On any given lunch hour, the plaza in front of the Yonge-Eglinton Centre is populated by office workers enjoying a sun-soaked lunch and smoke break, high school students heading toward the food court or other nearby fast food joints, and companies handing out the corporate sample of the day to pedestrians. The sculptures lining the plaza had slightly more company than usual yesterday thanks to a protest over whom the space should serve: its private owner or the surrounding community.
Depending on the media source, between fifty and 125 protestors showed up waving signs urging site owner RioCan and local politicians to “keep Yonge for the young” as they chanted “save our square.” Local media was there in full force, which must have pleased the organizers from the Yonge-Eglinton Square Coalition—at times it felt as if there were more cameras and microphones about than concerned citizens (a running commentary on Urban Toronto made fun of the size of the protest relative to the square). At issue is RioCan’s plan to redevelop the Yonge-Eglinton Centre by topping the two existing office towers with additions of five and seven storeys apiece and the encroaching three storeys of new retail space onto the square thanks to a four-thousand-square-metre addition that will include a rooftop garden.
RioCan has set aside a gallery in the mall to show off its plans for the site. While the hours listed on the doors to the gallery indicated that it was open to the public yesterday, both of our attempts to take a look were met with unexplained locked entrances. It may be coincidental that the company’s official website for the redevelopment is under construction, though some sketches are still available for viewing [PDF].
According to its website, the Yonge-Eglinton Square Coalition represents four local residents’ associations that wish to preserve the lone accessible open space at the intersection. They hope that rather than build more retail onto it, the barren plaza be transformed into a people-friendly “welcoming oasis in the middle of the city.” Supporters were among the community members, city officials, and local developers who participated in a workshop last November [PDF] that examined ways to handle the redesign of the space and the intensification of the neighbourhood in general.
As far as public space was concerned, the workshop concluded that:
The northwest quadrant is a commercial hub, a focal point, and a regional destination. However, this quadrant needs a refit in its mid-life, including added retail and redesign of the indoor plaza. As well, currently, the square is not a good quality and pedestrian supportive environment as it is: a windy space with bad grades; without appropriate programming; lacking in adequate street furniture; and is seasonally constrained with piles of snow and salt. Therefore, the square in this quadrant, which is one of the key open spaces in the area, should be redesigned and improved…There is a shortage of open space at or near the intersection of Yonge and Eglinton. It is recommended that all four quadrants abutting the intersection contribute to remedy this shortage. Issues related to quantity of open space should be balanced with consideration for high quality design, pedestrian vitality and interest.
As for whether an open public space is legally required at Yonge and Eglinton, a site plan report from 1967 mentions a pedestrian plaza, while a bylaw passed the following year exempted a strip of land that became the pedestrian plaza. Yet the final city report for the current rezoning application [PDF] disputes that there were any written guarantees in the land title or any references in contemporary planning reports and council minutes that “require the land to remain as open space in a quid pro quo arrangement for Starrett Avenue [which was closed off to build the complex].”
Toronto District School Board trustee Josh Matlow (Ward 22, St. Paul’s) listens to Lydia Levin of the Yonge Eglinton Square Coalition.
Organizers of the protest hope their efforts will encourage concerned residents to contact city councillors before a final vote is taken on the project on Wednesday or Thursday. So far, RioCan’s proposals have been approved by the North York Community Council. At least two of the neighbourhood’s councillors are divided in their opinion of the project. Strong support for the redevelopment plan from Karen Stintz (Ward 16, Eglinton-Lawrence) has caused head-scratching among some local taxpayer groups, as she initially ran for municipal office on a wave of residential opposition to the construction of the Minto Quantum condo towers. A March 24 post on her website rebukes opponents of the plan by articling five points about the redevelopment, which include economic, aesthetic, and cultural benefits on land that is privately owned. As Stintz summarizes, “people are free to protest, but this application represents a fair balance for the community who wish to revitalize this corner and the property owners who wish to realize a benefit from their investment.”
Neighbouring councillor Michael Walker (Ward 22, St. Paul’s) supports those hoping to prevent the encroachment on the space from going ahead. As he told CTV News, “We don’t want to lose it and we should say no. It’s easy to say and the politicians shouldn’t cave to another deal-making exercise. There’s a point where profit has to take second place to city building and it starts right here where we’re standing.” Toronto District School Board trustee Josh Matlow, who is running to fill the retiring Walker’s council seat, lent his support to the protestors. “The reality is that nobody wants the square to be the way it is,” Matlow told the National Post. “It needs some work. Our community wants this to be revitalized, not lost to a shopping mall. It’s not a lot to ask.”
Photos by Jamie Bradburn/Torontoist.