Why Yonge-Dundas Square Struggles as Public Space
The Hard Rock Cafe may soon become a Shoppers Drug Mart.
On most weekdays, even in the winter, Yonge and Dundas is a cacophony of noise and light. A drummer bangs on a drum kit or an overturned bucket; a preacher shouts about the word of God, or something; some of Toronto’s homeless linger outside 10 Dundas East asking for change. Between students and commuters spilling out of Dundas Station, shoppers coming out of the Eaton Centre, and people just passing through, Yonge-Dundas Square often feels crowded, noisy, and—it must be said—dirty. It is, however, one of the most programmed public spaces in the city. According to the City, it hosts around 300 events per year, with a budget of over $2 million. Throughout the summer, it’s rare to find a day without some sort of event taking place in the square.
Speaking in purely quantitative terms, one might see Yonge-Dundas Square as a success story. But among Toronto residents, Yonge-Dundas Square’s reputation is less well-regarded. Surrounded on all sides by bright, overbearing advertisements, it can feel like a scaled-down version of New York’s Times Square; with the amount of big box shopping nearby, it’s not an unfair comparison. (Though, as Shawn Micallef pointed out in the Star, “worrying about impact is a bit rich considering the Eaton Centre’s new H&M wall-of-light expansion on the corner is so bright it turns night into day.”)
All the criticism, one way or another, boils down to a central question: should a public space feel so commercial?
Criticism of Yonge-Dundas Square as a public space is vindicated, in a sense, by the success of Nathan Phillips Square, only a few blocks away. When the Blue Jays make a playoff run, it’s Nathan Phillips that becomes the Bird’s Nest; Nathan Phillips is often the site of protests, like January’s Women’s March; since the installation of the brightly-lit TORONTO sign, Nathan Phillips has also been a major attraction for tourists. Why, then, has the square without the multi-million-dollar operating budget been more successful as a public space?
The answer comes down to the differences in operation. While Nathan Phillips Square operates as a more traditional public space owned and operated by the City of Toronto, Yonge-Dundas Square has been made semi-independent, owned by the City but operated by the Yonge-Dundas Square Board of Management, which comprises individuals from the City, the Downtown Yonge BIA, Massey Hall, and Ryerson University. Because it focuses on “larger production events in lieu of smaller events”—public concerts, festivals, etc.—it incurs higher expenditures (in staging events, providing services, and paying the salaries of the 6.5 full-time employees) to the tune of about $2.3 million. It doesn’t make up the entirety of that budget in the fees charged to users, though: in the 2017 budget, for instance, the City of Toronto paid for about 15 per cent of the YDS budget.
The City, as it would, has an interest in reducing its share of the bill while maintaining programming levels in Yonge-Dundas Square. Advertising provides a source of income for the City that can help make up any budget shortfalls in the YDS Board’s budget. In January, City Council approved a 10-year lease deal with Outfront Media that would provide the YDS Board with an estimated $7.2 million in revenue over 10 years. “Economic Development and Culture staff believe the proposed contract also provides the opportunity to generate significant revenue,” reads a 2017 City staff report. (It would also save the YDS Board about $500,000 over the same period by providing screens for their City Cinema program.)
The result of hiving off Yonge-Dundas Square’s budget, as the City has done, is that it is able to operate (ideally) as a self-sufficient unit. Because of this, and partly because the money that flows into the YDS Board does not become part of a larger departmental budget, the Square is able to host larger, more ambitious—and more expensive—events. Yonge-Dundas Square is, then, a nominally public space that operates very much in a private fashion.
The significance of this becomes clear when examining the event policies of Nathan Phillips Square. To host an event there, an applicant must:
“a) Be a registered non-profit or charitable organization; b) Provide a service or benefit to residents of the City of Toronto; c) Have the event open to the general public and free of charge; d) Meet the requirements of the Non-Discrimination Policy, Save and Hold Harmless Clause and Consent to Release Personal Information.”
As a result, it becomes the natural home for lower-cost events run by artists, the City itself, and community organizations.
The point I’m making here is not that Yonge-Dundas is a failure of public space, but that the operation of the space, from a structural standpoint, will keep it from feeling like an accessible public space in the same way that Nathan Phillips Square is.
It is a public space by definition, but in effect it serves as a private space run by a public entity. This is not a pedantic distinction, since it plays out most visibly in the way the public reacts to it as a public space. When the space operates in a vaguely corporate, private fashion, it affects the types of events that are planned, primarily in that revenue-negative events are not as attractive, and you can’t run very many of them. Considering that many of the best uses of public space—free art installations, free concerts, demonstrations, and City-as-community events (ie. New Year’s Eve parties)—don’t make much, if any, money, a space that has to consider budget considerations has less flexibility in this regard.
Thus, the argument follows that Yonge-Dundas Square’s issues as a public space are not the result of apathy when it comes to advertising, or that the Hard Rock Cafe will be turned into another Shopper’s Drug Mart. The problem, rather, is that the space was considered a private space, but was restrained by its own ambitions to host big, large-scale events that would appeal to large numbers of Torontonians, rather than Toronto as a city. From a structural standpoint, Yonge-Dundas Square is built to serve as a public space for people who wouldn’t otherwise engage with public space—and need things like concerts, festivals, etc. to actually get out into the streetscape.
At the end of the day, Yonge-Dundas Square’s issues come down to a single idea: if you try to be something that pleases everyone, you’ll be something special to no one.