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Downtown universities want to keep pedestrian space indefinitely

Buying veggies at a farmers' market, playing a pickup hockey game or even walking to class without waiting for traffic isn't usual at Toronto's downtown universities.

But while the city experiments with shutting down parts of streets at Ryerson University and the University of Toronto – as it has for the past year – such things are possible.

Tables, chairs and huge planters have replaced traffic on roads running through both campuses. Now, with little more than a month left for the one-year closings, both schools are trying to hold on to the rare pedestrian space, indefinitely.

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"It's the main artery for the campus," Ryerson's vice-president of administration and finance Julia Hanigsberg said of the Gould Street closing. The U of T closing encompasses Wilcocks Street between Huron and St. George streets.

"In an urban campus like ours, there aren't that many places you can just wander around and have that feeling of being in the middle of a university," said Ms. Hanigsberg.

For at least a decade, she said, Ryerson has been working toward creating a visible space for its students, something that can bring a greater space of community often missing from urban universities.

It seems both schools may gain the pedestrian space they want. City staff will be recommending both streets remain closed permanently when the decision goes to community council next month.

But it means the city will need to rethink traffic flow around the universities, diverting vehicles whose drivers had become accustomed to driving through the campuses.

The city, universities and businesses are now trying to balance their needs before a decision is made.

If continuation of the experiment is not approved, both closings will end Sept. 30.

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"Traffic items need to be managed carefully," said James Robinson, executive director of the Downtown Yonge Business Improvement Area.

Mr. Robinson said he and many of the businesses near Ryerson are mainly supportive of the closing of Gould Street, between O'Keefe Lane and Bond Street, as long as alternative traffic plans are made.

For the businesses just west of Yonge Street, the closing is coupled with nearby construction, making deliveries, loading and off loading more difficult than usual.

A temporary solution has been proposed, allowing vehicles to turn west from a lane toward Yonge Street, but Mr. Robinson said it's not a permanent solution. Once nearby construction is finished, he wants turn restrictions to be reviewed that would ease businesses trying to get west of Yonge Street.

However, Mr. Robinson said closing the street could ultimately keep more people in the area and is positive for business.

Surveys initiated by the city to gauge the community's response to the closings got 2,600 Ryerson respondents, Ms. Hanigsberg said, and 97 per cent were in favour.

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Ms. Hanigsberg said she doesn't think the road closings will hit a political nerve similar to the one bike lanes have.

"I don't think it represents an impediment in people getting downtown in their cars," she said. "So I think it's not likely to become a political hot potato and certainly we hope it doesn't."

If approved, Ms. Hanigsberg said Ryerson would take over the responsibility and cost of maintenance, which would be negotiated in five-year terms. She said the closing would be reviewed by the city each year.

Because the University of Toronto's closing is somewhat contained within the campus it hasn't been disruptive to the community, said Elizabeth Sisam, assistant vice-president of campus facilities and planning.

Earlier last week, a farmers' market – a weekly occurrence – took over the closed part of the street, which is marked by green turf, planters, street furniture and blue leaves painted on the road.

While some shopped at the market and others used the street furniture, Joseph Duong said he almost turned onto the closed section of the street because he didn't see obvious signage.

"It's actually really confusing, it's already tight," he said referring to the road and parking spots. He parked his car in a no-parking zone at the edge of the street closing while he waited for a friend.

"I kind of think it's unnecessary, isn't there already enough space?" he said, adding there should be better signage warning drivers.

Originally there were two closings at U of T, but one on Devonshire Place was discontinued after a few months because of a lack of pedestrian traffic, according to the city. Ms. Sisam agrees it just wasn't attracting students as well as the other spaces have.

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