Behind the Monster billboards at Yonge and Dundas, garbage and weeds compete for room in a wasteland once trumpeted as Times Square North.Five years after the fanfare and hype, there's still not a shovel in sight. The reason given officially is that the site's owner, PenEquity, refuses to comply with the city's insistence that it shoulder half the costs of a $2.5-million subway entrance. But the real story may very well be that of a city lacking the sophistication or the smarts to protect the public interest in one of the country's most important intersections.
The hopes for the development aptly named Metropolis were wild indeed. Christopher Hume, the Star's architecture critic, waxed poetic about how it would redefine the city. The Atrium on Bay, conceived as part of the corner's redevelopment, would be transformed, he said, into a "retail palace topped off with a 50-metre-high communications tower."
As it turns out, there's still little reason to venture into the Atrium unless you're in search of alcohol. And that "communications tower' turned out to be an overgrown video billboard, the beginning of the ascent of the ads that saturate ground level throughout Toronto's core.
The designers of the square on the southeast corner call their creation a large "room' in the city. Walking by the lonely plaza this past winter, I could only hope summer would bring more furniture and activity to their empty room. It's hard not to be cynical and simply see Dundas Square as the roof of the parking garage below, but I'm suspending judgment for now.
The privately owned land across the street on the northeast corner is another matter. Five years ago the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) decided 10 downtown store owners would lose their businesses, never mind that in some cases they had owned their land for generations. The land grab was voted in 38-7 by former mayor Barbara Hall's city council.
The OMB had accepted the redesign plan of the Yonge Street Business and Resident Association (YSBRA), a group of stakeholders who argued that the area was a magnet for panhandlers, drug dealers and vagrants. The scheme was notable because none of the association's members would lose their property. On the contrary, some of them stood to benefit.
But most important is the fact that the OMB approved their plan because it would commence earlier than competing proposals brought before it by the landowners facing expropriation. There was a perceived need to get something done quickly.
Plan in place, council approved amendments to its Official Plan in May 1997 to increase the intersection's density and height limits. According to the OMB's decision, "Yonge and Dundas is ripe for change, and the time for change is now."
When expropriation was carried out, the city ensured that the parcels along Yonge Street were hastily bulldozed into history. Hoardings went up in January 1999. Keith Travis, development manager for PenEquity, the site's owner, says Toronto insisted the properties be demolished in order to prevent "negative elements" from exploiting the vacated properties. Personally, Travis says, he thinks it would have been "more prudent' to have left the businesses intact until construction commenced.
Many critics believe the city was negligent in not setting out hard timetables for PenEquity -- a great irony considering the OMB's apparent anxiety to see development undertaken quickly. Asked about his company's delays, Travis insists that five years is not a long delay for a project of this size to get underway and he tersely blames the media for rising frustration with the lack of action. If the press would just stop asking about Metropolis's progress, he says, there'd be no disappointment.
But, to contextualize the slowpoke Metropolis, BCE Place spans 3.4 million square feet of space, almost 10 times the proposed Dundas/Yonge development, and it took only five years.
It's likely that the real cause of the delay is PenEquity's inability to secure tenants. That's what city planner Gary Wright, manager of the Yonge Dundas Revitalization Project, believes. The company, he says, needed a high level of confirmation from a large number of tenants in order to secure financing, but it isn't getting it.
Disney, for example, was said to be interested but backed out, though Virgin Records and Wolfgang Puck, the German restaurateur, remain committed to the project, according to Travis.
Another potential vendor continues to express interest: AMC Entertainment, a U.S.-based cinema chain promoted as Metropolis's anchor attraction. Senior VP of communications Rick King says AMC's plans are unchanged from the original concept, but he feels it isn't his company's responsibility as a tenant to suggest commencement dates to the media.
How did the city lose control of the timing of Metropolis? Lack of foresight, it appears. Wright says such a high degree of optimism surrounded the project, it was felt that deadlines wouldn't be necessary.
Half a decade on, several of the dilapidated, or "tacky," businesses (read unbranded) that were the locus of the YSBRA's gentrification fantasy still operate in the area. Sean Mitchell, who was a security consultant for some of the affected properties during the expropriation battle, believes the fiasco was "just another case of the little guy getting screwed."
The flea market north of Dundas where stalls were available for $100 a week was, he says, an opportunity for young entrepreneurs. He now works for the new incarnation of the World's Biggest Jean Store, whose "tired" facade was located on the southeast corner of Yonge and Dundas and which has now reopened on Victoria Street Lane, just behind its old location. The store was a major tourist attraction that provided the same kind of gritty Times Square atmosphere council now seeks to mimic. Ditto the Licks Restaurant, forced out of its downtown location.
Steve Rockwell, owner of Rockwell Jeans, provides the same discounted clothes favoured by inner-city kids, although his new store's traffic isn't what it used to be. And 30 staff members were laid off. Rockwell agrees the city plan was a good one and thinks the public square is beautiful. But he says the city botched the plan when it failed to open up the "best piece of real estate in the country to bidding.'
Originally, he was angered by expropriation and only got "peanuts" for his property, but according to Rockwell it turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to him. He bought a building on Bond Street and contends it is now worth three times what he paid. The city tried to take that building as well, but according to Rockwell, "God stopped them." Upstairs there's a mosque with a congregation of 2,000. Apparently, no politician wants to be known for expropriating a house of worship to build a commercial development.
Kyle Rae, councillor for Toronto Centre-Rosedale, says he's frustrated with PenEquity's foot-dragging. He calls regularly to inquire about the project's status and is consistently given dates that pass without so much as a shovel hitting the dirt.
When asked if the city will give taxpayers some interim relief from the larger-than-life walls of advertising along Yonge and Dundas, perhaps by creating some green space, Rae bluntly declines. The city, he says, has a revenue-sharing agreement with PenEquity from the company's hoarding ads. But it has to be said, any money generated this way pales in comparison to the cash the city could earn from another fully leased mall in the downtown core.
Rae is also doubtful about whether the city on its own would ever re-expropriate the property on account of PenEquity's inactivity. So if the intersection is again to see movement, maybe the most effective strategy would be for citizens to leverage the upcoming municipal election. Time to start raising some dust.