Jarvis Street, circa 1910. (City of Toronto Archives)
Torontonians should be ashamed at what happened to Jarvis Street. The city’s first paved road was once the grandest tree-lined boulevard around, bracketed by the mansions of some of Toronto’s wealthiest movers and shakers. Then, in the 1940s, the stately Jarvis boulevard was transformed: trees were pulled down and sidewalks ripped up to make way for the automobile. Jarvis Street was turned from a gorgeous historical thoroughfare into an urban highway, stretching from the waterfront up to Bloor. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
The lack of any effective and inspired city planning also obliterated some of the city’s most important historical architecture, much of it along Jarvis. Classic brick homes came down and generic apartment blocks went up. The enormous McMaster manor (now the Keg Mansion) used to sit on the northeast corner of Jarvis and Wellesley, but is now marred by a grotesque gas station and hideous parking lot. Allan Gardens remains well-preserved, but no longer has any significant pedestrian presence along Jarvis—in fact, the street has become outright hostile to pedestrians, cyclists, and street-level businesses, particularly in the area between Queen Street and Bloor.
Around 1997, the City of Toronto embarked on an streetscape improvement feasibility study that would see Jarvis Street regain at least a modicum of its former glory—rearranging traffic flow, adding sustainable greenery, preserving historical sites, and significantly enhancing activity on the pedestrian level. Rogers Communications, which is headquartered at Jarvis and Bloor, donated a large amount of money toward the redevelopment plans, which aim to revamp the corridor north of Queen. Following exhaustive research and more than a decade later, the Jarvis Street Streetscape Improvement plan has now been formally introduced.
What was, and what became. (City of Toronto Archives/City of Toronto)
Jarvis Street is fraught with problems. Vehicular traffic travels in excess of municipal limits and lane width (about three metres) is significantly more cramped than current standards, making cycling an undesirable proposition. The corridor is devoid of a public transit route, save for a single, limited-stop express bus during rush hours, and sidewalks sometimes narrow uncomfortably. Between Charles and Isabella streets, Jarvis is a whopping six lanes wide, and one of the five lanes between Isabella and Queen becomes reversible to assist in traffic flow.
The Jarvis corridor is actually an important historical district, although you’d never know it from a pedestrian vantage point. Along with Allan Gardens and the McMaster mansion, there are still some elements left of the city’s early heritage. Jarvis Collegiate (1807) is the oldest high school in Toronto and the second-oldest in the province. Northfield House (1872), now appealingly enveloped by the National Ballet School, was home to Sir Oliver Mowat, one of the Fathers of Confederation, longtime Premier of Ontario, and the great uncle of novelist Farley Mowat. The strip was home to Masseys, McMasters, Gooderhams, Mosses, Cawthras, and Flavelles. Following the 1940s widening project, what was once the Rosedale/Bridle Path of its time eventually descended into a strip of abandoned buildings, parking lots, and seedy flop houses as residents fled to more attractive neighbourhoods with tree-lined streets.
A few historic jewels remain. (Photos by chelseagirl, left, and Alfred Ng, from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.)
While the residential profile has been revived with new development, Jarvis is still no longer a destination, but merely a means to get to one’s destination—a quick path slicing through downtown devoid of any remarkable sidewalk-level activity. City Councillor Kyle Rae has been leading a community advisory group of local residents, and is enthusiastic about the street’s potential. “It’s time the city takes back Jarvis and turns it into a neighbourhood street,” he said at a March 19 public meeting to present the streetscape plan. “It doesn’t need to be a freeway in downtown Toronto.”
The area being examined for improvement is bordered by Sherbourne and Church, from east to west, and from Bloor to Queen, north to south. Toronto’s Official Plan specifically addresses the importance of Jarvis, and the street is one of the seven “cultural corridors” spelled out in Toronto’s Waterfront plan. In the ideal urban environment envisioned by the City, the area would be compatible with both cars and cyclists. It would feature raised planters, accent paving, and extensive greenery. Important historical spots would be demarcated and preserved. Street lighting, benches, and consistent sidewalk design would spur foot traffic, and sidewalks would be buffered from speeding cars and crosswalks improved. Most visibly, the reversible centre lane would be removed and replaced with a plantable median.
Sidewalks on Jarvis have little consistency of design or utility. (City of Toronto)
It all sounds great, but there are some serious tradeoffs. The City acknowledges that cyclists use Jarvis, but the street isn’t included in the official bike plan. Bike lanes aren’t being added, and the TTC has no plans to improve service on Jarvis. And one of the biggest problems is what lies beneath the pavement—subsurface utilities may impede sidewalk or lane widening efforts, and water lines, sewage conduits, telephone lines, hydro cables, and cable fibre can’t be moved. Left turns across the boulevard will be a concern. Then there’s a crucial impediment to pedestrian appeal—unless people can shop, play, or gather along the improved streetscape, there’s still little reason for non-residents to walk east of Yonge or Church.
There’s a whole lotta stuff underground. (City of Toronto)
But what about the shift in vehicular traffic and parking patterns? The City wants to eliminate most of the parking spaces along the corridor, and a 2005 traffic feasibility study [PDF] seems to indicate that the diversions can be accommodated by both Church and Sherbourne with little impact. Parking utilization on Jarvis hovers only around 50–60%, and utility constraints would likely still allow some swaths of off-lane bay parking. Penelope Palmer of Transportation Services says that no significant growth of vehicular traffic is expected in the corridor, and that traffic currently operates reasonably well, save for congestion at Gerrard/Sherbourne, Bloor/Sherbourne, and Bloor/Church.
According to the Facebook group established to solicit feedback on the improvement plan, bike lanes are the main topic of concern. At the standing-room-only March 19 public meeting, cycling was also a top issue, but the only solution currently offered by the plan is to potentially widen curb lanes, merely allowing bicycles some breathing room—a minor consolation for a street with such high speed traffic.
Given the challenges and following the recommendation of the feasibility study, the element that doesn’t seem to be compromised is the elimination of the centre lane and the installation of an attractive living median. Sidewalk consistency seems also to be an achievable goal, as does the simple restoration of characteristic iron fencing, historic gardens, flanking greenery, and signage. The City also points to the new National Ballet School as an example of how new development can incorporate Heritage properties, as the school did with historic Havergal College/CBC building and Northfield House.
The next step in the Jarvis Streetscape Improvement Plan will be a public “walkshop” along Jarvis in April or May with city planning, transportation services, and heritage department representatives. The walkabout will solicit feedback on what sorts of changes Torontonians want to see, where they identify problem areas, and what parts of the plan citizens don’t particularly like. A second open house is slated for June, with final documentation tentatively available in October. Designs and renderings will appear in 2009, though a construction commencement date has yet to be determined.
So: it’s been a long time coming, and it seems like the City is beginning to undo some of its past mistakes. After decades of disastrous planning and the rampant destruction of Toronto’s urban history, it’s nice to see some progress to reverse the trend, even at this early stage. Reviving the dignity of Jarvis Street to its past splendor is impossible, but this is a plan worth the enthusiasm.
Reversible lane light photo by Marc Lostracco.