No Walk in the Park

Will we have to pay to enjoy downtown square?

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considering the political swamp our collective waterfront dreams are mired in and the Trumping of Toronto’s skyline, you have to wonder if this city is capable of allowing for vibrant public space any more.The answer, or perhaps our inspiration, may depend on the fate of a small city block of concrete and granite at Dundas and Yonge that’s being thought of as the gateway to the ubiquitous Gap, Eatons and Hard Rock Cafe (not to mention the pending cinemas and Olympic store) that will surround it.

Yonge-Dundas Square was envisioned as a public space — or at least as public as you can get in the commercial heart of the centre of the universe. The 3,250 metres of open space located above a new city-owned underground parking garage (how’s that for progressive urban planning?) is already being constructed with $10 million of city money.

The planning department will look for another $2 million this budget season to finish it off by next July. But advocates of European-style public squares aren’t totally convinced that this will be an automatic hit. They see signs that this space could end up more a commercial venue than a visionary people place.

Both the city and the Yonge Street Business Improvement Association (BIA) see the square as the linchpin of a revitalized commercial district. It’s the intersection Mayor Mel was most likely thinking of when he once referred to downtown Toronto as a “flea market.”

Already, the BIA has ponied up $200,000 for public washrooms in the square, as well as an additional $200,000 for granite sidewalks along both Yonge and Dundas. The city has matched those contributions.

“We’re trying to do as much joint work with (the BIA) as possible,” says city councillor Kyle Rae.

The square will be made of the same granite, have 20 fountains, a zinc canopy on the north side, a new, larger subway entrance and a booth for last-minute theatre tickets.

Beautifying the Yonge strip is something former Toronto mayor David Crombie says he’s been promoting since his days as director of student services at Ryerson in the 1960s. Then, he was hashing out ideas with local record store owner Sam Sniderman and restaurateur Harry Barberian. So it’s not surprising that he recently championed the square at city council on behalf of their sons Arron Barberian and Bob Sniderman (who runs the Senator jazz club).

“I just think it’s a good idea, and I was willing to put my back into it to bring it out,” says Crombie.

The city’s setting up a board of management for the day-to-day running of the square that will include, among others, four members of the BIA (Bob Sniderman, Arron Barberian, Eaton Centre general manager Clive Baxter and Ron Soskolne of Soskolne Associates), one city councillor (Kyle Rae) and one member each from the Toronto East Downtown Neighbourhood Association, Ryerson University, the Toronto Parking Authority, Yonge Street Mission and the Toronto Theatre Alliance.

But the way it’s shaping up, the square isn’t exactly going to be a free walk in the park.

A recent report from the city’s chief administrative officer to council’s policy and finance committee notes that “unlike public squares attached to city-owned buildings, where programming is geared toward community events, the Yonge-Dundas Square was intended to be used largely for commercial events for which a fee would be charged. Once fully operational, it is expected that the operation of Yonge-Dundas Square will be self-financing.”

Until that time, however, the city’s CAO has requested operational “start-up” money from the public coffers to the tune of $695,000.

“The REM concert in the spring is kind of a hint as to what will be happening in the square in the future,” says BIA executive director James Robinson. “So there’s that part of it, the entertainment side, and Yonge Street is all about entertainment. Another part of it, from a business point of view, allows the local businesses to have a venue of a more commercial nature — for example, for having product launches and fashion shows.”

So will Yonge-Dundas Square end up being a city-subsidized catwalk for the beautiful people? Rae says the square will serve as both a commercial and a public space but admits it will be “used heavily for commercial events.”

Still, some observers are cautiously optimistic that it still has the potential to be a vibrant public place.

“The square will hopefully be animated by the life around it and by the people and buzz and activity, ” says urban designer Ken Greenberg. “Whether it will have enough independent presence not to be just an appendage of the commercial activity but to feel really public — we have to wait and see what materializes on the edges and what the square itself is like.”

Mitchell Kosny, a professor at Ryerson’s school of urban and regional planning, says the fate of the square depends on how freely it’s used.

“I don’t think you can script everything that will happen there, and I hope we don’t try,” says Kosny. “If you do, you may as well put a roof over it or turnstiles.”

Kosny also raises the touchy question of whether the city will effectively make the square off-limits to the street kids and homeless in the neighbourhood.

“They’re part of that community and they ought to use it as well,” he says.

But when he’s asked if street kids will have a problem, councillor Rae says kids don’t hang out at Yonge and Dundas. The ones who hang out a couple of blocks north, at Yonge and Gould, deal drugs.

“If they want to take a chance being in the square, that’s fine,” he says. “But I think it will be heavily surveilled by the police and businesses.”

Sounds neighbourly, doesn’t it?

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