The ugliest street in Toronto is powering a neighbourhood's commercial revitalization.
A funny thing began happening in the past year: people decided to stop ignoring Geary Avenue.
The street that marks the top of Dovercourt Village, running north of Dupont from Ossington to just beyond Dufferin has been called the ugliest street in Toronto, and it may well be. A drab residue of industry past, it’s the kind of street a 15-year-veteran Toronto taxi driver might not realize existed: lined with old buildings that are the wrong kind of old, back-alley-like in the way that is neither appealingly seedy nor charming but, instead, resolutely meh.
The rail lines and power transformers that buffer the street aren’t exactly picturesque. But things are changing on Geary Avenue, and Dovercourt Village by extension.
Brandon Donnelly, a trained architect and real estate developer who writes the daily Architect This City blog, knows this well. He moved just north of the street to St. Clair West in 2009 when the new streetcar corridor was under construction, and realized that the area’s combination of affordable rents and viable transit were just the right ingredients for a neighbourhood-wide commercial renaissance. Now, he thinks Dovercourt Village is poised to become the next Lower Ossington.
“What’s interesting about it is that even if you look at Ossington, it’s obvious [that businesses want to set up shop there],” he says. Area rents are high—a challenge for fledgling businesses, that’s also a barometer of hipster cred—but so is foot traffic, which means restauranteurs and savvy retailers recognize the strip as a smart place to be. “But, if you look back, it isn’t so obvious.”
Like Geary, lower Ossington is architecturally dreary. But last summer marked the launch of Geary Lane, an experimental performance space set up by experimental production gurus Jason Pollard and Justin Adam of Man Finds Fire. Then there’s S.H.I.B.G.B., the new underground all-ages punk venue beside Geary’s three-year-old trendstarter taco bar, Kitch, and a new restaurant and concert venue, Mercury Social Club, scheduled to open in the spring.
Also set to open in the springtime is a wholesale concept store for indie coffee chain Dark Horse Espresso, planned to take over an 80,000-square-foot factory building on Geary just west of Dovercourt. Unlike the chain’s other sit-down locations in Riverdale, Chinatown, Trinity Bellwoods, and the Entertainment District, this new spot will mostly serve as a bakery that offers coffee to-go.
Donnelly thinks Dark Horse’s move is a smart one. “It won’t have the walk-by traffic of [its other locations] at first, but they’ll get the wholesale business going and ride it out as the neighbourhood changes,” he predicts, adding that other enterprising doers and makers will likely follow suit with novel concepts that will transform the neighbourhood into a destination in its own right. With a second, massive Bellwoods Brewery location set to open just below Dark Horse, on Dupont, within the next year, it looks like the time for that transformation might be coming sooner than later.
“To paraphrase Jane Jacobs, new ideas require old buildings,” he says. Maybe those old buildings can even be ugly ones.