Few people know about the pressures on Toronto’s green spaces better than the residents of the Yonge-Eglinton neighbourhood. A pressure that has recently been increased as the hoarding goes up around the soon-to-be-built-over open space at Yonge Eglinton Centre — another loss for the community.
Ever since a zoning amendment was approved three years ago and plans for the crosstown LRT got the go-ahead, phrases like “transit hub,” “urban growth centre” and “density node” have begun edging out “wasteland” and “wind tunnel” as descriptions of choice for the intersection, an area already overburdened by too much glass and steel and not enough greenery.
The recent flood of applications to put up condo towers, with more on the way, has some residents nervously wondering how prominently parks and open spaces will figure in the rush towards the skies.
Robert Blake, president of the Oriole Park Association, which borders Yonge-Eglinton, says residents are already concerned about the lack of spaces.
“We do suffer in the area for public space. Yonge-Eglinton is a focal point in the north end of the city and it lacks a space for public use,” he says, adding that, if anything, the neighbourhood will need more green space as more people arrive.
Current bête noir for campaigners in the Yonge-Eglinton area is real-estate giant Rio Can, which is presently busy digging up a previously open space on the northwest corner of the intersection to build a three-storey glass extension to the shopping mall there. Supporters say the space was run down and ugly; opponents charge it could have been redeveloped as a green square or European café–style area.
David Harvey, director of pressure group Toronto Park People, also identifies Yonge and Eg as a spot in desperate need of something green.
“Neighbourhoods like Yonge-Eglinton, Yonge-Wellesley and areas south of Bloor, some areas around Queen West, they really do lack needed green spaces,” he says, pointing out that although some 13 per cent of Toronto is parkland, much of this is tied up in big chunks of space like Rouge Park and Toronto Islands.
Advocates like Toronto Park People often grumble that the city has a planning policy that is too reliant on reacting to proposals rather than setting out a vision and anticipating development. And, historically, the Yonge-Eglinton intersection has been a shining example of this type of institutional failure. Carved up between three council wards and two different planning areas, even getting all parties into the same room is challenging. That it lacks a BIA doesn’t help, either.
But recently, the first shoots have appeared in what could grow to be a sustained push to improve public spaces in the neighbourhood. Area councillors Karen Stintz and Josh Matlow have been busying themselves with efforts like a midtown planning group that straddles the ward boundaries, and the city recently asked for proposals from urban designers for a new vision for parks and the streetscape around the intersection.
Stinz says that the city’s master plan for the area doesn’t go much beyond a desire to keep the four corners open and something new is needed.
“As the development continues, we’ve recognized that we don’t have a good public realm plan,” she says. “So how do we create public realm, where would we put public art, as an example?”
One of the upsides to having construction firms circling Yonge and Eg is that the area has plenty of cash from Section 37 and other development bonuses sloshing around. New play equipment was recently installed in Oriole Park, a fair walk south of the intersection, and a review group has been set up to figure out how to spend $500,000 earmarked to revitalize Eglinton Park, just to the west. The playing fields were recently re-turfed and on the cards now are a better kids’ play area, an improved splash pad, new pathways and an upgraded community garden.
Another $400,000 will be spent to improve the streetscape on nearby Orchard View Boulevard and there are hopes the road may eventually be closed to traffic and given over as a public space.
“Two years ago, we closed for the summer Orchard View at Yonge, because it’s an offset intersection and because we had a farmers’ market that established itself there on Thursdays,” says Stintz. “We put planters up and we had tables and it was quite a benefit to the community.” The transportation department won’t countenance another road closure while so much construction is underway in the area, but Stintz says she “holds out hope” of figuring something out in the future.
A small park is also being proposed as part of a redevelopment on Duplex Street and a public square at the corner of Montgomery and Yonge, just to the north of the main intersection, is also being mooted. Further down the line, Josh Matlow is also pushing hard for a park or square to be included in plans for the unused TTC bus station on the southwest side of the main intersection. It’s slated to be used as a staging ground for LRT construction in coming years, but Matlow is calling for the city to include a green space that could be used for a famers’ market or just by lunching workers.
With a construction boom in the area, Matlow says it is important that the voices of the area’s residents are heard. “There are dozens and dozens and dozens of current development applications and we expect dozens more, so I think it’s really important to be proactive,” he says. “If one goes to Rome or Paris or even as close as New York, you will find that throughout these cities great public spaces have been created. Toronto for far too long has strived for the heights of mediocrity.”
It’s probably a stretch to say Yonge and Eg will ever be one of the city’s greener spots, but maybe there’ll be room for a few trees among the forest of condos after all.