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Degraded Jarvis Street To Be Mildly Upgraded

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.
jarvisxlight_19Mar08.jpgGiven 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.


  • Skippy the Magical Racegoat

    Interesting that there’s no mention of prostitutes. How do you suppose they’re going to be affected by all this? Or, for that matter, pimps and crack dealers?

  • David E

    Allan Gardens never went as far west as Jarvis St.
    Allan’s land went from Sherbourne St. then 660 feet west. That leads to the eastern end of Jarvis St. Baptist Church. The little lane called Horticultural was the westerly limit of Allan’s land and Horticultural also was where Jarvis’ land began.
    The land that looks to be Allan Gardens is actually added to the original park by reason of demolitions of properties on Jarvis and Carlton and subsequent annexation to the park.

  • Vincent Clement

    If you are going to redo the road, wouldn’t this be a good time to upgrade and relocate those utilities?

  • Marc Lostracco

    Skippy: That exact issue was brought up at the meeting last night, but there wasn’t really any answer given. The prostitution at Jarvis and Maitland and Jarvis and Carlton has vastly decreased over the last few years—especially in comparison to a decade ago—as the area has gentrified a bit, so I’m assuming they just moved somewhere else.
    Vincent: The utilities problem was also discussed at the meeting, but they made it clear that subsurface utilities won’t be relocated, and surface hydro lines won’t be buried—presumably both due to the cost and due to the City not owning much of what’s underground, like telecommunication conduits.

  • Svend

    This is an example of how cars ruined a fine street.
    We’re about to rejuvenate Bloor St. as well, none of these is in the bike lane plan but they’d be the easiest to do since there aren’t streetcar tracks to deal with. Why are we allowing street parking on these major roads? I don’t want to see cut outs for car parking either, these are impossible to clear in winter.
    Councillor Kyle Rae doesn’t care, he’s hand in hand with the merchants who believe the public streets belong to them.

  • Marc Lostracco

    Yup—the road used to be 36-feet-wide with grassy 6-foot sidewalk setbacks and was widened to a 50-foot-wide span. It still wasn’t enough room, which is why cycling on Jarvis only centimetres from vehicles as they whizz by is an exercise in terror (I take it down to Gerrard so I can get on the bike lanes and I know it well).
    Street parking, unfortunately, is necessary unless you want ugly parking lots and parking concentration moved to neighbouring streets. The parking cut-outs (parking bays) are likely to be part of the final plan because of existing utilities that won’t be moved. Certain underground utilities need clearances that can’t be maintained without moving them at significant cost.
    The City would rather there be no parking on this stretch of Jarvis, as the area has an adequate supply without it, according to the feasibility study. Cutout bays are also useful for businesses so delivery trucks and drop-offs don’t bring the curb lane to a halt.
    Because it’s a major modification of a municipal roadway, the whole process has to follow a scheme set out by the province, which has five different options for the City to consider:
    OPTION 1: Do nothing (used as a baseline).
    OPTION 2: No modifications to the curbline, and making streetscaping plans in reference to the existing street layout.
    OPTION 3: Removal of centre lane and landscaped median installation, but no widening of the boulevard and sidewalks.
    OPTION 4: Remove the centre lane, add the median and widen the boulevard/sidewalks (on either one side or both sides). Relocate subsurface utilities.
    OPTION 5: Combination alternative (this is the one currently recommended). The centre lane would be removed, the boulevard would be widened mostly on the east side to avoid utility issues, and depending on the location (considering turning lanes, pedestrian crossings, businesses, etc.), a median treatment and parking bays would be alternatively employed.
    So, consequently, it’s not going to be the beautiful boulevard everyone (including the City) would like to see, but a compromise of elements. Road modifications aside, I think the pedestrian-level improvements and consistent sidewalk design and greenery will go a long way. It would be nice to reduce the traffic (and slow it down, at least), but then you get opposition from those who need to drive down to the Gardiner and back every day as fast and conveniently as humanly possible.

  • Val Dodge

    Some cyclists have been saying for years that “it’s not in the Bike Plan” would be wielded like a cudgel to prevent bike lanes from going onto a lot of streets. Too bad the city continues to live up to expectations.
    Instead of clutching at the Bike Plan as an inviolable law of where lanes should go (except when a street is actually earmarked for lanes; then the Bike Plan is merely wishful thinking), the city should require that cycling infrastructure be included in any major road repavings and redesigns, Bike Plan or not. The question should be what form that infrastructure takes, not whether it should be there.

  • Dipp

    I could only imagine what a bike-friendly Jarvis would like. I often bike south on Jarvis, mostly because I’m trying to increase my chances of getting hit by an obtuse driver.
    She’s one treacherous street.

  • uskyscraper

    One of the best-ever posts on Torontoist.
    This kind of rejuvenation and streetscape renewal is exactly what has been going on in US cities for years now. It badly needs to start happening in Toronto.
    On the divisive issue of bikes:
    The priority for me is restoring the central median and tree canopy. Bike lanes on Jarvis would be ideal in the place of parking, but it would perhaps also work to steer bike traffic to quieter streets like Mutual or George. Unfortunately, most of those streets are now discontinuous, and restoring the broken links may not be feasible.
    Perhaps a compromise is possible — go to Google Maps and look at Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn as it runs out to Coney Island. Note the two medians, which have sidewalks running down the middle of them. One of these is designated as a bike route and it works pretty well.
    In other words, the important thing about a median, apparent in the old photos above, is the tree canopy. The actual surface of the median could a bike lane between the trunks and 18″ of ground cover on either side. Grass and flower planters just collect litter – a concrete or decorative (colored/textured) asphalt allee running down the median would protect bikers while taking nothing away from the landscape.

  • Adam Sobolak

    Remember what motivated the “urban highway” transformation: the Mount Pleasant extension, of which Jarvis was a de facto southern continuation…

  • Svend

    Thanks for the additional info, Marc.
    Won’t tree roots disturb the massive underground infrastructure?
    I’d hate to see just the spindly little pathetic trees we’re now seeing in those crappy concrete planters, I’d rather see none at all.

  • TokyoTuds

    This plan is a welcome development, but not imaginative enough. The public street is open to all citizens, including pedestrians and cyclists. One thing that everyone is (rich or poor, young or old, professional or student) is a pedestrian.
    One other point, is the fact that we Canadians are in love with a canopy of trees above streets. But the fact is an urban street like Jarvis (which is sadly no longer a residential street, but commercial), should not have trees lining it. Please see the dozens of gorgeous examples of wide streets with no trees here:

  • uskyscraper

    Tuds, I respectfully have to disagree with you.
    I’m not sure if you actually reside in Tokyo and have thus had a different experience, but as a Toronto ex-pat living in the US I can tell you that one of the things that strikes me as utterly sad about Toronto every time I visit is the severe lack of street trees on commercial streets. This is a combination of poor tree care (those spindly trees others mention), poor design (using above ground concrete planters) and plain disinterest, perhaps due to the very lush side streets which make up for barren arterials in the minds of many. It takes effort, but at-grade tree pits, with appropriate tree grates, are common on many “successful” streets in other cities and do wonders to soften the streetscape and encourage pedestrian activity.
    Compare these two random photos:
    Columbus Ave in New York:
    Avenue Rd in Toronto:
    There is absolutely no reason that an urban street should go without trees, especially a street like Jarvis that has residential condos and lacks large-format continuous retail.
    Bring back the trees with an intelligent design that accounts for water, snow, dogs and other issues, and then maintain them. Later generations will thank you.

  • TokyoTuds

    Hey uskyscrape, thanks for the examples and the comment.
    On the Carfree City website I was looking for the reference as to why some streets are not appropriate for trees, but couldn’t find it the first time around, but I do subscribe to the idea. It might be in Crawford’s book, and not on the website.
    I do live in Tokyo, and have a lovely mature cherry tree outside my apartment balcony that will be blooming in a week or two. Here is Ginza with no trees on “Pedestrian Heaven” Sundays (every Sunday!):
    Avenue Road and Bloor could be like this.
    Although I will agree with you that Jarvis might better be termed a boulevard (that would benefit from trees), rather than a Wide Street (which would suffer from trees). Did you have a chance to peruse the examples on Here is a boulevard with trees to show we are not completely in disagreement:
    I grew up in London, Ontario …. “The Forest City” …. and feel there should be as much green as possible, but on Jarvis accommodating trees might take away the chance to accommodate a bicycle lane and wider, safer sidewalks.
    I don’t think you’d miss street trees on commercial roads n Toronto if there were better sidewalk materials used, less on-street parking, more pedestrian traffic, and other “human” elements.
    What do you think?

  • Svend

    Those are great examples from the carfree site, Tuds. Thanks for posting the pics.

  • TokyoTuds

    My pleasure, Svend.
    My one pet peeve about life in Tokyo is that, despite being a bicycle culture, the city does little to accommodate bicycle parking near stations. I have had my bicycle impounded twice so far …. I was “guilty” in not following the rules, but the infrastructure for bicycles here in insufficient.

  • andrewpmk

    The TTC needs to start running a regular bus route on Jarvis. And Church, which had a bus route years ago which was eliminated under Mike Harris.

  • thesaucer

    1) I’m a bike user myself, but I don’t think we need a bike lane on Jarvis. The lane on Sherbourne is under-utilised, and I don’t see why people cannot ride extra 100 m to Jarvis.
    2) More trees are certainly welcome (from the pedestrian point of view) but it’ll create more traffic both on Jarvis and neighboring (side) streets. The neighbourhood(s) may be ruined by vehicles (noise etc) even though Jarvis is not restored to its full past glory. Also, note, that at the time it was beautiful Toronto had no traffic whatsoever. It has become a city thoroughfare, and why not. We don’t have much to accommodate cars flowing into downtown elsewhere. Actually, it’s a logical extension of Mount Pleasant no-lights city “highway”. It’s kinda stupid to change that.
    3) What really will rejuvenate the street is retail, useful destinations. Gay retail/clubs/bars spilling from Church may be the best in the village area. Student bars should be close to Ryerson dorm. People will walk even if there are no trees and the street is car-centric. If can’t bring retail, create “spaces”, eg, a summer theatre venue, artists block (something like they’ve done in Distillerty district – walk-in studios), etc.

  • http://undefined Greg

    While I know it’s costly to move anything underground, especially if it’s not city owned, I wish the city had pitched an ideal version of the street that would qualify, and hence communicate, what the City of Toronto understands as a complete street.
    I think the papers would have run 3D renderings of the transformed street if they’d been made available, but I haven’t seen anything yet.
    Even hand sketches would have been useful, because if this doesn’t work, then the opponents of the changes will just decry that the city never knew what it was doing in the first place.
    If there was a vision for a before and after, rather than simply a comparison of what we had in the past, I think everyone would benefit, especially city hall.