The city has installed the first of nearly three dozen streetscape improvements along King Street to welcome more pedestrians to the downtown street.
The spaces are a mix of patios and public spaces and are the next phase of a pilot project designed to speed up transit and attract visitors. The first of these are under way, with the rest set to roll out over the coming weeks.
“We see it as a huge value,” said Barbara Gray, head of the city’s Transportation Service department. “When you don’t have as much volume of vehicles in [the road], clearly you can see the opportunity and the potential for all the space that’s there to be used.”
The changes come nearly six months into the year-long pilot project on King Street, between Bathurst and Jarvis streets. The project aims to restrict private vehicle traffic along this stretch and reduce delays for the streetcar, the most heavily used surface transit route in the city. Beginning last November, non-transit vehicles could travel only short distances on this part of King and had to turn off at most intersections.
The project has polarized opinion. Many transit passengers say they love it, pointing to modest increases in streetcar speed and big improvements in trip-time predictability. Some businesses along the route are loudly opposed, saying the reductions in parking and vehicle travel have hurt their bottom line.
Fifteen of the streetscape improvements will be patios associated with private businesses, the owners of which will pay the standard city fees. Three others will be created by businesses, but available for all to use. There will also be two mini-parks, 10 pop-up spaces based on submissions by artists, architects and others, and four public areas designed by Ryerson students.
Tony Elenis, the president of the Ontario Restaurant Hotel and Motel Association, said members are keen to see anything that will boost the public presence along King.
“If the patio season is a success, great news, and the industry needs that,” he said. “We’ve got to be optimistic and welcome the summer and more visitation.”
But he added that he has concerns that the patios could bring only a short-term boost. And he hopes the debate over whether to continue the project will be informed by the data over the whole year, and not just memories of the warm summer months.
As part of the King Street project, 17 zones were identified as potential for adaptation as public space. Based on local demand and the ideas that were submitted, these zones have been divided into 34 separate improvements.
One of the first of them to appear was a sitting area by Roy Thomson Hall, complete with small planters made largely of plastic milk crates. Another that is in progress is a road mural east of Church Street called King’s Buried Treasure, referencing the numerous creeks that once crossed the road.
“The public realm is the city’s living room,” said Fiona Chapman, head of the city’s pedestrian projects. “It’s where we meet, we talk, we sit. It’s where things happen.”
The installations – whose designs reflect the impermanence of the project and a willingness to try new things – will range in cost from $3,000 to $25,000 each.
Joe Cressy, the local councillor, said the installations would be “brilliant” at attracting people to the street.
“The intention here was never solely to make King Street faster [for transit passengers],” he said. “The objective was to make King Street a destination.”