neighbourhood you’d name when listing off public space experiments in the city, especially when future development plans at its main intersection look likely to decrease street-level open-air stretching room. Yet walk a block north from Eglinton Avenue along Yonge Street and you’ll find a pilot project aiming to create pedestrian space on Orchard View Boulevard. At an intersection where pedestrians often had to deal with impatient drivers and delivery trucks, they now find planters blocking the road and umbrella-shaded tables providing a more comfortable spot to enjoy al fresco dining than the concrete ledges lining the side street.

Officially opened on July 14, the City created the pedestrian square by closing Orchard View Boulevard to traffic between Yonge Street and the driveway for the Canterbury House apartment building. Though concerns about the space have been expressed by the neighbouring RBC branch (impact on customers) and some local ratepayer groups (procedural issues), Councillor Karen Stintz (Ward 16, Eglinton-Lawrence) has received overwhelmingly positive feedback about the initiative she helped make a reality, along with ratepayer groups and RioCan. Besides providing a spot for residents and office workers to relax, Stintz joked that the project is “probably the cheapest park we’ll build in North Toronto,” which aligns it the Ford administration’s low-cost philosophy of government and may have contributed to the unanimous support the pilot project received at city council. Stintz also praised the support of RioCan, which operates the neighbouring Yonge-Eglinton Centre, through actions like maintaining the patio tables.

One of main beneficiaries of the pedestrian square is Apple Tree Markets, who moved their Thursday farmers’ market from a hidden space in Eglinton Park behind the North Toronto Memorial Community Recreation Centre to the pedestrian square. Higher visibility seems to be making market vendors happy: even with extreme heat last week and dreary conditions yesterday, they’ve seen increased customer traffic. The threat of rain hadn’t hindered activity when we dropped by around 4 p.m. yesterday—most of the tables were occupied and every market vendor saw several potential purchasers hovering over their fresh vegetables, coolers of meat, and other edible goodies. One vendor we talked to noted that customers indicated they preferred the market’s new home because they couldn’t be bothered to walk over to Eglinton Park, even if they lived mere blocks away.

After the tables are vacated for the last time on October 14, the pilot will be analyzed for its impact on the neighbourhood and for the possibility of making the closure a permanent seasonal attraction. (It’s not the first of its kind, exactly: the City has partnered with U of T and Ryerson on previous road-closure pilots.) There are also plans to test a second pedestrian square next year in the northern end of Stinz’s ward at Avenue Road and Dunblaine Avenue. Given that seating space is at a premium whenever we pass by, we hope that the new space will become a North Toronto fixture for years to come. Orchard View Square, anyone?

UPDATE

As of fall 2018, we can tell you this much: public space wise, Yonge and Eglinton is currently a disaster. Between construction of the Eglinton Crosstown LTR line and the erection of several condo towers, getting around the intersection by any means is complicated. What the future will bring in terms of increasing outdoor pedestrian space probably won’t be clear until the fate of portions of the TTC land on the southwest corner is decided.

The revamp of the Yonge-Eglinton Centre went ahead, shrinking the open-air space. Josh Matlow was elected to City Council in 2010 while Karen Stintz unsuccessfully ran for mayor in 2014. The pedestrian pilot along Orchard View Boulevard did not endure, and a traffic light has been installed, creating a stronger traffic flow link to Roehampton Avenue. The farmer’s market spent this past summer near Davisville station.

BEHIND THE SCENES

Revisiting these stories has been a great example of how fleeting information is on the interwebs, as nearly all of the links that appeared in the original posts are kaput. I’m tempted to blockquote large sections of linked material in future blog posts to provide full context before those posts vanish. One of the worst offenders in the current Toronto media world are Postmedia’s Toronto properties (National Post, Sun), which have little online archival material thanks to website revamps.

A Square Grows at Yonge and Dundas

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.