University Avenue is Toronto’s grandest street, but it’s also an unwelcoming place to be. That could start to change next year: A private not-for-profit group is ready to bring forward a public-art installation that will shed light, literally and metaphorically, on this central place in the city.
It could – and should – be the first step toward bigger change in this important public space.
The Friends of University Avenue is proposing a multiyear set of changes to the avenue. Step one, in January 2020, would be an installation that would be suspended above the median of the street: a large gem floating in the air that casts beams of light up and down the avenue.
The design details aren’t final, but clearly this would “send a message,” said Friends member Christine Ralphs in an interview Friday. “It helps position University Avenue as the soul of the city.”
This initial project would be designed by public artists Studio F Minus and lighting designers Mulvey & Banani. The executive committee of city council will vote on the proposal this week.
The Friends group started in 2017 out of conversations between Ms. Ralphs – head of Lloyd Ralphs Design and a co-founder of Club Monaco – and her circle of friends. (The group includes prominent interior designers George Yabu and Glenn Pushelberg, among a dozen others.)
She was thinking about the times she had spent at Princess Margaret Hospital: First for the treatment of her late husband’s cancer, and then during years of treatment for her own. (“I’m doing great,” she added with a broad smile.)
At the hospital, “You really see a microcosm of humanity,” she said, “And there are a lot of people there who need hope and inspiration.”
For her, the obvious focal point was the avenue outside. As she correctly points out, it is a very unpleasant place to be, especially after dark. “It’s a black hole,” she said. “And as an old retail designer, you think immediately about how to change that. Lighting is everything.”
This is why the lighting designers Mulvey & Banani are involved, and why the first installation will be bright. In drawings, it resembles a pear-shaped diamond, hanging on cables that connect to the adjacent hospital buildings of Mount Sinai, Princess Margaret and Toronto General. All three institutions are supporting the project, “literally and metaphorically,” Ms. Ralphs says.
The Friends group is also planning to contribute to changes to the parkland on the median of the avenue, including lighting, but also replanting and adding more seating.
In future years, the group suggests a rotating public-art exhibition, changing every year or two years – as is the case for a similar program along Park Avenue in New York. “That would reignite people’s interest in what is there,” said Rebecca Carbin, another Friends member who is a curator and public-art consultant. “And the work can be more provocative and more timely.”
Philanthropic moves to improve Toronto’s public realm have been rare. But The Bentway – the public space under the Gardiner Expressway near Fort York – showed what’s possible in overlooked areas of the city. It spurred a new project, announced earlier this month, to make areas under the expressway safer and more pleasant for pedestrians.
Something similar should happen here. The city’s current plan for the downtown area includes transformations of several streets, shrinking the space for cars and making them places to be, not pass through. These include University Avenue from Queen to College Streets. As I wrote in 2017, it’s a powerful idea that deserves to move forward right away.
“This is the tip of the iceberg of a much larger transformation of University,” said downtown councillor Joe Cressy in an interview. He enthusiastically supports the Friends proposal. “There are certain streets in Toronto that, with the right vision, could be great. And this is one of them. It is dramatically underused in terms of city building.”
This is true – because too much of it is used for cars. That needs to be rebalanced, and once it is, the effect will be dramatic. The Great Streets proposal would create a linear park of nearly nine acres. Maybe the change starts now, with a flash of light.