By Claire Nelischer
Yonge Street been a central spine of Toronto’s downtown for decades. Over the years, it has been home to an exciting and ever-changing mix of small businesses, renowned music and entertainment venues, and major shopping destinations. More recently, it has been home to a growing population of residents and students, developing a new role and identity as a neighbourhood main street.
And today, Yonge Street is again poised for change, with a major redesign set to transform this iconic downtown corridor into a more people-friendly place. In 2015, the City of Toronto launched an Environmental Assessment process to redesign Yonge Street for the 21st century. This could mean expanded sidewalks, new public spaces, and possibly event full pedestrianization to support Downtown Yonge’s future as a vibrant, walkable neighbourhood.
The Ryerson City Building Institute has been following this process closely, and earlier this month hosted a Jane’s Walk to explore how a redesigned Yonge Street could benefit the neighbourhood and the University.
With a crowd of about 100 city builders, we walked and talked about the future of Yonge Street, and why it’s so critical that we get this street right.
The walk began on Gould Street, on the Ryerson campus – the first fully-pedestrianized street in Toronto. Molly Anthony, Ryerson’s Acting Director of Planning & Development, shared the history of how the Gould Street pedestrian zone came to be in 2012, and an update on Ryerson’s Campus Public Realm Plan and efforts to take Gould Street to the next level. There is big potential for Gould Street and Yonge Street to be mutually supportive as pedestrian-priority spaces, and to promote town-gown relations by linking together the campus and neighbourhood.
At our second walk stop, overlooking Yonge Street from the steps of Ryerson’s new Student Learning Centre, urbanist and CBI Board Member Ken Greenberg shared some history on Yonge Street and why this street is so important in the minds and memories of Torontonians. He traced Yonge’s evolution as a place for people, from the construction of the subway, to the summertime pedestrian mall in the 1970s, and more recently, the temporary parkettes and expanded sidewalk space introduced through Celebrate Yonge in 2012. Ken highlighted the importance of the Environmental Assessment process – as a significant moment in Yonge Street’s evolution and key opportunity to shape the future of Downtown Yonge as a place for public life.
Our next stop took us to the corner of Yonge and Gerrard, where the Downtown Yonge BIA has launched a pop-up community gallery space. Dubbed “Yonge Space”, the gallery was created through a partnership between the BIA and Cresford, the developer leading the redevelopment of a number of heritage buildings along Yonge. Over the coming months, the gallery will host a series of temporary exhibits and will offer opportunities for the community to present events and exhibitions. Steven Ziegler, Development & Construction Facilitator with the Downtown Yonge BIA, gave us an overview of the Yonge Space, as well as the BIA’s broader efforts to support neighbourhood vibrancy in the context of dramatic growth and development. The BIA’s 2015 Yonge Love campaign was instrumental in articulating a vision for Downtown Yonge as a walkable, pedestrian-friendly main street, and the BIA continues to advocate for positive change along Yonge.
We then travelled north to College Park, where the revitalization process is underway. Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam spoke about her efforts to support the creation of exceptional public spaces for residents and workers near Downtown Yonge, and to meet the needs of the neighbourhood amidst the pressures of unprecedented growth and change. Councillor Wong-Tam has long supported a beautiful, vibrant, inclusive Yonge Street, initiating studies and plans to revitalize the street. She highlighted the role that a pedestrian-priority street redesign could play in celebrating and supporting Yonge as a vibrant main street not just for the neighbourhood, but as an important place for all Torontonians.
Our final stop brought us full circle, back to the Ryerson campus. In The Quad, a green oasis in the heart of campus, we heard from Dr. Zhixi Zhuang, a professor in Ryerson’s School of Urban and Regional Planning. Zhixi shared highlights from her ongoing research into the question: how can a revitalized Yonge Street public realm benefit the Ryerson campus? Referencing case studies from across North America of other pedestrian-priority public realm investments adjacent to campus, Zhixi highlighted why the future of Yonge Street is so important for Ryerson, and how it could enhance the livability of the campus as a whole.
After taking a big group photo, the walkers and walk leaders mingled and shared hopeful ideas and visions for the future of Downtown Yonge. In the wise words of Jane Jacobs, we’ve got our eyes are on the street, and are excited to see what the future holds for Yonge.