The time for planning is now

By Ken Smith –

The Time for Planning is Now

New condo units, thousands of them, are transforming Old Town Toronto and more are planned. At the same time, some of Toronto’s most historically illustrious asphalt-pocked Old Town streets and sidewalks are being ripped up to accommodate them and new sewer works.

Yet, to date, we have heard nothing at all about the urban streetscape plans for the replacement of trees and pavements and street furniture on either Front Street west of Church, on Yonge Street south of Front, The Esplanade east of Yonge, Scott Street south of Front, Church south of Front,  or for Market Lane, for that matter – all of which are in the midst of construction or deconstruction to some degree.

This is a golden opportunity to set right this key element of the Old Town streetscape — while the neighbourhood is receiving literally hundreds of millions of dollars worth of new condo construction and The Esplanade is being ripped apart for sewer works. The rewards for developers may be handsome, if the economy holds up. But what about the public and the public realm of Old Town Toronto?

The advocacy support and leadership of civic-spirited developers for an upgrading of the streetscape and the proper restoration of our Old Town architectural patrimony would be welcome as we enter the neighbourhood’s post-Occupy Toronto Age. And the City of Toronto should be true to the values of the Walks and Gardens Trusts (funds set aside ages ago to fund and sustain and maintain inner city walkways and gardens such as those in Old Town). Some are on board to be sure, without naming names. Some have a vision for doing things right and doing things in line with principles of sustainable development.

In this same vein, the City should proceed with plans for the restoration of the historic but badly-deteriorating exterior of the historic Sony Centre and the related Peter Dickinson Modernist cloisters, the black marble planters along Scott, the old birch tree grove along Scott, and the streetscape around the auditorium. As an efficiency measure, it would appear to make sense to coordinate restoration of the historic Sony Centre exterior and neighbourhood streetscape restoration or improvements with all the private-sector and public works underway. This may offer a way to avoid any need to rip up the streets again to replant all the mature trees and install proper irrigation and so forth. Let’s aim for some World Class approaches as we get Toronto ready for its Pan-Am close-up. A World Class city should have a World Class streetscape – and we should not pass up the chance to do Old Town right at this timely juncture. Or are Pan-Am preps fixated to a great degree on still more curtain-wall condo building?

Of course, it has been necessary to rip up all the mature trees that have been taken from the Old Town neighbourhood in order to accommodate the developers and the sewers. And we are lucky to have development when so many places have seen it stall or be cancelled. All the sewer construction has caused considerable disruption, as has the condo construction. But this, as we have come to appreciate should be embraced as the price of trickle-down progress for the Common Weal.

After all, just think: we may at last be getting the Sony Centre and its grounds restored to their former glory, not to mention the addition of a trove of sustainable developments in the Old Town neighbourhood, including many new LEED Gold condos.

Neighbourhood pain such that that being endured today in Old Town Toronto — as the ostensible case for growth and development, especially sustainable GREEN development, would have it — is, after all, going to be balanced by a fair and balanced quid pro quo of neighbourhood gain.

The people of Old Town Toronto and its visitors may stand to gain some public realm benefits from all the development projects afoot. And so, it would be helpful to have a comprehensive plan for the public realm in Old Town, the vision for the streetscape that we all share, for example, and the vision for how it may ultimately look and feel. Where is it all going? Our space? We are reasonably well briefed on what the developers are up to, and progress being made on the developers’ condo schemes.

What is lacking are some reassuring insights as to the anticipated streetscape gains – the kind of streetscape restoration and/or progress the community might look forward to, once all the dust settles and the current waves of construction noise across Old Town subside? There is a need for assurance that somehow with all the money sloshing around these historic streets that some is set aside to assure we have pleasant tree-lined sidewalks, planters, lights, street furniture and streetscapes.

Are we going to witness hundreds of millions spent on development within a few precious blocks but still have run-down sidewalks or worse, in some spots as noted, none at all?

Concerted effort to protect, improve and restore the streetscape, the public’s space, ourspace, and the urban forest in Old Town Toronto, and the neighbourhood’s designated and otherwise historical architectural/design features and structures is more needed now than ever. Tourists do not come to Toronto to go to the same box stores they have back home. And where will the attraction of Old Town be, if we rip it down to build condos ad infinitum, without even improving the streetscape experience. Let’s have some balance. Let’s insist on sustainable building best practices as they do in other World Class cities.

Let’s plan and budget — yes budget — now for restoring/upgrading the sidewalks that have been ripped up and plan for the restoration/upgrading of all the mature trees that have been chopped down in Old Town in the past year in the name of progress. Old Town Toronto ain’t much and it is all we have left of one. Let’s get greening — Not least at the Sony Centre, on Scott, on Church, and all along the north side of The Esplanade east from Yonge – a signature feature particularly of the restaurant strip from The Keg along to Fionn MacCool’s that now looks like a disaster area. The trees have all been ripped out. Let’s get them back, better than ever and ASAP.

And, with due alacrity, let’s see what is in the works for the historic Sony, its already-disfigured historic exterior and grounds, a public historic treasure that must be safeguarded if our heritage regulations are to be anything other than a laughing stock, honoured more in the breach than the observance. As part of the overall planning, of course, getting rid of some street parking in Old Town might enable a widening of the sidewalks — possibly to great effect. Imagine, bigger and quieter terraces for our Old Town restaurants. Proper bike lanes. Proper Old Town streets. For a City this size, it is possible. Buffalo is doing more in preserving its past. Much more.

And, of course, on the south side of The Esplanade, there is still that notoriously hazardous thread of our public realm east of the Novotel where vans and truck bumpers all too often hang out over the sloping asphalt pathway that passes for a sidewalk, an especially dangerous situation for elderly people trying to go to St. Lawrence Market in winter. A proper aesthetically-appropriate painted wooden fence along the property line at this parking lot may be the only answer to keep the cars within the bounds of the parking lot, instead of hanging out over the skimpy non-sidewalk. People first, please. Is that too much to ask?