How Yonge-Dundas Square Can Solve its Programming Gap During The Off-Season
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How Yonge-Dundas Square Can Solve its Programming Gap During The Off-Season

The public square is relatively empty during winter months.

Yonge-Dundas Square has played host to many of the city’s cultural events and arts programming. In the summer, it’s the mainstage for Pride performers. Companies rent the space out to promote their new products. September lunch hours are filled with free musical entertainment. And on weekends, it’s home to City Cinema, free screenings of Hollywood favourites.

But during the winter, YDS is noticeably barren.

The colder months are considered the square’s off-season. As a result, renting YDS between January 2 and March 22 is significantly cheaper than the rest of the year. But YDS still can’t fill its programming gap, and interest remains relatively low.

Now, the Yonge-Dundas Square Board of Management is aiming to change that.

Building interest

As it stands, the square sees two months “of very little going on,” says Taylor Raths, general manager of YDS. To combat this, the YDS board sent out a press release this month asking for Expressions Of Interest for information purposes only from individuals or groups who would consider renting the square during these off-season months.

“We’re looking at casting a wider net and inviting people who may have ideas that may have never come forward because they didn’t think that they could do it within the current guidelines for use,” Raths says. “Maybe there’s a way we can find a common ground for the off season.”

The proposal came from discussions between the staff of the square and the board. Raths says this idea has been on the radar for several years because there has been a desire to improve conditions for success outside of the busy summer season.

“Part of the challenge that we have is because we’re an agency of the city we can’t just go fishing for clients, we have to create conditions for use of the square that are equitable for a cross-range of uses of the square,” he says. “Issuing a call for Expressions Of Interest is one way that we can invite people to come to us without us going to, say, one group in the private sector and offering them use of the square which would not be appropriate for publicly owned space.”

Snow removal

Raths suspects part of the reason YDS sees so little interest during winter months is snow removal.

The removal is often a large expense. “If someone has something planned for Friday and then Thursday night a snow storm blows in, that’s a big, big problem,” Raths says. “The costs can range to several thousand dollars to have all the snow removed and taken away from the square.”

IPS is the company that’s contracted by the City of Toronto to provide the snow removal services. A representative for the company says Toronto is the only city in Ontario to use its services.

Not just programming

But Yonge-Dundas Square doesn’t have to be just a rental space, says Shelagh McCartney, a Ryerson University professor from the Urban and Regional Planning School. It is important to have a space designed in such a way that you can use it for quiet conversation, she says.

To McCartney, conversation spaces are vital in their own way without being over-programmed. “As long as people are using [the space] it can be used for all different kinds of events,” she adds.

Taking cues from NYC

Yonge-Dundas Square was modelled after New York City’s Times Square. While YDS is far from being the Times Square of the North—and good riddance says Toronto Star columnist Christopher Hume—there’s no harm in taking a look at how NYC keeps its square busy during the first quarter of the year.

Between January 2 and March 22, 2016 at Times Square, there was an event happening pretty much every night. This is in large part thanks to the “Midnight Moments” series. In these month long instillations there is a coordinated effort by sign operators to display synchronized content on billboards and newspaper kiosks throughout the square every night. The program debuted in May 2012 and is organized and supported by the partnership between the Times Square Advertising Coalition and the Times Square Arts, the public art program for the Times Square Alliance, with the help of participating sign holders and artists.

A large-scale collaborative art effort like “Midnight Moments” creates continuity and community within the square without infringing on the square as a conversational space.

Back at home, the Expressions Of Interest are due at the end of August. Raths says if some solid proposals are made, a conversation can be started between the staff of the square and the board of management—especially one suggestion strays from the current guidelines for use of the square.