If you head to Dundas Square these days, you're likely to see bustling groups of what was once almost considered an invasive species in the granite expanse: humans. Could it be that the place is finally, as Ron Soskolne puts it, "finding its place in the hearts of the people?"
Of course, that's precisely how he's supposed to put it, as chair of the Yonge-Dundas Square board of management and a member of primary stakeholder the Downtown Yonge Business Improvement Area.
Obviously, the square has grown since its inception in 2001, when it still looked for all the world like the lobby of an office tower someone forgot to build. But while finding a place in the city's heart seems slow in coming, at least the square is finding its place in the city budget.
Originally, the square (technically not a square at all, but just try selling Yonge-Dundas Irregular Polygon) was intended to be financially self-sufficient by 2006.
But in December, the commissioner of economic development filed a report stating that such self-sufficiency "cannot be achieved without sacrificing a number of the original high-maintenance standards," citing, essentially, the public's lack of enthusiasm for paying to use the square.
This April, council ratified a new arrangement whereby the city would chip in enough to cover the square's operating budget - fixed costs such as maintenance and security - leaving the board to pursue the more modest goal of a self-sufficient events program.
"They were looking at a new model [in 2001]," says Eva Pyatt of the economic development department, "and there was a sense that you could have a commercially self-sufficient outdoor space. It proved not to be that space."
Both Pyatt and Soskolne see the change benefiting all involved. "If you wanted to expand its commercial use further," explains Pyatt, "you'd have to have gated events so it's not as accessible. Now [the board] can focus on what it does well, which is programming the square and making it available to community groups."
The square so often targeted by anti-corporate activists may end up exemplifying the limitations of privatized urban spaces.
Soskolne lists a number of initiatives that are now entering the realm of possibility: more trees, a completed TTC entrance, a permanent and more inviting bandshell, and ambient lighting for the northern canopy. All were in architects Brown and Storey's original plans and are doable, since the city is coughing up.
But little else changes. The number of days a year put aside for free use by community groups remains at 70. And there is no new relationship between the city and the board - a fact that irked policy and finance committee member Howard Moscoe.
"The square is very, very tightly controlled," he says. "City vendors, who are licensed by the city, can't even touch it. [The board] has all its rules, they've got all the power, and yet the city's picking up the bill - for one of the wealthiest BIAs in the city. If it's going to be a public square, turn it over to the city and let it be run like a public square."
The economic development department report rejected that option, expressing a need to preserve the concept of "balance" between public and private interests. "We respect and value the board," says Pyatt. "They're direct stakeholders in that community."
"City council would be nowhere near as responsive," says Soskolne. "[Moscoe's model] would require representatives going and talking to various councillors. It would require councillors debating in council, and probably reports from staff."
He believes the board is the ideal body for balancing the needs of the various stakeholders. This makes sense, but is the array of stakeholders itself balanced?
The city holds one voting seat on the board, held by Councillor Kyle Rae. Four seats (including the chair) are held by the BIA. Arron Barberian (owner of nearby Barberian's Steakhouse and board vice-chair), Anita Cortese (property manager of the Atrium on Bay complex), Keith Travis (development manager for PenEquity, which is responsible for the construction across Dundas). Ryerson University, the McGill-Granby Village residents association, the Toronto Theatre Alliance and the Yonge Street Mission each has one seat.
Eaton Centre owners Cadillac-Fairview are presumably represented through the BIA, on whose board Barberian, Ryerson and PenEquity also sit.
This is hardly scandalous - the square is, after all, a business project. Economic development documents describe its creation as a "reinvigoration, redevelopment and reinvestment" project intended to "generate renewed shopping and private sector development interest in the area."
But why is the city footing the operating budget and private security payroll for a corporate stage if the public gains no more sway in its operations? Ironically, there's no way to compel the advertisers surrounding the square - who both set the tone for and benefit the most from the space - to chip in.
What will all this mean for the average citizen-cum-shopper? Very little, perhaps. The board has every intention and reason to keep the square moderately inviting. Soskolne takes particular delight in the sight of people romping through the fountains. "More and more people are using it as we'd hoped," he enthuses, "which is informally."
But what of political expression, formal or otherwise? Apparently, people writing on the pavement with chalk two years ago is still a sore point, and the board quashed PETA's attempt to use the square last fall for its Holocaust On Your Plate display. The PETA folks can be assholes sometimes, but if we started barring people from public spaces just for being assholes, society would grind to a halt.
It may be that it's taken us this long to embrace the square because of its unpredictable personality, split between the ground-level chaos of public space and the distant heights of private development.
The latter has always seemed to have the home court advantage, but with the board now financially reliant on the city, the playing field could be levelled - even if the physical square itself will always tilt toward the Eaton Centre doors.