When word broke last week that Brookfield Properties was taking credit for removing bicycles locked to a TTC pole at the northeast corner of Yonge and Bloor because it asserted authority over the sidewalk there, I knew the situation sounded familiar.
"I was involved in a pretty small demonstration in front of 2 Bloor St. E. the other day," read an email I received in 2009, "and ended up interacting with the private security guard, who was fairly calm and reasonable, but seemed pretty sure that given that the sidewalk was private property, he had all rights to move us along."
As a campaigner with the Toronto Public Space Committee, I would get messages of this sort from time to time.
"On this particular block," the letter writer continued, "the claim went along the lines that ‘given that the building contractor literally built and maintains the sidewalk, it is fully private property out to the curb.' Have you or anyone else at TPSC dealt with these questions before?"
Pulling up old city reports to determine the actual location of the property line (roughly halfway between the building and the curb) was easy enough.
What made the situation complicated and confusing was that the city and the Bloor-Yorkville Business Improvement Area had deliberately blurred the line between public and private, both literally and figuratively.
The Bloor Street Transformation Project, a city-BIA initiative to redevelop the section of Bloor between Avenue and Church with wider granite sidewalks, saw to that. The city fronted the capital costs for the project, to be repaid by the BIA over the following two decades.
A July 2008 city news release said that "After the transformation, Bloor Street will be comparable to other world-renowned shopping destinations such as Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, Fifth Avenue in New York and North Michigan Avenue in Chicago."
But cycling activists were annoyed not only because the plan had not included bike lanes, but because narrowing the roadway would also diminish the likelihood of their being added in the foreseeable future. An environmental assessment wasn't required, in part because the province deemed the project a private development.
"The BIA is paying for this. It's private," then councillor Kyle Rae told NOW.
The city still technically owns the public sidewalk but delegated to the BIA the responsibility for maintaining certain aspects of it: planters, decorative lighting and other "enhanced elements." The city would retain control of sidewalk maintenance, though the BIA would pay an annual fee to cover the cost of the fancier granite.
Construction dragged on longer than expected, and in 2010 the National Post called out the BIA's "delay in replacing the bike parking racks which it removed in front of the Hudson's Bay Company" on that same northeast corner.
A shopper described the situation as "appalling." She had locked her bike to what was then "the only available spot: the bent TTC sign in front of the Bay."