Life Downtown is getting even more interesting

By Ken Smith —

Getting around Downtown—from the Harbourfront to the Financial District and the St. Lawrence Neighbourhood—is getting more pleasant in some ways but less so in others. There are noteworthy improvements thanks to efforts by established and new investors, neighbourhood and business associations, and the efforts of council and city staff.

One of the centerpieces of improvement is the new Yonge St. Promenade from Queen’s Quay to Front St.

Those using the route to travel from Harbourfront and Downtown to Old Town Toronto and the St. Lawrence Market Neighbourhood now have wider sidewalks, more trees and landscaping on Lower Yonge Street, plus bike lanes and improved lighting in the underpass below the railway tracks. New traffic signals actually give pedestrians time to cross the streets. There is even an imposing new sculpture on Yonge between the Gardiner and the tracks.

West of Union Station, Simcoe St. (one block west of York) has been opened up under the tracks with a new underpass, again with bike lanes. This gives pedestrians and bicycles another way to get around among the Financial District, Old Town and Harbourfront. And at Union Station, the new pedestrian viaduct under the tracks east of Bay St. provides access stairways up to the GO Transit train platforms. Passengers can even buy train tickets from the ticketing machines at the GO Transit bus terminal east of the station, bypassing the crowded halls of Union Station entirely.

Just to the west of the Royal York, the median area at the foot of University Avenue has been transformed into a planted park space.

Those visiting Harbourfront will see newly installed wave-like extensions to the sidewalks on Queens Quay at quayside. For those who take the time to follow the water’s edge from the Westin Hotel over to Spadina, one will find an ever-improving public realm, albeit an overabundance of international merchandise kiosks and a dearth of decent waterside dining.

Downtown got a bit more interesting thanks to the decision of the huge new Brooks Brothers clothing emporium at Royal Bank Plaza to stay open on Saturdays—hopefully setting an example for its PATHway neighbours. It is hoped that this anchor is the start of bringing vibrancy to the PATH network as a weekend as well as midweek destination. The PATH system is widely advertised and otherwise promoted internationally as a great Toronto attraction but if people visit Downtown on their day off, most shops along the PATH are closed.

Over on The Esplanade just to the east of the Sony Centre for Performing Arts, the new London Lofts condominium is installing a continuous band of weather protection awnings, while new sculptures have been installed on each side of the building’s garage entrance on Scott. Trees will be installed in front of this new mixed-use complex as an extension of the plantings further along the pedestrian thoroughfare that is The Esplanade (part of the Walks and Gardens Trust).

On the down side, the inner city is seeing more and more residential buildings with above-ground parkade facilities, even luxury ones. While such economies are understandable, to its credit, London Lofts, for example, has put its parking underground while contributing generously to the public realm as a social responsibility.

Sadly, some businesses have not been able to survive changing circumstances and pressures or they have decided to reallocate their resources elsewhere. Two restaurants have closed opposite the Sony Centre, even though there is considerable anticipation for the grand reopening of the landmark performing arts hub. By the time the snow flies, it will have been out of commission for a year and a half to accomplish mechanical and other enhancements.

Hopefully, all the refurbishing and restoration efforts going on (or planned) behind the austere hoardings at this city-owned site will be heralded, after this long wait, as a great step forward in 20th century architectural and design preservation, or something equally stunning.

The community and nation long for the day the once magnificently-landscaped grounds at the Sony Centre will again make a world class contribution to the public realm—even if that means an extreme makeover or a more modest effort.

On neighbouring streets, there is still much that can be done to fix broken sidewalks in ways other than putting pox and patches of asphalt on them. And while the need for more trees continues unabated throughout the heart of the city, at least we have the trees on Front St. in front of Union Station and the Dominion Public Building at last reaching photogenic maturity.

Unfortunately, over in St. Lawrence Neighbourhood, all the maples seem to be dying. Just look at the trees in front of the Biermarkt and its neighbours and along towards St. Lawrence Market on The Esplanade—but in doing so check out the new Green Roof bus shelter at Scott Street and The Esplanade.

Several of our Old Town trees won’t make it through the winter. A couple more trees have already died across from the Sony Centre on Front not to mention others that have been deliberately felled elsewhere in the Old Town neighbourhood.