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Downtrodden lower Yonge on the road to recovery

Pedestrians walk past stores on Yonge Street, just north of Dundas Street.

Deborah Baic/Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

After decades of stagnation, the city's longest street could be turning a corner.

Consider the signs: Four substantial high-rise projects are going up along Yonge Street between Bloor and Gerrard streets. A major commercial real-estate firm, Primaris, has bought property on both sides north of Dundas Street, although the company isn't yet revealing its plans. And Ryerson University is moving aggressively to carve out a presence around the intersection of Yonge and Gould Street.

What's more, a growing number of residents, businesses and local politicians are talking openly about wider sidewalks, bike lanes and reducing Yonge south of Bloor to two lanes - especially at Dundas, which has become one of Canada's busiest pedestrian crossings.

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As James Robinson, executive director of the Downtown Yonge Business Improvement Area, says, "People are voting with their feet."

What's missing in all this is Toronto's planning department, which has no strategy for the evolution of lower Yonge or improvements to the public realm. "Yonge Street" - despite its much-touted role as the city's main artery - doesn't even appear in Toronto's official plan.

Unlike many of Toronto's downtown retail strips, lower Yonge has been stuck in a rut for decades, even though it is just a block from Bay Street, which has become one of the city's densest residential neighbourhoods over the past 15 years.

Kyle Rae, the area's long-time councillor, says several factors have worked against redevelopment: a large number of very small properties owned by investors reluctant to sell; the presence of the subway tunnel just east of Yonge, which limits large-scale building projects; and the importance of heritage storefronts.

"Yonge Street has been ignored and neglected," observes lawyer Stephen Diamond, who runs Diamondcorp, which is developing a 45-storey condo called Five a block north of Wellesley Street. But the ground has shifted, he says. "The action now is going to happen on Yonge, which is good for the city of Toronto."

Mr. Diamond is a rare breed. While most builders studiously avoided Yonge, his firm had the savvy to propose the heritage-friendly condo tower on a stretch where funky eclecticism long ago yielded to stagnation and decay.

Mr. Diamond's proposal - which council approved last fall - marries density with preservation. The tower is set a few metres back from Yonge, and his firm acquired several historic buildings on both Yonge and St. Joseph Street that will be restored and integrated into the project's ground-floor area. Units went on sale earlier this spring, and a large banner draped across several storefronts signals Five's future presence on Yonge.

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That presence was always a goal. When Mr. Diamond pitched the scheme to the community and council, his team didn't just show glamour shots of the building; they took the unusual step of providing slides of how Yonge might some day look with new tall buildings, restored facades, and more generous sidewalks.

"What we were doing is looking up and down Yonge Street and asking what are the opportunities not just for our site but further north and south," he says. "I've always felt that the treatment of what happens in the first three or four storeys and the public realm is far more important than the height of the tower."

Another developer is building a similarly configured tower just a few metres north, on St. Mary Street.

Further south, meanwhile, Ryerson is pursuing an ambitious expansion strategy that aims to transform Yonge north of Dundas into a campus "gateway." In October, the university will reveal the much-anticipated showcase design for the student learning centre that will go up on the old Sam the Record Man site.

President Sheldon Levy has approached Primaris, the real-estate company buying land on Yonge, about some kind of joint development. He is also leaning on the city to "take whatever action necessary" to deal with the semi-collapsed building at Gould Street, which has been surrounded by hoardings since April. He said in an interview that he hopes to buy the property, which is owned by a development company in Mumbai.

There hasn't been so much activity along lower Yonge since Cadillac Fairview built the Eaton Centre back in the 1970s.

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City planning officials, who have been working on a downtown "tall buildings" strategy for more than a year, are watching Five closely to see if Diamondcorp's approach can be replicated elsewhere on the corridor. Raymond David, the director of community planning for the downtown area, says the project protected Yonge's historic storefronts while adding new residential units.

But both he and Mr. Diamond say the quirky property lines all along lower Yonge work against a one-size-fits-all solution, which is probably a good thing.

The other piece of the Yonge puzzle is making the street itself more welcoming to uses other than payday loan franchises and dollar stores. South of College Street, the Downtown Yonge BIA has invested in recent years in distinctive light standards and signage, and there's talk of extending the BIA's reach further north.

Mr. Levy, at Ryerson, is pushing the city to allow the block north of Dundas to evolve into a "digital media zone" meant to attract high-tech entrepreneurs and extend the glitzy electronic vibe of Dundas Square north to College. "It's time for the city to take the initiative," he says.

That's a contentious idea, and one candidate running to succeed Mr. Rae, Kristyn Wong-Tam, feels it's important the city not forget about local apartment dwellers. "Yonge belongs to the neighbourhood and the business owners," she says.

But, increasingly, it now belongs to a handful of intrepid condo developers, who know there's still a lot of demand for downtown housing even though Bay Street has been largely built out. "It's a great street and there's great potential," Mr. Diamond allows, "but it's not easy to assemble land and make it all happen."



  • Additional entrances/exits for lower Yonge subway stations. TTC chair Adam Giambrone says a new $10-million exit for Wellesley, on Dundonald Street, will go to tender in the fall.
  • The TTC is also looking at new exits at Gould (Dundas, to serve Ryerson), College Park (College), and Granby Parkette (College).


  • Wider sidewalks, bike lanes and lane reductions between College and Queen to enlarge the Yonge-Dundas Square pedestrian zone.
  • Expanding the digital billboard zone outside the Eaton Centre north to Gerrard.
  • Extending the reach of the Downtown Yonge BIA north of College.
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